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Wes Clark’s comments about McCain’s military qualifications for president

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright by John T. Reed

On Sunday morning, June 29, 2008, Wes Clark appeared on the CBS News program Face the Nation. During that broadcast, he commented, in response to questions, about whether John McCain’s military service qualified him to be president.

A firestorm of criticism has arisen against Clark. Some have said, perhaps accurately, that Clark’s political career is over as a result of the comments.

Does he deserve that?

No. The reaction to his comments is an interesting example of the current state of dishonesty and spin in politics. Indeed, in my local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, the story about Clark’s remarks was titled

Both campaigns make a habit of taking offense

Note that’s not going on offense. Rather, it is taking offense at something someone else said. And the reaction, from both parties, is always, “How dare you?”

The Clark case is a classic example of the game. Generally, Republicans have self-righteously denounced Clark for denigrating McCain’s military service or words to that effect.

Even Obama, Clark’s fellow Democrat, made Clark just the latest ally whom Obama has “thrown under the bus” when he said,

No one should ever devalue that service...

There is one big problem here. Wes Clark did not denigrate or devalue McCain’s service. Let’s look at the exact words.

Comment or question
My comment about it
Clark: I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war... So where’s the denigration? To say Clark bad-mouthed McCain’s service is a barefaced lie. He did the opposite.
Clark: ...but he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded, that wasn’t a wartime squadron. He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall.

McCain was a Navy officer for 23 years before he retired at the rank of captain which is the Navy equivalent of colonel in the other branches. Prior to his getting shot down in Vietnam, he was a pilot. A pilot operates a complex piece of dangerous equipment sometimes in dangerous circumstances. After Vietnam, he spent one year as the squadron commander of a training squadron. I was the company commander of a 400-man training company in the Army. As a training unit commander, you have very limited responsibilities, namely housing, food, and discipline. During business hours, the men in your unit are attending formal classes taught by civilians and officers who are not under your command. Commanding a training unit is akin to managing a hotel with its own coffee shop plus being akin to a probation officer. It is not a unit commander role as is usually depicted in Hollywood where you train your men and lead them on combat missions. Also, as Clark said, his command experience was during peacetime, namely, 1976. As far as I can tell, McCain had no other experience leading men or making military decisions during his 23 years in the military. So Wes Clark was quite accurate in his depiction of McCain’s lack of executive experience.

Little has been said about what Clark was actually doing. He was contrasting his own military background with McCain’s. Clark ran for president in 2004 and was forced out early. But if you compare the two men’s military records, you can see why Clark would be annoyed that a guy with McCain’s military experience gets nominated to be president while a Clark is just an also-ran.

Graduated fifth from the bottom of his Annapolis class Valedictorian of his West Point class
No academic honors, no advanced degrees Rhodes Scholar, masters degrees from Oxford and the Command and General Staff College
Awarded a group of medals given to all Vietnam P.O.W.s Wikipedia says, “In February, [1970], only one month into his command, he was shot four times by a Viet Cong soldier with an AK-47. The wounded Clark shouted orders to his men, who counterattacked and defeated the Viet Cong force. Clark had injuries to his right shoulder, right hand, right hip, and right leg... He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the encounter.”
commands: squadron commander of training squadron for one year commands: battalion and brigade commander 1st Armored Division, Germany; XO, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division; battalion commander, 1st battalion, 77th Armor, 4th Infantry Division; brigade commander, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division; commander Fort Irwin National Training Center; Division Commander, 1st Cavalry Division; Director of Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Supreme Allied Commander Europe during Kosovo War which was the most successful large-scale, long-term military operation since the Korean War
CBS host Bob Schieffer: Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either... Good point. Like I said, Clark was not contrasting McCain’s military experience with Obama’s; only with his own
CBS host Bob Schieffer: ...nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.

Note that it was Schieffer who introduced the phrase “ridden in a fighter plane,” not Clark.

One of McCain’s fellow Vietnam P.O.W.s, Paul Galanti, condemned Clark for using the word “riding” in his answer, but Clark was only using Schieffer’s exact phraseology to answer the question as directly as possible. Either Galanti did not know it was Schieffer who introduced the word ride” or he did and deliberately chose to mislead the public during his condemnation of Clark on Fox News. Galanti should apologize to Clark.

Clark: Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

Clark’s right. While experience as a military light attack bomber pilot is no doubt useful to a president, it alone does not make one executive material. Two other men who were former military pilots have been president. They were both named Bush. The only other military pilot who was a candidate was George McGovern, the Democrat anti-war candidate in 1972. He was a bomber pilot who flew 35 missions during World War II.

By his own admission, McCain got shot down because he screwed up. See my more detailed discussion of McCain’s military service, including in Vietnam, at

Republican National Committee protests “Clark’s attack on McCain’s military service... Clark did not attack McCain’s military service. He said it lacked significant executive experience.
Clark responds on Tuesday: McCain is a ‘personal hero” [of mine] but that McCain’s military experience doesn’t necessarily equate to managerial or executive experience. He’s right about what he said and its validity.
McCain: This kind of thing is unnecessary. That’s a non-denial denial if ever there was one.
Obama: No one should ever devalue that service Did someone devalue McCain’s service? Who was that, Barack? And please identify the exact words in which he did that.
Obama: ...especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for both political sides.

This phrase is not about what Clark said. It’s about what Republicans will be saying about Obama in the future—to try to intimidate them out of saying it or make them have to refrain from criticism of Obama’s lack of military experience because he refrained from criticizing McCain in this instance. Obama does a lot of pre-emptive, “Don’t you dare criticize me or my wife about ________________” [fill in every area on which he is vulnerable here].

In this instance, Obama is throwing yet another of his allies, Wes Clark, under the bus without batting an eye, the moment it is politically expedient for him to do so.

Clark and I sat at the same table in the mess hall at West Point briefly in 1964 and/or 1965. The table was for members of the debate team. He impressed me as the most gifted person I ever saw at West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1966. I graduated in 1968.

In terms of military experience that qualifies him to be president, Clark is the best qualified candidate since Dwight Eisenhower, the West Point graduate who was the victorious Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II. The previous best qualified candidate in terms of military experience that prepared him for the presidency, was Ulysses Grant, a West Pointer who commanded the victorious Union forces in the Civil War.

Fundamentally, what happened to Clark in this instance is evidence that the political parties and their candidates consider the public to be very stupid. Furthermore, most of the press agrees with that assessment and plays the same game in spite of extensive training and experience in cutting through rhetoric to the underlying facts.

Some TV pundits actually said it is taboo to criticize McCain on his military record. That near-universal unwillingness to criticize military personnel—because they sometimes risk and lose their lives—is the root cause of much of the lack of success by our military in the last 50 years. Unwillingness to criticize the military—which sorely needs criticism to get them to clean up their very-unsatisfactory-in-many-ways act is one of the main themes of the many articles I have written calling for reform of the military. See my list of military articles at The ending of the draft in 1973 turned us into a nation of draft dodgers and one of the unintended consequences of that is that criticism of the military or any member or former member of the military, even by a man as qualified to do it as Wes Clark, is taboo. Draft dodgers feel guilty about the contrast between their total lack of service and the life-risking service of military personnel. So they overpraise and undercriticize the military, to the profound detriment of the national defense.

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