John McCain on the Back Story of "Thirteen Soldiers"

John McCain on the Back Story of "Thirteen Soldiers"

By Carl M. Cannon - November 15, 2014

Sen. John McCain answers questions about his new book, "Thirteen Soldiers," which spotlights the personal stories of 11 men and two women who fought in this nation's wars. McCain co-wrote the book with Mark Salter, his former chief of staff and an occasional contributor to RealClearPolitics.


“Thirteen Soldiers” – let’s start with this: How did you choose a baker’s dozen of them out the millions of veterans who’ve donned the uniform?

First, we wanted each soldier’s story to be compelling. And we think all 13 stories are. We also wanted each of our subjects to represent a particular attribute or a particular condition in the experience of war. Their stories are about more than one thing, of course, and all share common experiences. But when all 13 are taken together they give the reader a realistic appreciation for the service and sacrifice of soldiers. 

We wanted to convey their stories as authentically as we could. For many of the chapters, we chose subjects who had either written memoirs or publicly discussed their experiences. We could rely on their point of view rather than ours. 

We didn’t look for the prototypical soldier. No such person exists. We wanted to reflect the diversity of soldiers at war, in their ethnic, economic and social backgrounds, and in the different kinds of character traits exhibited by soldiers. We wrote about the famous and the obscure, the poor and the wealthy, we wrote about soldiers whose virtues were numerous and some whose vices were more obvious. 

Lastly, we made sure to represent all four armed services. 

Would you say that all 13 of them qualify as heroes?

 Yes. We weren't interested in portraying superheroes, but they are heroes -- men and women who risked their lives and sacrificed for their country. Most were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who rose to the occasion. They aren't consistently virtuous necessarily. One of them, Sam Chamberlain, entitled his memoir "Confessions of a Rogue."  Some of our subjects might be more likable or relatable, depending on the reader’s values and affinities. But all of their stories deserve to be remembered.  

You guys are both parents, and you can’t admit to having a favorite among your kids, but book subjects are a different -- what I’m asking is: Which of these 13 warriors was your favorite?

We have personal connections to two of our subjects. I was in prison with Leo Thorsness. So I feel very close to him. Mark's dad is the subject of the Korean War chapter. Besides our two personal favorites, I think we both really enjoyed Joseph Martin's story. Mainly because he did such an entertaining job of telling it himself, and his self-portrait was, I think, the most realistic depiction of the War for Independence and the experiences and attitudes of a fairly typical Continental. Frank, unpretentious, complaining, cynical, disillusioned and at times resentful, and, at the end of the day, the voice of pride for his extraordinary endurance in a cause he understood instinctively. 

Martin is fully, truthfully, humorously, and recognizably human, not an idealized hero, but a real one, the kind of hero a republic depends on.

What traits did all 13 have in common?

Courage and humility, fear and pride, and always, as John Keegan wrote, always solidarity with their comrades. 

This is -- what? -- the fourth or fifth book you’ve done together. Tell us a little about the collaborative writing process between the two of you.

The sixth, believe it or not. It's been a while since we did one, though. The last one, “Hard Call,” was published in 2007. 

The process has varied over time but is basically the same. Mark and I no longer work in the same office, so we discuss the book on the phone more, though we still meet face to face regularly when we're both in Washington, and talk at least once a week. 

We begin by discussing the outline of the book, and the points we want the book to make. Then we trade ideas for subjects. When the subject has been my career, Mark will interview me at length. When we write about others, as in this book, Mark will do the bulk of the research and I'll send him things I run across that I think will be useful. On one of the previous books, a fantastic researcher and all-around great guy, Mike Hill -- who's done work for David McCullough -- did most of the research.

Mark writes the first rough draft in thirds or quarters, and sends each to me for comments, corrections and suggestions. Then he rewrites and returns again to me for additional changes. Then we send it off to Jon Karp [at Simon & Schuster], who's published all six of our books. 

The end of the military draft during the Vietnam War changed the way soldiers (and sailors, airmen, and Marines) were chosen in this country. Now they are self-selected. Has the all-volunteer military altered how this country views going to war?

Yes, I think it has. It has detached most Americans from what had been in previous wars, principally the Civil War and the world wars, a common commitment and sacrifice. But that was lost before the end of the draft. In Vietnam it was predominately those of modest social-economic and educational status who served. It was outrageously unfair, and it harmed the professionalism and readiness of the military. Our all-volunteer military is by any objective analysis the most professional, skilled and capable in the world. 

In your view, should government bring back the military draft, or institute a compulsory public service requirement of some kind?

No, I wouldn't bring back the draft. But I do think we should come up with greater incentives to encourage national service in one capacity or another. And I'm open to the idea of making it compulsory, but haven't made up my mind finally on the subject.

One of your “Thirteen” is a woman, Monica Lin Brown. Have either of you met her?

Two are women: Monica Lin Brown, who served as a combat medic in Afghanistan, and Mary Rhoads, the reservist in the Persian Gulf War, whose unit was devastated by a SCUD missile attack on the last night of the war. We were able to get in touch with Mary. But, regrettably, we couldn't reach Monica. We tried, but to no avail. I wish we had. She's an impressive woman.  

Are women in combat now a permanent part of the U.S. military equation?

Yes, and Monica Lin Brown and others have proved that women can perform well in certain combat missions, and help win the fight. 

I see that this book is dedicated to several of John McCain’s old comrades-in-arms, some of whom are recognizable names. Are all those guys gone now?

They are. They all passed away recently, and I miss them a hell of a lot. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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