Country First

By admin ~ May 10th, 2011 @ 11:33 am

During the Republican Convention in St. Paul I sat watching the audience of screaming fans wave, pump and gyrate their McCain/Palin placards.

But the signs that really struck me were those with these words “Country First.”

Now, on the face of it this sounds like good old American patriotism.

We’re all for our country. All of us are patriots.

But something bothered me about these signs and I think it comes down to the way John McCain had used phrases like that earlier in the campaign and continues to use this idea of “country first.”

You might remember that in arguing about policy in Iraq he claimed Obama was exchanging votes for victory, meaning that Obama was more interested in winning an election than winning in Iraq.


In his defense, McCain said, “I’m not challenging his patriotism. I questioning his policies.”

Very clever and too simplistic.

Just recently we heard, in the wake of the crisis on Wall Street, McCain claim that he would bring change to Wall Street and do away with those folks who put greed ahead of country. And he lambasted Senator Obama for being part of the Wall Street problem by “gaming” the system. Obama’s putting himself and greed ahead of country claimed Senator McCain.

Well, this is all politics as usual we might say. Painting your opponent with the brush of selfishness, greed and lack of patriotism.

But it’s more than that, I submit.


As I sat watching the “Country First” signs fanning the breezes of super patriotism, I had this feeling that we as Americans had heard some of this before, that there had been a group once called “America First” sometime prior to our entry into World War II.

And a brief Google search indeed reveals the truth of this recollection. We can quickly read about the “America First” movement started in 1940 by a group of Yale students, among whom was Gerald R. Ford, future WWII hero and President. Later this group was joined by Charles A. Lindbergh, the first aviator to fly solo over the Atlantic.
“America First” advocated a strong national defense, felt the two oceans would protect us from the possibility of any attack and that we were unnecessarily being drawn into a European land war by President Roosevelt. They believed that any involvement in fighting the Nazi menace in Europe would weaken our own democracy. “Aid short of war,” i.e. Lend Lease of ships to Britain as well as shipments to Churchill of armaments like rifles, was weakening American defenses at home.

As I watched the signs in St. Paul weaving back and forth and forth and back like a ship rolling in the troughs of heavy seas, I thought of “America First” and its isolationist thrust: keep America out of any foreign wars. Protect America at all costs.

Worthy goals, it would seem.

But what was and is troubling about McCain’s thrust of “Country First” is the implication that I for one take from this message.

If you oppose my views, that is, the views of Senator John S. McCain and my platform you are not putting America first.

And, therefore, you are less patriotic than I am. Maybe not “unpatriotic,” but definitely not as country loving I am.

As he said about Obama, he’s trading votes for victory and, therefore, he’s not a true American, not patriotic enough.

As a former military man, a member of the United States Navy who for several years sailed on active and active reserve duty on ships of the fleet, I take “Country First” personally.


It seems to me those folks in St. Paul and Senator McCain, without obviously saying this directly, are impugning the patriotism of those of us who disagree with him on matters of policy.

Take Iraq, for example. He claimed that he’s all for “victory” in Iraq. Fine. Good noble aim. And we can read in the most recent Atlantic Monthly article “Why War is His Answer” (Jeffrey Goldberg, October, 2008) about some of the historic reasons for McCain’s stance. McCain’s brutal experiences in Vietnam have taught him that we ought not just to “end” wars, but we must “win” them. “. . . the safety of America demands that they [wars against terrorism] be fought, and honor demands that they be won,” said Senator McCain (Goldberg, p. 54.)

Goldberg says that for McCain wars might be “quagmires” only until somebody “figures out a way to win them.”

Quoting Henry Kissinger, Goldberg states that McCain “will not do the easy thing.”

It is interesting to note, by contrast and according to Bob Woodward (recent book The War Within) that President Bush corrected himself when speaking about the war in Iraq. When he said “win,” President Bush quickly altered the word to say “succeed.”

One must wonder what are the distinctive on-the-ground differences amongst these three words: victory, winning and succeeding? There needs to a whole policy debate about this question-How do we defeat global terrorism?

Now, what does McCain’s Vietnam experience have to do with “Country First”?

It seems to me we have a good reason for Senator McCain to be strongly advocating a winning position in our war against terrorism and strongly disagreeing with anybody who says what we need to do is pull out, to exit, as we did in Vietnam.
For some veterans what we did in Vietnam was dishonorable, because they feel we could have won in that conflict. McCain said, “I think it [the Vietnam war] was winnable.” (Goldberg, p. 46).

Anything short of winning, then, is dishonorable, and, maybe, unpatriotic.

We’ve all heard the voices claiming that we could have won in Vietnam if Congress had not voted against further funding.

So, “Country First” means that we will strive for honor, country and victory.

Anybody who declared the Iraq war had been “lost,” became an anathema to John McCain.

Hence, anybody, like Senator Obama, who advocates a responsible withdrawal and redeployment to Afghanistan to deal with bin Laden and those terrorists who actually perpetrated 9/11 is putting his own vote getting desires ahead of John McCain’s personal definition of what it means to be an American.

What I take umbrage at is anybody’s telling me that my ideas for preserving democracy, for fighting tooth and nail to protect this country, to root out the world-wide menace of Islamic terrorism are, somehow, less patriotic than theirs.
What I detest is this near claim that if you disagree with John McCain’s vision of victory in Iraq, that you are somewhat less of an American.

(I must remind readers that it was John McCain who in front of America and Rick Warren [pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life] claimed that General Petraeus “took us from defeat to victory in Iraq.” I’m not sure if he meant the Surge had already worked or if this was a little bit of wishful, projective thinking into the future. But McCain used the simple past tense word “took” us to victory. What does that mean for future policy in Iraq?)


I am again reminded of the Epilogue of Bob Woodward’s The War Within (2008), where he writes that President Bush likes to make some decisions with his “gut,” and doesn’t convene a cabinet meeting to discuss the pros and cons of such momentous decisions as going to war. It was startling to me to read Woodward’s claim that Bush had not discussed the wisdom of going to war in Iraq with Bush ’41, Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld.

We know that in his very first cabinet meeting, well before 9/11, President Bush made it clear that one of his goals was dismantling the regime of Saddam Hussein. Then Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill was surprised that there was no discussion pro or con about this objective. According to O’Neill, the questions “Why Saddam?” and “Why now?” were never asked. Decision made in private and to be accepted by all in the Cabinet. (

(Yes, I can hear other voices saying that prominent Democrats, like both Clintons, President and Senator, Madeleine Albright and others claimed Saddam Hussein had WMD and must be dealt with, but perhaps not in the way that President Bush declared war and invaded-with too few troops to secure the country.)


So, why is it so important to hear dissenting voices, especially when you’re considering such matters and life and death, war and peace?

It should be obvious that we must consider all possibilities, all angles, all perspectives and points of view. Yes, this can make it more difficult and time consuming, but we are acting irresponsibly if we only consider our “gut,” or our own experience in previous conflicts.

The Roman Catholic Church, during the papacy of Sixtus V in 1587, instituted a procedure called “advocatus diaboli” when considering elevating one of their own to sainthood. This person was to bring up all the arguments the Devil would make against sainthood thereby working toward a more sound, reasonable decision.

Today we call this the Devil’s Advocate position and throughout the business community we have leaders using such approaches in order to make sound business decisions.

But we also need the role of Devil’s Advocate in our intelligence gathering agencies as well. Witness the failures of the intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction prior to our invasion of Iraq in 2003. We know that then director of CIA

Robert Gates attempted to institute this contrarian process during his tenure in the 90s but failed.

Recently, however, John Negroponte, while Director of National Intelligence, created “red cell analyses” teams that develop arguments against a given set of conclusions “to see if we can prove the reverse.” (C-Span, accessed 19 January, 2006)


After the Space Shuttle Columbia burned up over Texas thus ending the lives of our brave astronauts in February, 2003, Dr. Sally K. Ride, our first woman astronaut, and others conducted a thorough investigation. What they found, in part, was a lack of inquisitiveness amongst the engineers and managers on the project. There was one engineer who suspected that the offending piece of foam that fell onto the ship’s wing might have created terrible problems for re-entry, but nobody supported his inquiries.

Dr. Ride concluded, “One of the requirements of a NASA manager is to be inquisitive to a fault. You must ask and ask and ask.” (Barell, 2007, Inquisitive to a Fault.)

You would think that a President about to commit young men and women to the horrors of battle and, for some, certain death, would have done the same thing-ask everybody of interest the most searching questions about: data upon which we’re making the decision (presence of WMD); about resources to conduct the attack (who’s with us and not?); about what will be the likely consequences within country (any possibility of insurgency? of civil war amongst warring tribes? Plans for the aftermath of the downfall of Saddam Hussein?) and consequences within the broader region.

We know that in 2002 John McCain called the impending attack on Iraq a “well planned effort. . .[one that would] be fairly easy. . . [with] victory in a short period of time.” (–1.html, accessed 9/22/08)

The benefits of such thorough decision-making processes should be obvious-we challenge the assumptions, underlying philosophies, projected consequences of our decisions to make certain they are as sound and as prudent as possible. The fact that President Bush seems not to have engaged in anything like this sound decision-making process led to the kinds of consequences we have suffered through endured in Iraq ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein.


“Country First”?

Yes, of course.

But please don’t tell me or imply that if I disagree with your foreign or domestic policy that I am any less of an American.

The implication is there, even if Senator McCain claims, “I’m not questioning your patriotism, I’m questioning your policy.”

The hint is always there in these statements: “I’m more of a patriotic American than you are.”

When we wave our pennants of “Country First” we are fanning the flames of ardent patriotism. When we do so there is also the remembrance of the isolationists who wanted to protect America’s shores and keep us out of entanglements with Europe.

Today we learn that the Large Hadron Particle Collider at CERN, near Geneva, will be down for at least two months to repair damage to some of its magnets. This super, duper Collider is designed to send protons racing around a 17 mile track at close to the speed of light to collide with each other and to send sub-atomic particles spewing forth and, we hope, thereby revealing some secrets of the Big Bang, an event cosmologists believed was the beginning of our universe.

We can also hope that some politicians will personally collide with their deeper, better instincts to lay out rational policies that we can debate logically, using hard data to support our conclusions rather than impugning the patriotism of those of us who disagree with them.

So, one question is “Which candidate has made decisions putting Country first and which has made decisions putting Party or Self first?”

Writing in The March of Folly (1984) historian Barbara Tuchman described how foolish some governments have been in their policy decisions. In analyzing the fall of Troy, the growth of the Protestant and American Revolutions and the Vietnam war, Tuchman described as folly any policy pursued in the face of alternatives which were recognizably better for those concerned.

Taking her cue from Machiavelli, Tuchman gave us this sage piece of advice: “What government needs is great askers.”

“Great askers” pose the most difficult questions about philosophy, policy, practice and performance.

Theirs are the voices we need to hear today. Not those who attempt to squelch open discussion and debate.

Let’s hope and pray that the next President heeds Machiavelli and Barbara Tuchman’s advice not only to provide a seat at the decision-making councils of government for the Devil’s Advocates and Great Askers but to also listen to them.

RSSSubscribe to blog feed.

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply

©2007-2020 Coupon Addict