People are rushing to denounce Wesley Clark for asking whether McCain's POW experience taught him what he needs to know as Commander-in-Chief.

That's fine from a political standpoint, but as a voter, I think this should actually be a legitimate line of inquiry. McCain's POW experience is clearly central to his worldview. We should be asking what lessons he draws from that experience, and whether they're appropriate to managing the current situation our country faces.

It is possible to learn the wrong lessons from one's personal experience in war. Here's an example: My father was also shot down over Vietnam. Based on that experience, he insisted on never, ever locking the door on any moving vehicle for the rest of his life, in case he needed to climb out.

This wasn't particularly rational behavior. In fact, it was positively irrational. But his experience in Vietnam was so vivid that he applied it categorically to all seemingly similar situations.

I would be deeply surprised if nothing similar happened to McCain during five and a half years as a prisoner. In fact, everything written about McCain's experience as a POW indicates the lessons he learned there were very similar to the ones he wants the U.S. to apply in Iraq.

It was loyalty to the flag and his cellmates, an infinite willingness to stay the course, and a stubborn refusal to bend that carried him through. Indeed, the difference between victory and defeat was literally whether or not you decided to give up: As a recent Times piece explained, McCain was incensed at the prisoners who went home because they agreed to sign statements asking for "amnesty" and thanking the North Vietnamese. He later decided they'd turned into "finks" because the anti-war movement at home had weakened their will to persevere--an assertion historians have called misleading.

The qualities McCain exalts are absolutely admirable, but it doesn't follow automatically that they're infinitely applicable. Giving your cellmates unfailing moral support, for example, is not the same thing as running a war or laying out a long-term policy for Iraq. There's a danger in conflating the two. McCain may lean too heavily on willpower and symbolism simply because those approaches are most mentally accessible.

Is McCain overvaluing the lessons of the Hanoi Hilton, perhaps to the exclusion of other battlefield and executive virtues? I don't know, but it wouldn't be unpatriotic to ask. And someone like General Clark might be in a position to judge.

--Barron YoungSmith