Tribute by General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army (Ret.)
We gather today to celebrate the life of John McCain, a man who started his adult life here at Annapolis and went on to live that life with great courage, unshakable determination, and unwavering devotion to our country and those who defend it.
The title of Senator McCain’s final book was Restless Wave. And he was, indeed, a restless wave. But I think Relentless Wave might have been even more accurate, as he always sought to achieve what he believed was right with incomparable resolve and relentless drive. He was, at the end of the day, a true force of nature – and we all respected him immensely for that, even if we occasionally found ourselves in the cross hairs of the look he employed when targeting those he sought to energize.
The presence at this private service of Senator McCain’s closest friends, Academy classmates, and former colleagues, including the other two Amigos, Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, says more about Senator McCain than any words that I might offer. I know your presence means a great deal to Cindy and the McCain family.
Most here will have heard the adage, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Some years back, following the Surge in Iraq and the push in Afghanistan, I revised that to observe, “If you want a real friend in Washington, get John McCain.” And, by the way, he’ll bring the dog.
Others here will no doubt speak of Senator McCain’s extraordinary courage as a Navy pilot flying jets off a carrier and carrying out very dangerous missions over North Vietnam and then, of course, as a prisoner of war who endured what no human should have to experience but never broke faith with his fellow prisoners. Though he was highly decorated for his valor, I never saw him wear his Silver Star or Distinguished Flying Cross or Purple Heart lapel pins on his suit. In fact, Senator McCain never wore his service on his sleeve at all. But he certainly never forgot what it meant to serve in uniform, either. Indeed, he saw it as the greatest of honors.
No one was more privileged than I was to serve in the wars of the post-9/11 decade with what has rightly become known as America’s New Greatest Generation. John McCain loved these men and women – and they loved him in return, for they knew that no one had their backs as loyally and fiercely as he did. And no one, absolutely no one, did more to see that our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen had what they needed to prevail on the battlefield. I appreciated that deeply when I was in uniform and was privileged to command those great men and women, and I still appreciate it deeply now.
The example provided by our men and women on the battlefield is worth recalling at a time when some in Washington play on the differences that divide us rather than on the common ideals and sense of humanity that unite us. That example was also what characterized Senator McCain’s approach. He was, to be sure, a man who fought tenaciously for that in which he believed, but also one who did so with the recognition that one has to reach across the aisle periodically and compromise a little in the quest to get a lot.
Senator McCain was, of course, occasionally blunt and no-nonsense. He did demonstrate the full range of emotions from time to time, and he did not suffer lightly those who avoided answering a tough question. He was often impatient and in a tremendous hurry, as are many members of Congress, frankly, but he even more so. I remember, for example, receiving what I thought would be a warm, congratulatory call minutes after my confirmation by the Senate in early 2007 to serve as the Commander of the Surge in Iraq. On being told that Senator McCain was calling, I smiled, took the phone from my aide, and said, “Senator, thanks so much for calling, and thanks again for your steadfast support during the confirmation process.” There was a brief pause on the other end, and then I heard: “When do you leave?” “Senator?” I asked. “When do you fly to Baghdad, General?” “Oh,” I replied, “well, Senator, this evening I head back to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, so I can close out my duties there, pack for the deployment, and….” I heard a click on the other end. He’d hung up on me! But I’d gotten the message: the clock was ticking, support on Capitol Hill was tenuous at best, and we had to achieve results in a hurry. Ultimately, we did just that, validating Senator McCain’s faith in us and the new approach.
Senator McCain was with us in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Mideast and Central Asia, not just figuratively, but literally, on many, many occasions. He was there multiple times each year, on virtually every Congressional recess, seeing the situation on the ground for himself, conveying fierce determination and urgency to all of us and the host nation leaders – and then returning to Washington to ramrod whatever follow-up actions he felt might be needed on Capitol Hill or in the Pentagon or at the White House.
His political resolve was, of course, every bit as noteworthy as the courage he demonstrated while in uniform. Nothing captured this better than when, in speaking of his support for the Surge in Iraq while running for President, he observed, “I would rather lose an election than lose a war.” His support for the Surge undoubtedly did cost him votes, but his judgment was ultimately vindicated. In fact, his opponent in that race was very fortunate when he became president to inherit the results that had been achieved by the strategy Senator McCain had supported and he had challenged.
After that presidential campaign, Senator McCain continued to be a significant voice – indeed, a true conscience – in Washington, not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on the vital importance of grounding our foreign policy on the values, principles, and freedoms we have long cherished as Americans, and that we have fought to preserve when necessary.
The celebration of those bedrock beliefs each 4th of July in the war zones was particularly special to the Senator. I celebrated the 4th of July deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan in 7 of the 10 years that followed the 9/11 attacks. Senator McCain was there on each of those – and undoubtedly the other three as well. One 4th of July – in 2007 in Baghdad – was particularly memorable when Senator McCain participated in a ceremony held in the huge rotunda of the old Saddam Palace we used as the Multinational Force-Iraq headquarters. It was truly inspirational: a sea of some 600 of our service members with their right hands in the air, re-enlisting for another tour in their respective services, and doing so in a combat zone, knowing that they likely would be ordered to deploy again. The most moving event, however, was the one that followed – a citizenship ceremony for those who had been fighting for our country, wearing our uniform with the US flag on their right shoulders even though they were not yet US citizens. The citizenship ceremony was, by then, an annual tradition and a wonderful one that reminded us of the privileges of being an American and of the importance of the freedoms we hold dear. But that year there were several empty chairs in the front row of the ranks of those about to receive citizenship; these chairs were left empty in honor of those who had, in the weeks preceding the ceremony, given on the battlefield what Abraham Lincoln termed “the last full measure of devotion.” And thus, they were never able to take the oath of citizenship in the country for which they had been fighting. Their photographs were on the seats that they would have occupied, and it was obvious that they represented the many diverse countries that have contributed to the ranks of a Nation of immigrants. And we recognized each of those individuals and honored their memories during the ceremony.
Needless to say, that was a very moving occasion for all of us, but it was particularly so for Senator McCain; indeed, he recalled it on many subsequent occasions when we were together and he wrote of it in his final book, as well. On reflection, that episode seemed to capture the true humanity, compassion, and love of country that characterized all that Senator McCain did.
Teddy Roosevelt once observed that the greatest gift in life is hard work worth doing. John McCain spent his entire life engaged in such pursuits, reveling in extraordinarily worthwhile hard work, especially in causes larger than self, tirelessly carrying out his duties. He was, in truth, a happy warrior, a fierce patriot, and very much the man in the arena, to recall the words of another Teddy Roosevelt speech, as President Obama did yesterday as well.
Our great country, and it is indeed great, Meghan, is vastly better for having had John McCain in the arena, spending himself in the most worthy of causes, never tacking to a safe shore during tough campaigns for office or in a host of skirmishes on Capitol Hill, and earning widespread respect as one of the great helmsmen of our time. Certainly those of America’s New Greatest Generation – and I – will never forget him for all of that.
Senator McCain has now taken his final flight and gone to join the ultimate Majority Leader in the Sky. Undoubtedly, many old comrades from his days on the Hill have welcomed him warmly – but some also probably a bit warily. I suspect he has already embraced – and then commenced arguing with – Ted Kennedy and a number of the other old titans of an institution that Senator McCain truly believed is the greatest deliberative body on earth.
As some of you will know, I am a graduate of that other military academy, the one at West Point. But I am certain that Senator McCain wanted a “joint forces approach” at this ceremony. In view of that, please allow me to recall one of the final stanzas of my school’s Alma Mater, which I am sure will ring true with all here regardless of the academy from which they graduated.
“And when our work is done,
Our course on earth is run.
May it be said, WELL DONE!
Be thou at peace…..”
So, Godspeed, and be thou at peace, Shipmate McCain. Know that you have run the race incredibly well, establishing an extraordinary legacy, a truly admirable place in history, and a loving family. Please know that those in uniform have long respected and long admired you, and know also that the moral compass that guided you so steadily thru turbulent seas will continue to guide future generations of those who serve our great country.
Fly Navy, fair winds and following seas, and farewell, Senator McCain. Thank you.
Tribute by Jack McCain
First, thank you all for joining in this celebration of my father’s life. Here he is at the end of his long, eventful journey, back where the adventure began. This is the world he always insisted that he knew best, and loved most.
His love/hate relationship with the Academy had long ago warmed into just love, his memories of his time here and the traditions he kept faith with ever after claimed an exalted place in his affections, and were a guiding star in his life. Here he will remain near his classmate, his dear friend of sixty years, Admiral Chuck Larson
Thank you, Admiral Carter for all you have done to see Dad have a proper Navy send off. And thank you to the Brigade of Midshipmen. He would be delighted you were here, and would have wanted to take each of you by the hand, and wish you the best in your military service to come.
All of you here were very special to my father. You are his closest family, friends, and classmates, and my mother and siblings thank you for your place in his affections and your friendship and support for us. You are dear to us.
I have been as impressed as all of you, though certainly not surprised, by my mother’s grace and dignity these last few days, concluding more than a year of devoted care for dad, seldom leaving his side, making sure he lived his last months in comfort and with dignity, in the place he loved so much. Thank you, Mom.
My father was a great man. There are challenges associated with having a great man for a father, though, I will admit, the advantages outweigh them. Great men cast large shadows. Their example can be hard to emulate. My father knew something about that challenge, having been son and grandson of great men, and he knew how to ease the burden on us without depriving us direction.
He knew to set an example for us, and to show us in word and deed how to live honorable, purposeful lives. But he gave us the freedom and the respect to trust us to choose our own way. He didn’t expect or want us to attempt impersonating him. After all, who could? He just wanted us to know that he only satisfying – truly satisfying life – is to live adventurously and bravely in service to cause bigger than ourselves. The routes we took were up to us. That was the respect his father had shown him.
Dad was a naval officer and a statesman. He had big responsibilities that claimed much of his time and attention. His seven children had to make the most of our time with him. We had to live as he lived, rushing along with him enthusiastically from one thing to another. Dad didn’t waste time, not a minute. To live nearly 82 years without squandering a day of it is quite an achievement.
The attack pilot was always alive in him. As he was not a fighter pilot, as he would sharply tell you. The way he dove into life, the way he confronted problems with daring and tenaciousness. He was relentless and resilient. Life with him was exhausting and exciting and fascination and an awful lot of fun. “Let’s go, boy,” he’d instruct, and off we’d go, hurtling into another adventure, struggling to keep pace with that stiff-legged, quick step gait of his.
He and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim about ten years ago. He liked to hike and he loved the canyon. He also wanted to demonstrate to the public, and I think to himself, that he still had the physical stamina to run for president again.
That was the only time I remember seeing him in obvious pain. He lived with pain for decades after Vietnam, but he never once mentioned it. This time, as we hiked down from the North Rim and he winced and grimaced, I could see his pain was excruciating. But he just kept walking, for two more days from the base of the North Rim to the top of the South. We reached our summit at the end of the final day. I was twenty-two and I was bone-weary. I have no idea how he managed it, much less without even a single complaint. We stood together in silence, took in the majesty of the canyon as that gorgeous Arizona sun sank below the cliff line, and then we slept. An unspoken rite of passage finished for both.
My Dad taught me the two qualities that take you farthest in life, especially in the military, are humility and inquisitiveness. He recognized in every person, friend or stranger, dignity equal to his own. He never spurned a request for help. He never treated a person or a service as beneath him.
He was always willing to apologize for his mistakes. He had a deep need to make amends if he had wronged someone. He was a restless man, and his conscience was the most restless part of him. Always present was his desire to be a better man today than he was yesterday.
He could not read enough, inquire enough, experience enough, learn enough. He was never satisfied with the knowledge he possessed. He was always questioning, demanding more information from books, from people, from intimidated witnesses before his committee who had steeled themselves for days to prepare for the experience. But he also asked questions of people to establish a personal connection to them, to let them know he shared their interests and their purposes.
He fought hard, obstinately, exuberantly because he liked to fight, but more importantly, because he believed in what he was fighting for. He fought for America and her great causes – freedom, equal justice, the dignity of all people. He fought the bad guys for the little guys. He fought to make a better world. That’s what he believed an American leader is supposed to do – to fight and sacrifice for causes greater than themselves. He had an ego. He had ambitions. But it was country first. Country first.
Sixteen years ago, I visited the notorious Hanoi Hilton with him. It was quite moving to see in his company the place where he had suffered so much and, he said, fallen in love with his country. But he only ever talked matter-of-factly with me about his experiences there. He had subordinated all personal feeling to his efforts to help Vietnam be a better country, and a friend and ally to his.
Not long after Dad helped restore normal relations between the United States and Vietnam, he received a letter from a person he didn’t know, who had admired his efforts to reconcile the two countries. The Thoughtful correspondent closed his letter by reciting some lines from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which he said had been brought to mind by Dad’s courage, by his capacity for forgiveness, and by his determined belief, however dark the hour, that the future could be made better than the present:
“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night’
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, not falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.”
My father fought and suffered, endured defeats, rose from the ground and fought again to keep faith with his heroes, to safeguard the country he loved and her causes, to be a better man, and to make a better world.
That was your glory, Dad, in triumph and defeat, at dawn and dusk. And we who were privileged to witness it saw it was good, great, joyous, beautiful and free, and we will not forget it.
Good-bye, Old man. Like you, I believe we’ll see each other again. Until then, I’ll keep your faith, and make my life count for something more than myself, so that you’ll be proud of me on that day.