The Other Kind of ‘Troops’ John McCain Championed

At a time when his party increasingly preferred military might over soft power, the Arizona senator still defended the work of diplomats.

I met John McCain twice while serving overseas as a U.S. diplomat. Both times were in former enemy lands that bore the scars of damage wrought by warriors like him and a generation of professional military men ordered to fight an unpopular war. Yet in his follow-on political career, McCain spearheaded the efforts to heal those scars and turn a new leaf for a reluctant America. At a time when his party was increasingly valuing military power over diplomatic initiatives, the Arizona senator was a champion of diplomacy—and especially those who carried it out.

My first interaction with McCain was when I hosted him for a day in 1993 while I was serving as U.S. chargé d’affaires in Cambodia. He flew into Phnom Penh to check on the status of the U.N.-led effort to negotiate an end to Cambodia’s two-decades-long civil war and the formation of a reconciliation government. The State Department had just set up the kernel of a U.S. embassy in a local hotel, and security conditions were dicey. After years of Khmer Rouge auto-genocide, Vietnamese military occupation, and internecine conflict, Cambodia’s capital city was deep into a kind of collective PTSD: There were few public services; Cambodians were wary of foreigners; we were surveilled by regime agents; and the sound of gunfire periodically pierced the night. We had undergone a full-blown coup attempt months before, replete with rockets, bombings, and indiscriminate shooting in the streets. Hosting visiting politicians was a double strain on our fledgling diplomatic mission. At one point, we had more members of Congress in town than staff to shepherd them around.

As we rode from meeting to meeting in the ambassadorial vehicle with Old Glory waving on the right fender, McCain peppered me with questions about how the peace process was going. Equally high in his mind, however, was how “the troops” were doing: “Was the State Department adequately supporting us with policy guidance andresources? How’s morale? Can I do anything to help you guys?” I was struck by his genuine concern for us as human beings. Frankly, most elected officials visiting our diplomatic posts didn’t ask these questions.

In turn, I would ask the senator questions on the state of DC politics. His answers were always frank, colorful, and, to be sure, a little profane. He was especially agitated by one Republican who went to work for Bill Clinton. He could be funny and serious at the same time. He always made me laugh with his caustic wit.

I met McCain again in the late 1990s, when I was in charge of political affairs at our new Hanoi embassy. McCain and Senator John Kerry—both Vietnam War veterans—worked together closely to normalize relations between our two countries, making multiple trips to meet with Vietnamese leaders. This was yet was another example of McCain’s crossing the aisle to work with Democrats to advance U.S. interests, even those who held deep differences on other issues.

The Vietnamese came to trust these ex-foes. They actually possessed the street cred to get a wary and mistrustful Congress—not to mention the American public—to buy into the effort. They worked in tandem with our ambassador, Pete Peterson, a former congressman and fellow ex-POW. Without this trio, it’s unlikely our relationship with Vietnam could have been healed before the century ended.

McCain’s famed scrappiness was always on display. After visiting the notorious Hoa Lo prison, aka the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he had been imprisoned and tortured for more than five years, and the small lake into which he parachuted after his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down, McCain spoke about the torture he endured, which was a rarity at the time. The Vietnamese government had long held that it had never tortured American prisoners of war, and this set off his Scots-Irish dander. He told us all, with a blunt simplicity, that he had the scars to prove it.

The ensuing pissing match compelled embassy staffers to rapidly man our diplomatic battle stations to defuse the mounting escalation, but McCain quickly comported himself and returned to business as usual.

But on this visit, just like the previous one, he expressed an interest in “the troops,” by which he meant the diplomats he believed served their country in the same way infantrymen do. And he valued our input: He always insisted on being briefed by the embassy country team, all career public servants.

McCain’s dedication to diplomacy manifested itself in ways large and small. Those who joined him on his global jaunts referred to them jokingly as “Bataan Death Marches.” Having been on several of them, Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin said that he “accomplished more diplomacy, human rights advocacy and mischief in … five hours than most senators do in a month.” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Rogin, “If I learned one thing from John, it’s that you cannot protect America sitting in Washington. You can’t learn how this world works watching cable news.”

In stark contrast with the current administration, McCain stood up for America’s professional diplomats. And he fiercely opposed the nominations of campaign cash bundlers who were clearly unqualified to be ambassadors. He spoke for seven minutes on the Senate floor in opposition to President Obama’s nominee to be our envoy to Hungary—a sub-producer of television soap operas—describing her as “totally unsuitable.”

Maybe it was because we were serving on the diplomatic front lines, but I didn’t witness the senator’s notoriously explosive temper. I believe that was because he never lost touch with his past life as a rank-and-file servant of Uncle Sam. Other colleagues, however, bore the brunt of his tantrums. One of them, an otherwise admirer of the senator, told me he came away from one meeting “convinced he should never get his finger near the nuclear button.”

As a career diplomat, my favorite congressional visitors were McCain, Kerry, and Sam Nunn. The three were serious about their work, highly informed, irrepressibly curious, and dedicated to furthering peace as an integral part of U.S. national security policy.

McCain’s and Kerry’s combat records not only enhanced their national security gravitas, it also gave them living, on-the-ground perspectives about war that few political leaders possess.

Indeed, they led the efforts to get the Vietnamese to cooperate fully in seeking a resolution for the 2,646 U.S. soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam War (over a thousand have since been accounted for). The price for this kind of noble effort is occasionally very high, as we learned in this instance. Shortly before departing from my Hanoi post in 2001, seven members of our POW/MIA accounting team—and nine of our Vietnamese counterparts—were killed in a helicopter accident in mountainous northern Vietnam. I can’t help but think John McCain was deeply hurt by this tragedy. He had likely served with some of those missing who for whom our team was searching.

When visiting the Hanoi Hilton in 1992, a reporter asked McCain if he found it difficult to return. McCain said, “There is no reason for me to hold a grudge or anger. There’s certainly some individual guards who were very cruel and inflicted a lot of pain on me and others,but there’s certainly no sense in me hating the Vietnamese. I hold no ill will toward them.”

Sure enough, John McCain’s Vietnamese jailer, Tran Trong Duyet, was deeply saddened by the news of his passing. Had he met McCain again, Duyet said, he would greet him “not as a former prisoner and a jailer, but as two veterans, from both sides of the battlefield, now meeting again in the spirit of reconciliation.” I have little doubt that McCain would have reciprocated.

James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.