John McCain: A Good Man and Good Public Servant?

As soon as John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, a bipartisan chorus of praise for the career politician emerged.

Whether McCain is the good man and good “public servant” that he is now being made out to be are empirical questions. The evidence with respect to both is overwhelmingly in the negative.

Since a disastrous public servant is and must be a person with bad character, i.e. not a good person, we needn’t even look at McCain’s private life in order to see that he is neither a good man nor a good public servant.

Let’s take his foreign policy “achievements” alone.

No one, including McCain himself, denies that he is a war “hawk.” Indeed, as can be gotten readily enough by sites like Geopolitics Alert, one would be hard pressed to find an American military conflict or potential conflict on behalf of which McCain did not advocate vigorously.  Whether it was in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya or Iran; Nigeria, Sudan, or Mali; Bosnia, Kosovo, or Ukraine; Russia, North Korea, and possibly even China—McCain’s has been the loudest and among the most influential of voices calling for military action.

Time to buy old US gold coins

It is not an exaggeration to say that had McCain’s foreign policy not prevailed, literally hundreds of thousands and possibly more human beings around the globe would have been spared the incalculable suffering that they in fact were made to endure. A substantial number of these people would not have lost their lives.

In Iraq alone, at least 200,000 or so Iraqis, the majority of whom were noncombatant civilians, were killed.  Some estimates place the number of Iraqis killed at one million.  Doctors and teachers were either murdered by insurgents and criminals or forced to flee.  The majority of children (70%) suffer from trauma, some being suicidal, and as many as 800,000 children under 18 have been orphaned.  Ancient Christian communities and those of other religious minorities have been decimated and their inhabitants displaced.

Of course, it wasn’t just Iraqis whose lives were ended or damaged.  Thousands of American soldiers who would have otherwise been alive today were killed.  Thousands of American families that endured the agony of losing loved ones would have been spared this fate.

So too were journalists, contractors, and relief workers killed in Iraq.

Thousands of young Americans lost their lives in McCain’s wars, and well over 100,000 Americans who served in Iraq returned home maimed and severely traumatized.

Anyone who maintains that McCain is a good man is in the unenviable position of having to explain how a man who has been as instrumental as McCain has been in facilitating this much death, pain, and misery can possibly be good.

And anyone who maintains that McCain is a good public servant is in the no less difficult position of pointing out to those millions of us who remain unconvinced the invaluable services that he allegedly provided.

But, his defenders will argue, McCain’s intention was never to harm, much less kill, any innocent civilians.  He certainly never intended for a single hair on the head of any American soldier to be harmed. However, this is war. Moreover, the wars for which McCain was such an ardent proponent were just wars, wars aimed at liberating oppressed peoples from the brutal conditions under which they lived and of “protecting Americans.”

A closer look at this argument readily reveals it for the weak species of reasoning that it is.

McCain’s “intention

For the better part of the last 2,000 years of Christian (Western) morality, it was understood that the goodness of an act is not determined by a person’s subjective intention.  Even if he desired to produce a wonderful or utopian state of affairs, the means by which he pursues that end may still be immoral.

To paraphrase St. Paul’s memorable remark, we must never do evil—even if good may come from it.

To put it another way, the ends never justify the means.

Yet if the only factor that is of moral relevance in judging a person’s conduct is his intention to produce a desirable outcome, then the ends do indeed justify the means. In fact, the ends always justify the means.

Outside of the context of war, most of us have no difficulty understanding this in our everyday lives.  When we say of some kind of act that “it is just wrong,” or of another that there is no reason for performing it other than that “it is just the right thing to do,” we speak as if we suppose that acts are right or wrong regardless of people’s intentions and regardless of their outcomes.

For example, suppose that a dangerous convicted criminal escapes from prison.  Even if this convict is threatening innocents on a crowded city street, few will deny that it would be wrong for police to shoot at him while he is in close proximity to numerous bystanders.  If the police shoot and strike, say, innocent children, it will not cut it for them to respond by claiming that they never intended to shoot these innocents.

The reason for this verdict is simple: The act of shooting guns in crowded space is intrinsically reckless whether anyone is shot or not.  The act intends or is oriented toward harming others.

Officers who engaged in this action would justly invite a negative moral judgement against themselves. Yet for officers who failed to learn from this one act and who continually shot and killed innocents because they were aiming for the guilty we would reserve nothing but contempt.  In reality, it’s not likely that police officers who made this mistake once would remain police officers. It is inconceivable that police officers could continually make this same kind of mistake while remaining a police officer.  They would become the convicts.

Yet this is exactly the sort of mistake that McCain has made throughout his career in calling for one failed war after the other. The only difference between McCain and our hypothetical police officers is that McCain is responsible for far more death.

The ends of “liberating” oppressed peoples and “protecting Americans”

Morally good ends can never justify immoral deeds. This most people and all good Christians have always known. However, even on the assumption that the ends do justify the means, the argument in McCain’s defense still fails.  It fails on its own terms.

There isn’t a single war for which McCain has advocated that has come remotely close to making the lives of the oppressed any better.  Just the opposite, in fact, is the case. Iraq is the classic textbook illustration of how McCain-style American interventionism plucks the oppressed from the proverbial frying pan and hurls them into a raging fire.

Iraq is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. Tragically, it is not the only example.

And how, we must ask, have the years of war in Iraq and in any number of other foreign lands that McCain demanded protected any Americans? Americans, specifically those soldiers who lost their lives, limbs, and peace of mind, have been harmed by it.

The families and loved ones of these soldiers have as well been harmed by McCain’s wars.

No one is any safer because of them.

The original verdict stands:

McCain is neither a good man nor a good public servant.

The burden is on anyone who thinks otherwise to show me the error of my ways—or my moral compass.

All of this being said, I wish no pain and suffering upon McCain.  As a Christian, I’m called to love.  In praying for others, including my enemies, I love them.  God is infinitely merciful and infinitely just.  I pray that God’s will for McCain be done and that he may spend the remainder of his days performing acts of a far different kind than those that he performed for most of his adult life: acts of contrition.