John McCain is one of the most admired leaders in the United States government, but his deeply felt memoir of family and war is not a political one and ends before his election to Congress. With candor and ennobling power, McCain tells a story that, in the words of Newsweek, "makes the other presidential candidates look like pygmies." John McCain learned about life and honor from his grandfather and father, both four-star admirals in the U.S. Navy. This is a memoir about their lives, their heroism, and the ways that sons are shaped and enriched by their fathers. John McCain's grandfather was a gaunt, hawk-faced man known as Slew by his fellow officers and affectionately, as Popeye by the sailors who served under him. McCain Sr. played the horses, drank bourbon and water, and rolled his own cigarettes with one hand. More significant, he was one of the navy's greatest commanders, and led the strongest aircraft carrier force of the Third Fleet in key battles during World War II. John McCain's father followed a similar path, equally distinguished by heroic service in the navy, as a submarine commander during World War II. McCain Jr. was a slightly built man, but like his father, he earned the respect and affection of his men. He, too, rose to the rank of four-star admiral, making the McCains the first family in American history to achieve that distinction. McCain Jr.'s final assignment was as commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. It was in the Vietnam War that John McCain III faced the most difficult challenge of his life. A naval aviator, he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and seriously injured. When Vietnamese military officers realized he was the son of a top commander, they offered McCain early release in an effort to embarrass the United States. Acting from a sense of honor taught him by his father and the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain refused the offer. He was tortured, held in solitary confinement, and imprisoned for five and a half years. Faith of My Fathers is about what McCain learned from his grandfather and father, and how their example enabled him to survive those hard years. It is a story of three imperfect men who faced adversity and emerged with their honor intact. Ultimately, Faith of My Fathers shows us, with great feeling and appreciation, what fathers give to their sons, and what endures.
Unsurprisingly, McCain descends from a long line of military men. The first few chapters are filled with slow, winding descriptions of his grandfather and father, both four star admirals, and their numerous accomplishments. You'd think that the third McCain would be a hardworker with such a legacy, but instead, he's a self indulgent party boy and trouble maker, with lousy grades and an even lousier work ethic. Anyone else would have been expelled from the naval academy, but his influential father manages to keep his n'ere-do-well son out of serious trouble untli he gets to Vietnam.
Regardless of what you may think about his politics, it should be difficult for anyone to read McCain's account of his imprisonment and not at least respect the man. When his plane crashed in a lake in Hanoi, a mob of Vietnamese citizens dragged him out and began stabbing him with a bayonet. He was taken into custody and subsequently beaten, tortured, and starved. But as soon as Vietnamese officials became aware that his father was an importnat commander for the American military, they offered to send him home. After months of abuse, it would have been tempting to exchange the miserable prison conditions for the comforts of the United States. But despite his injuries, McCain refused, insisting he'd stay until the men captured before him were released first. And so ensued five and a half years of prison life, years that were marked with solitary confinement, sickness, torture, and boredom.
Extrodinarily, these are the years that turned McCain the callow youth into a courageous, formidable man. He humbly points out time and time again that the Vietnamese treated him better than other prisoners due to his father, and that harsher punishments were dealt to other men. The obnoxious rabble rousing we see in earlier chapters matures when McCain strives to raise the spirits of his fellow prisoners and rebels against his captors. He admits his flaws and pokes fun at himself, and learns that life is too short to hold grudges. It's a remarkable coming-of-age character transformation.
"I was no longer the boy to whom liberty meant simply that I could do as I pleased, and who, in my vanity, used my freedom to polish my image as an I-don't-give-a-damn nonconformist," he writes. "All of us were committed to one another. I knew what the others were suffering. Sitting in my cell, I could hear their screams as their faith was put to the test. My first concern was not that I might fail God and country, although I certainly hoped that I would not. I was afraid to fail my friends. I was afraid to come back from an interrogationa nd tell them I couldn't hold up as well as they had. However I measured my character before Vietnam no longer mattered. What mattered now was how they measured my character. My self-regard became indivisible from their regard to me. And it will remain so for the rest of my life."
While I still don't agree with our current foreign policy, this memoir helped me see where John McCain is coming from.
Read while traveling (3.5.08)