The Grunt vs. the Flyboy
The real reason for Wesley Clark's ill-advised comments about John McCain's military record.
There are two explanations for Gen. Wesley Clark's politically tin-eared remark about Sen. John McCain last Sunday.
First, Clark is politically tin-eared. Remember his 2004 presidential campaign?
Second, and more fundamental, Clark was an Army infantry commander during the Vietnam War while McCain was a Navy aviator. As a rule, the grunts hated the flyboys.
Here, as a reminder, is what Clark said when asked about the Republican presidential candidate on the June 29 episode of CBS's Face the Nation:
I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war.
That was where Clark should have zipped his lips. But, as if he couldn't hold back some raging impulse, he went on:
He hasn't held executive responsibility. … I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
In a sense, of course, Clark is right. There's nothing about flying a plane—or, for that matter, driving a tank or shooting a rifle—that indicates a talent for high office. But if the retired general wanted to be on the team and possibly in the Cabinet of Sen. Barack Obama—who also has never held an executive position and was, on that very day, fending off accusations of insufficient patriotism—he should have known that it's best not to wander this turf.
My guess is that we have heard the last of Clark as an Obama surrogate. The next time Obama's campaign passes around a list of national-security advisers, Clark's name won't be on it. But as we say farewell, let us consider the professional passions that animated his faux pas in order to improve our understanding not only of Gen. Clark but also of rivalries that still beset the armed forces.
In 1967, Navy Lt. Commander John McCain was flying A-4E Skyhawk attack planes off the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier. He was on his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when an air-defense battery shot him out of the sky. He crashed into Hanoi's Truc Bach Lake (where a statue of him was erected, in celebration of the event) and was held prisoner for the next five years.
In 1970, Army Capt. Wes Clark was commanding A Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, of the 1st Infantry Division ("the Big Red One"), when a Viet Cong soldier shot him four times. Though seriously wounded, he ordered his men to fight back, and they won the skirmish. Clark was hospitalized and awarded a Silver Star.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Wesley Clark by Eric Thayer/Getty Images.