Subscribe

“I had developed a false sense of my own invulnerability. And that characteristic of my ego, which I felt no need to check, discounted the danger I personally faced. I placed too much faith on what was beyond my knowledge or control: luck.”

And so a cocky young Navy pilot named John McCain made the fateful decision on Oct. 26, 1967, to fly his A-4 Skyhawk on just one more mission over Hanoi, “the most heavily air-defended city in history,” according to his new book, “Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them.”

McCain lost his bet with fate that day, earning him a 5½-year stay in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he was tortured so badly that to this day the senator from Arizona cannot raise his arms over his head.

McCain recounts his decision in the skies of Vietnam and the complacency that led to it in his book’s first chapter, titled “Awareness.”

“Cockiness,” he writes, “blinded me to one of the immutable principles of war and life: luck is unreliable.”

It is a message as applicable to Iraq and Afghanistan as it is was to Vietnam, although servicemembers today “are in some ways better trained and better equipped and more professional” than those of his war, McCain said in an Oct. 15 telephone interview.

Nevertheless, the men and women who are deployed today are working “under as grueling circumstances as any members of our military have ever experienced throughout our history,” he said.

Much of the book is devoted to vignettes about people, well-known and not: Winston Churchill; Commander Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the Union Army’s first “Colored Regiment;” Ronald Reagan; King Gillette, inventor of the disposable razor; the Apollo 11 astronauts.

McCain said that among his favorite stories are those of Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman.

He said he admires Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and Truman for integrating the military — both highly unpopular moves, and in Lincoln’s case, one that likely led to his assassination.

“And yet, they still had the courage and the foresight and the wisdom to know what was good for the country, and what would at the end of the day be judged as the right decision,” McCain said.

McCain is no stranger to taking stances that are at odds with his counterparts.

He was among the first Republican lawmakers to criticize the Bush administration’s war strategy in Iraq, particularly its stewardship under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Yet McCain has pinned much of his 2008 presidential bid on the success of the “surge” strategy in Iraq, and the continuation of the U.S. military mission there.

“As difficult and frustrating as it was because of Rumsfeld’s terrible mishandling of the conflict, the consequences of failure [in Iraq] are catastrophic,” McCain said.

One notable chapter of McCain’s book reveals a side of McCain many may not be aware of: that he is a deeply and unabashedly religious man.

The chapter is devoted to a complicated, spiritual discussion of “the paradox of war,” in which he references Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Protestant theologian who is known for his essays on relating the Christian faith to modern politics and diplomacy, including the concept of a “just war.”

McCain uses Niebuhr to underpin an argument that war is necessary to defeat greater evil, and writes that those who prosecute such a war, and kill in its course, “must accept the guilt and the necessity of our actions.”

OPTIONAL END

There is no question, McCain said Monday, that America’s war against Islamic radicalism is just, and that “our cause is morally superior to our enemy’s,” in Iraq and elsewhere.

But there remains, he acknowledged, a lingering question about whether “the end justifies the means,” a question also raised in his book but not fully explored.

“That question continuously arises, whether it be in a ‘pacification program’ or a displacement of individuals from their home or place of work for security reasons, firing at an oncoming car with a women in it, just because the car didn’t stop and chances are it was a suicide bomber,” McCain said.

So, “I think that in some ways it’s a difficult call,” McCain said.

“But I am convinced that the consequences of failure in Iraq will lead to far more tragic outcome than the ones we are experiencing today.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up