By The Reverend Dr. William A. Evertsberg
Memorial Day last year—May 29, 2017—would have been the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy, a veteran and war hero, of course, so last year at Memorial Day I got curious and did some exhaustive research—on Wikipedia—and discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that 26 of our 45 American Presidents served in the military before serving in the White House. More than half. I think that’s pretty good.
Twelve of them were Generals, and three were Supreme Commanders of the United States Army—General Washington, General Grant, and General Eisenhower.
Lieutenant Kennedy famously received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his bravery after PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, but he is not the only future President who showed exemplary courage in the face of grave danger.
Did you know that George Herbert Walker Bush crash-landed in the Pacific during World War II—twice?
The second time, anti-aircraft fire set ablaze the right engine on his TBM Avenger, but he managed to drop his bomb load on his target anyway before crash-landing in the Pacific. Lieutenant Bush—20 years old at the time—was one of nine pilots who crash-landed during that bombing run; the other eight were captured, tortured, killed, and cannibalized by the Japanese. The casualty rate among the pilots in Lieutenant Bush’s squadron was 300%.
This might be the last Memorial Day Bush 41 will ever see. And that made me think of another war hero who didn’t become President, but almost. This is probably the last Memorial Day we’ll be able to pay tribute to Arizona Senator John McCain.
Last week The Washington Post called Senator McCain the greatest political leader of our time.
Captain McCain’s ancestors served in every American war since the War for Independence. During the Civil War they served the Confederacy, but let that pass for the moment. His grandfather and father were both U.S. Navy Admirals.
After he was shot down in the middle of Truc Bach Lake, in the middle of Hanoi, in the middle of the day, his captors interrogated him for the names of the other pilots in his squadron. He listed off the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers.
Late in the 2008 Presidential campaign between Senators McCain and Obama, a woman stood up at a McCain rally and said, “I don’t trust Obama because he’s an Arab.” Senator McCain quickly protested, “No ma’am,” he said. “Senator Obama is a decent family man and a good citizen, whom I just happen to disagree with on fundamental issues.” That might have been the last time we’ve seen such civility and courtesy in presidential politics.
I guess when you’ve spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton, you cling fiercely to honor and truth and decency. You find out that life is too hard and too short for mendacity.
I guess when you’ve spent two years in solitary confinement, and five under brutal torture, you don’t want your country to be a practitioner of torture.
Captain McCain’s memoir is called Faith of Our Fathers. He says that actually there are three kinds of faith that keep you honorable: faith in God, faith in your country, and faith in each other, faith in your fellow soldiers, sailors, and pilots. Senator McCain is famously displeased with the direction of our country just now, but till the day he dies, and that might be soon, he will never lose his faith in his country.
In his brand new book The Restless Wave, he writes, “We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself.”
I think Senator McCain might be right about that, and if he is, all Americans owe a debt of gratitude to future presidents, future schoolteachers, future janitors, future welders, future pediatricians, who showed unflinching courage under grave peril, some at the age of 20. This weekend, we will remember them.