McCain's 'Soldiers:' 13 Ordinary People Transformed By Battle In his new book, Sen. John McCain tells the stories of 13 U.S. soldiers in wars from the Revolution to Iraq. NPR's Linda Wertheimer speaks with the senator about his book, Thirteen Soldiers.

McCain's 'Soldiers:' 13 Ordinary People Transformed By Battle

McCain's 'Soldiers:' 13 Ordinary People Transformed By Battle

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In his new book, Sen. John McCain tells the stories of 13 U.S. soldiers in wars from the Revolution to Iraq. NPR's Linda Wertheimer speaks with the senator about his book, Thirteen Soldiers.


Arizona Senator John McCain had a really good week. When we reached him after the election, he jokingly said he was living the dream, but as Republicans prepare to take control of the Senate, McCain was also cautious.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: There's a feeling out there that we're adrift and I would, in fairness, point out that there is not a great deal of approval of Republicans in Congress either, so we're going to have to see if we can find common ground with our Democrat friends on some issues without betraying any of our principles.

WERTHEIMER: We didn't spend all our time talking about Republican victory - that's because Senator McCain has a new book out, written with Mark Salter. It's called "Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History Of Americans At War." Thirteen soldiers, one from every war this country has fought, beginning with the revolution, down to the war in Iraq. Senator McCain explains.

MCCAIN: We try to, kind of, give a cross-section of people who - the only thing that really bound them together was the fact that they served their country with heroism and sacrifice.

WERTHEIMER: You picked a major historic figure to represent Americans at war and the Civil War - no less a person than Oliver Wendell Holmes, who went on to be a justice of the United States. But in your book - and you include a photograph of him - he's a skinny kid at Harvard who's obviously never thought of fighting a battle, he's never even been hunting, but he believed, as many people from his home state of Massachusetts did, that slavery should be abolished.

MCCAIN: Not only did he have that, but he also was dramatically changed by the war. He went on to serve, as you mention, as a famous jurist, but he also saw so many of his - not only his own comrades on the union side, but fellow American citizens on the Confederate side die in these incredible conflicts that took place. So he almost lost his life a couple of times. His famous father searched for him among the wounded. So while he said war is horrible and dull, he remembered a man's willingness to sacrifice himself for another made him, quote, "capable of miracles."

WERTHEIMER: I was very interested to see that for the soldier of the Korean War, you picked Pete Salter. Now, he is your co-author's father. He seemed, to me, to represent another theme, which goes throughout this book, that ordinary guys go to war and find themselves doing extraordinary things.

MCCAIN: It's a story of the first part of the Korean War, which, of course, always fades from our memories. I understand all that, but the first year of that war was a near thing and Pete Salter fought all the way north up next to the Yellow River, the northern most part of North Korea. And it's also a great part of the story, is, of course, a guy named Mitchell Red Cloud, who is a Native American, literally gave up his life to save the others.

WERTHEIMER: That was a story that was just - you could practically see it as a movie. Pete Salter, who is this nice-looking kid, he, at Mitchell Red Cloud's request, he tied him to a tree.

MCCAIN: Yeah, he was badly wounded and he knew that he wasn't going to make it out and so he asked Pete Salter and his friend to tie him to this tree and the last they heard as they went down the hill was the sound of his BAR, that's an automatic weapon that they had left him with.

WERTHEIMER: You also chose two women who served in the most recent wars in the Middle East - a reservist in the quartermaster corps from Desert Storm and Monica Lin Brown, a medic. She served in Afghanistan and I understand that you chose Brown because you know her - you know her story.

MCCAIN: It's a remarkable story. And one of the things we tried to point out is the role that medics play in modern warfare. There was a very small chance of being wounded on the battlefield and living, say, in World War II, but we have developed techniques and people and medical capabilities that we are able to save about 90 percent. And it's people like her, highly, highly trained, highly skilled and, by the way, incredibly brave because they go right into fire to help these people. The sight of blood made her sick. She trained as a paratrooper and then, of course, when we asked her why she had exposed herself to enemy fire she responded it's my job.

WERTHEIMER: It's really an extraordinary story where she - one of their vehicles runs over an IED and she ran to it, in spite of the fact that all sorts of people were shooting at her.

MCCAIN: And she literally shielded the wounded with her own body. I mean, it's just a remarkable story and I think, you know, we've always had this ongoing debate and discussion about women in combat and, frankly, many years ago, I had a very different attitude than I have today because I believe that women have proven themselves in combat and, therefore, they can add an enormous amount, frankly, to our ability to defend the nation.

WERTHEIMER: Senator John McCain - his new book is called "Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History Of Americans At War." I probably ought to mention that Senator McCain's own story is not in this book, but, of course, he's written about his personal history at war in other books. Senator McCain, thank you so much for doing this.

MCCAIN: Thank you very much. It's great to talk to you.

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