With the passing of Senator John McCain on August 25th, social media has been abuzz with controversy, as usual, between those lavishing immense amounts of praise and adulation (see Jack Schafer’s round up on the mainstream media’s grief-stricken canonization efforts) on the late senator, and those who, with varying degrees of tact (“When John McCain was Right”) and callousness, had more negative reflections to his legacy.
While the desire to steer away from crassness is understandable, what is not as clear is why commentators feel the need to laud a man whose main legacy is greatly––and perhaps even fatally––weakening the very country he spent his entire life serving. One need not impute ill motives to McCain to point out the extreme cost his good intentions incurred.
As the famed Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” It was to this greatest affair of state that McCain dedicated most of his career — first in the navy as a pilot, and later as a leader when it came to foreign policy in the senate. In this preeminent role, more often than not, McCain ended his analysis by concluding that the United States armed forces should be dispatched in arms to intervene around the world. From Serbia to Iraq, from Iran to North Korea, McCain was always leading to charge to push for further US military involvement. Fortunately, in many instances, calmer heads prevailed and the US did not invade North Korea or start a war with Russia over Georgia. Unfortunately, US hawkishness has already done immense amounts of damage.
While at the moment, McCain is being remembered fondly in most of the mainstream press, if one looks to the distant future, it seems likely that he will not be remembered for being a jovial colleague or for having positive interactions with reporters. Rather, his true legacy will be the long-term consequences of the interventionist policies that he championed, consequences that will continue to bear poisonous fruit for decades.
While some consequences are easier to see than others, one that is clear is the massive price tag that have accompanied McCain’s wars. Although it seems to be conveniently ignored by both Republicans and Democrats at the moment, the US is currently over $21 trillion in debt, not even counting tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. According to research from Brown University, the war on terror has cost over $5.6 trillion dollars. Even worse, it’s estimated that, by 2056, the US will have accrued another $7.9 trillion in interest on the debt used to fund these wars.
In 2010, then-Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told CNN that debt is “the most significant threat to our national security.” It seems that Mullen’s warning has failed to dissuade further unfunded spending, since the national debt has since continued its trajectory through the roof
It is also worth mentioning that China, the only other state on the map that could potentially be an unfriendly great power rival to the US, has been one of the largest lenders to the US, holding just under $1.2 trillion in US bonds. Should relations between the US and China deteriorate, China could have a mass sell-off of US bonds, bonds issued in part to fund the wars McCain supported. This would hand China the terrifying capacity to wreak havoc on the US economy, devalue the dollar and make it more expensive for the US to borrow money in the future.
Beyond the ever-increasing monetary cost of these wars wars,the U.S. has racked up an incalculable human cost as well. According to the Watson Institute’s Cost of War Project, over 6,800 US service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of this an additional 7,000 US contractors have died as well. Nearly 1 million VA disability claims have been filed from veterans of the Iraq and Afghan war. Equally chilling, the rate of veteran suicide has shot through the roof.:in 2014 alone 7,400 veterans killed themselves. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed or displaced across the Middle East as a result of these wars.
John McCain’s legacy is leaving the US massive debt, economically vulnerable to a likely future geopolitical rival, an epidemic of veteran suicides, and thousands of dead soldiers. Unfortunately, his legacy does not end there. Much like interest on the national debt, America will be paying for McCain’s wars in other unforeseen ways for decades to come.
But conservatives have long known of the devastating consequences war has on the health of societies. As author William Lind pointed out in The American Conservative, true conservatives should hate war; its negative consequences for social order are without end. It racks up an immense monetary cost, leaves young men dead or disabled, has the potential for negative and unpredictable cultural change, and can destabilize society itself. In Lind’s words “if history is a guide, and it usually is, the price for the nationalist right’s love of militaries and war is likely to be higher than we can [sic] to imagine.” Similarly, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet has documented the far reaching negative consequences increased militarism has had on American society, especially when it comes the atomization of individuals and the enlargement of state power. As I have written about in The American Conservative, this increase in state power that results from militarism itself lends to even further social breakdown.
John McCain has indeed left an immense legacy — a legacy that will live on far after he has passed from living memory. The American militarism he promoted, however, is nothing new. Its continued effects, compounded by the numerous conflicts in which McCain helped the US involve itself, have only made the ailing body politic of the US more frail. As we look ahead, from amidst the chaotic and decaying present of the Trump era, we are left to wonder if the US will ever manage to recover from McCain’s long-lasting legacy.