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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill Photo: Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill
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GOD AND COUNTRY - 1.27.04
In Focus  :  Today's Military  :  Sen. John McCain Interview
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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


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This Moment in History Today's Military Wartime Leaders


Gwen Ifill interviews Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Gwen Ifill:
Senator, you come from a long line of Navy men — your father, your grandfather. When you look at the Armed Forces today, is this your grandfather's Navy?

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ):
(Chuckling) No, I don't think so. My grandfather's Navy was -- during World War II, everybody served. Before that, very few people served in the pre World War II period. But [in] the pre World War period, all the officers came from West Point or Na- the Naval Academy — one of two places, and it was a very small, professional group.

Gwen Ifill:
The faces are different. We now have citizen soldiers.

Sen. John McCain:
Yes.

Gwen Ifill:
Has that changed the mission, or has that changed the direction of the military?

Sen. John McCain:
I think that one of the legacies of the Vietnam War was the doing away with the draft, and the all-volunteer force in many, many ways has succeeded. It's given us a highly trained, professional regular military. Where it has not succeeded is drawing into it Americans from all walks of life.

Gwen Ifill:
Does that argue for return of the draft, as Congressman Rangel, for instance, has suggested?

Sen. John McCain:
I don't think so for several reasons, one that the training now required to have a — a capable — member of the military, particularly Army or Marines, but any of the services, as well, is very lengthy. I think — second of all — it, overall, it does work in the respect that we have very outstanding people serving in the military We still haven't addressed the central issue that this conversation is about, though — is why is it that the lower-income Americans, generally speaking, are those that serve in the enlisted ranks.

Gwen Ifill:
And why is that?

Sen. John McCain:
Because the wealthy Americans and better-educated Americans have more opportunities than lower-income Americans do.

Gwen Ifill:
And one of the things that Iraq has - has shown us about the face of the military: so many people serving in these open-ended deployments are people who joined the National Guard or Reservists, who didn't sign up thinking this was really what service meant. Has that affected our ability to prosecute this war?

Sen. John McCain:
I'm not sure it's affected our ability to prosecute the war, but I would argue that one of the reason why the o- — o- — obscene acts that took place in Abu Ghraib prison were because the people there were not qualified or trained. That was one of the reasons. Guard and Reservists are outstanding, patriotic, dedicated Americans. Sometimes — in the case of Abu Ghraib, clearly, they were not trained for that kinda war; because we have too small a military, and the Secretary of Defense's failure to recognize that, I think, is the cause not only for problems in the military, but for the problems we're experiencing in Iraq. And then when you lay on top of that the so-called "stop loss" — not allowing people to leave the military — in some ways you are practicing de facto conscription, the worst kind, because you're punishing the people who volunteered.

Gwen Ifill:
Well, if there is de facto c- — conscription, if there are these open-ended deployments, why, how can you expand the number of people who would be interested in joining in the military under those circumstances?

Sen. John McCain:
I think, first of all, economics. If you offer enough in — in educational benefits — people will be attracted to it. Second of all, there's a great spirit of adventure out there amongst a lot of young Americans. (chuckling) — I've never, probably, told this story before, publicly. I — I was sure I was gonna get thrown out of the Naval Academy for various indiscretions that I — including failing grades, and I was gonna join the French Foreign Legion. I mean when you're young — you're adventuresome. A lot of these young people are inspired by a spirit of patriotism.

Gwen Ifill:
So, let's step back a moment. What does it really cost to win a war? And do Americans know what that is?

Sen. John McCain:
I think that there's no doubt that we won the war. The question is, were we prepared to win the peace? And by a bit of triumphalism after the actual combat phase and a failure to appreciate the challenges of the ensuing period — I don't wanna call it "post combat," but the "ensuing period" — w- — significant errors were made. And in war, Gwen, errors are made, mistakes are made, the question is is, do you fix 'em?

Gwen Ifill:
Many things have been fundamentally altered since we went to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq and then this open-ended war against terror, which the president and the secretary of defense now talk about. One of those things has been our relationship with international organizations. It seems that we are trying to regain our footing with the United Nations, as well as with NATO. How would you assess that?

Sen. John McCain:
Sometimes we appear to disdain our European allies. Sometimes we don't take into consideration some of the issues that are important to them. It's as much of appearance as reality. NATO is doing a job in Ir- — in Afghanistan, and it's been very important — their contribution. We have a number of other nations helping in Iraq, but let's not kid ourselves. Ninety-five percent, 98 percent of the work is being done by American military personnel. We have to try to — we're — we're kind of in a Catch-22 situation. If we can make the situation more peaceful — which I hope and pray we will — then we'll get more help. But if the situation continues to deteriorate, then other countries will not be involved.

Gwen Ifill:
So, will we always be at war?

Sen. John McCain:
I think we're gonna have this terrorist threat for a long period of time. I think i- — as long as there's millions of young men standing on street corners in the Middle East with no job, no hope, no opportunity, and are being taken off the streets 'and taught to hate and kill and destroy America and the West and our values, I think we're gonna have a long, tough haul; but I think we can win.




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