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McCain win might stop sons from deploying

Mar. 8, 2008 - 05:25PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 8, 2008 - 05:25PM  |  
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Sen. John McCain's run for the White House could make him the first president in generations to have children in the active-duty military, casting a unique spotlight on his two sons and their careers in uniform.

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Sen. John McCain's run for the White House could make him the first president in generations to have children in the active-duty military, casting a unique spotlight on his two sons and their careers in uniform.

Lance Cpl. Jimmy McCain, 19, joined the infantry in December 2006 and returned from his first tour in Iraq a few weeks ago. His older brother, John "Jack" McCain, 21, will graduate from the Naval Academy this year and may join the Corps as a second lieutenant.

Having a famous father is already drawing attention to the young men. But if the Arizona lawmaker were elected commander in chief in November, their fame would likely raise questions about how or even if they could deploy alongside other Marines.

"Can you imagine the propaganda value if a president's child were to be captured and appear on an al-Qaida video?" said Jim Currie, a professor of national security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

"He could become a lightning rod of aggressive actions against his unit," Currie said. "He becomes a ‘high-value target' and all of a sudden, that unit is not like every other unit that's doing the same thing."

The military has not faced that situation in more than 50 years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's son served as a Navy officer in World War II and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's son was an Army officer in Korea while his father was in the White House.

"But it was a different world when they served," Lt. Col. Christopher Hughes, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, said in a telephone interview. "We have to take into account that our adversaries have instant access to anything we say and anything we post.

"This enemy lives for the [public relations] stunt. It's incumbent upon us to take that away from them," Hughes said.

Hughes declined to say whether commanders had taken any unusual security measures when Lance Cpl. McCain was in Iraq last year.

The prospect of a McCain presidency raises concerns similar to those faced by the British military when Prince Harry's unit was scheduled to deploy to Iraq last year. In December, the British Army quietly sent him to Afghanistan instead, but after that was revealed Feb. 27 by press reports worldwide, British officials immediately removed the prince from the war zone.

Sen. McCain knows first-hand the risks of being a "high-value target" in a war zone. McCain was a Navy pilot and a prisoner of war in Vietnam at the time his father, Adm. John McCain, was commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Command. The North Vietnamese Army frequently tried to use him for propaganda purposes, offering him early release in the hopes of deflating morale among U.S. troops by showing that the children of elites were willing to accept special treatment. McCain refused and remained in a prison camp alongside other service members for more than five years.

After he was tortured by his captors, McCain did sign and tape a "confession," but he used poor grammar and communist jargon to signal that the statement was coerced. In December 1972, McCain's father signed off on a large-scale bombing campaign targeting the Hanoi area despite knowledge that his son was held nearby.

"So I think if anyone would understand the situation, it would be John McCain," said Michael Noonan, a captain in the Army Reserve and a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Beyond the mission in Iraq, having the father of two Marines in the White House could have broader benefits.

"I think it could help in some ways, in recruiting perhaps. Or certainly if he makes a call for public service or gives a speech about service, the fact that two of his sons are serving gives a lot of credibility," Noonan said.

Peter D. Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in North Carolina, agreed.

"I think it's a good thing for decision-makers to have military experience or have military connections among their friends and family," Feaver said. "I don't think it should be a requirement, but I think that is a good thing. It makes it real for the person. It puts a human face and a human emotion to the decisions that a commander in chief has to make."

Feaver said some military experts may overestimate the operational concerns of having a president's child in the service. The primary challenge is one of public relations.

"The Marines would probably have to restrict media access to him," Feaver said. "You don't want him to become the central part of the story in a way that [Army Gen. David] Petraeus has become a central part of the story. That's what happens to the commanders at the top, not the junior officers or enlisted Marines.

"Assuming they can manage the media piece of it, I don't see why they couldn't deploy."

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