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Sen. John McCain's Enduring Impact On The U.S. Military


America and freedom have lost one of her greatest champions. That's what Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted about his longtime friend and mentor John McCain after the Arizona senator died over the weekend. McCain's legacy of service is one for the history books. He was a naval aviator, a prisoner of war, a congressman, a senator, twice he ran for president of the United States.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to talk about how McCain's military life influenced how he saw his job as a lawmaker and how he saw the world. Tom, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: I read somewhere over the weekend that McCain believed that chairing the Senate Armed Services Committee was like one of the most important responsibilities he ever had. Explain why.

BOWMAN: Well, I think his impact as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, you know, his overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and continually pushing for more U.S. troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and also more support for the allies, America's allies. He was a firm believer in the rightness of American power as a moral force. He called himself an idealist, a nation-builder and a hawk. And his political hero - not surprisingly - was Theodore Roosevelt.

Now, McCain was among those who wanted to promote democracy around the world, support allies against any form of tyranny. And he was a very, very harsh interrogator as head of the Armed Services Committee. He was almost like a reporter or a prosecutor in the questions he would ask. He frequently clashed with Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld about how the Iraq War was going. McCain wanted more troops - U.S. troops over there. Rumsfeld was kind of against that, and it got very brutal. He said Rumsfeld was one of the worst defense secretaries ever. Never sugarcoated anything.

MARTIN: So we all know about the challenges, the personal challenges, that John McCain faced over his life, in particular the years that he was imprisoned. He was a prisoner of war during the war in Vietnam. Can you draw a line from that experience and how it informed the policies that he championed?

BOWMAN: Well, I think it was to stay the course. You know, of course in Vietnam, he and others thought it was the right thing to do. You could have, perhaps, won that war. So I think he saw it with Iraq and Afghanistan. Don't pull out. Just keep going. Send more troops.

MARTIN: Didn't matter about the politics.

BOWMAN: That's right. He thought it was the right thing...


BOWMAN: ...To do. And also - he was, of course, tortured in Vietnam. And when there was talk of enhanced interrogation tactics with the Abu Ghraib incident, he was firmly against anything that would sully America's reputation. And of course, you know, he was the son and grandson of admirals who fought in World War II at a time when there was a clear end to a conflict. But with the wars McCain oversaw, they're messy...

MARTIN: Right.

BOWMAN: ...And open-ended. And they continue of course to this day.

MARTIN: Where is he going to be laid to rest?

BOWMAN: He'll be laid to rest at the Naval Academy Cemetery, next to his close friend Admiral Chuck Larson. They were classmates and pilots together. And I knew Larson when he was superintendent of the Naval Academy years ago, and he seemed the opposite of McCain. He was pretty straight-laced, by the book, top of his class at Annapolis at a time when McCain was at the bottom. And of course, McCain was something of a rebel at the academy, a lot of demerits and so forth. And I remember Larson once saying, it was tough being John McCain's wing man; it was a lot tougher after midnight.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Whatever that means. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.