Sunday, April 06, 2008

McCain is a Brat

Does it Matter?

The presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, has embarked on a biographical tour to highlight the places and early personal experiences that have helped to shape the kind of person he is and the kind of president he might be.

Everyone knows, of course, that he is the son and grandson of four-star admirals and that he had a distinguished career as a naval aviator himself before leaving the service to enter politics. What people might not know, or not fully understand, is that McCain is a brat.

In using this term, I’m not casting aspersions on his behavior as a youth. I’m simply using the common vernacular given to those of us who are sons and daughters of professional soldiers, sailors and airmen (subspecies: army brat, navy brat, etc.)

Americans have elected many veterans to the presidency; we have elected a few professional soldiers, such as Dwight Eisenhower. But we have never elected a brat; McCain would be the first. The last army brat with presidential aspirations was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. What makes brats different?

For one thing we brats have very little sense of roots, although perhaps as a way of compensating, a greater sense of the nation as a whole and, to an extent, the world. The easiest way to flummox a brat is to ask the simple question: “Where are you from?”

Usually we stammer out something like, “Well, um, I moved around a lot as a kid.” McCain wasn’t even born in the United States. He was born on a base in what was then the Panama Canal Zone. It doesn’t have quite the down home ring of Plains, Georgia or Hope, Arkansas.

Moreover, few civilians realize that growing up in the military, not to mention simply being in the military, is, or was when I was growing up, the closest thing one will come to pure socialism in America.

Nationalized health care? We’ve had it from the year one. As a teenager living on an air force base in Japan, I even had my teeth straightened at U.S. tax payer expense. Housing (better known to us as “quarters”) is provided free of charge – and pretty nice for admirals - or, if we have to live off base, is subsidized with a housing allowance.

Food is subsidized as well. Well into retirement, my parents believed it worthwhile to drive 50 miles from their Florida retirement home to McDill AFB to stock up on groceries at the commissary, by passing the civilian super market next door.

Schooling is free too, of course, through the defense school system abroad or through local public schools in the U.S. - with the localities reimbursed by the federal government for the property taxes we don’t usually have to pay.

Here in Japan, where I live, I tune into state-run radio ( AKA the American Forces Radio Network) which is blessedly free of commercial advertising, but has plenty of nanny-state appeals to stop for school buses, obey Japanese driving-while-drinking laws and generally behave as a good citizens.

McCain’s parents sent him to an expensive private school in Virginia (where he stopped to praise teachers during his biographical tour) but saved on college expenses as he attended Annapolis, one of the tuition-free service academies, as many brats do following in their parent’s footsteps.

Many of these perks were meant to compensate for the generally low base pay in the pre-volunteer army period. They may have changed in the years since I’ve been out of uniform. But that is irrelevant in McCain’s case as he, like me, grew up in the 1950-60s era military.

Does any of this matter?

Sen. Barack Obama’s teenage years in Indonesia attending international schools has been thought worthy of comment, so one might think that McCain’s formative years are also worthy of remark. McCain himself has said that his tour was meant to illuminate for the voters, “places that had a significant role in shaping who I am.”

The brat culture is a significant aspect of the American experience, not very well understood by civilians. It certainly played a part in shaping McCain into the person he is, and on the whole, probably for the better.

Todd Crowell is the son of a career air force officer.




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