Hard Call

Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them


By John McCain

By Mark Salter

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America’s most inspiring politician pays tribute to men and woman who have exhibited composure, wisdom and intellect in the face of tough decisions. John McCain draws from experiences of both extraordinary people and people in extraordinary circumstances, culling lessons about the process and nature of judicious and effective decision-making.

Acclaimed authors John McCain and Mark Salter describe the anatomy of great decisions in history by telling the remarkable stories of men and women who have exemplified composure, wisdom, and intellect in the face of life’s toughest decisions. They identify six qualities typically represented in the best decisions: Awareness. Timing. Foresight. Confidence. Humility. Inspiration. These qualities are personified by the exceptional individuals in this book, each of whom made a hard call, including:

Henry Ford’s decision to sacrifice his company’s competitive edge by reducing the work day and guaranteeing a minimum wage;
Branch Rickey’s decision to offer Jackie Robinson a contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the face of public opposition;
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf ‘s decision to return to wartorn Liberia after receiving an economics degree from Harvard;
General Fred Weyand’s decision to redeploy fifteen of his battalions despite resistance from senior American military commanders in Vietnam.

Woven into these stories are John McCain’s own views on the process and art of decision-making and examples of the hard calls we face in our lives. “When I assess a decision,” McCain writes, “I want to know all I can about the character of the decision maker before I examine the properties of the decision, its outcome or how it was arrived at.”

Hard Call is a testament to the people whose choices serve as a beacon for us all.



Faith of My Fathers

Worth the Fighting For

Why Courage Matters

Character Is Destiny

For Roberta McCain and Lauralie Salter, assured and intelligent decision makers, whose example their sons have, with mixed success, tried to emulate


I knew a man who slept through the night. He had nearly reached the end. Wounded, starved, delirious, and exhausted, he commanded himself to consider his situation carefully. The sights and sounds of salvation beckoned him and must have quickened the impulse to run toward it. In the last few days of his journey, he worried that he was losing his mind. He was slipping in and out of consciousness. He had caught himself arguing loudly with a Sunday-school teacher from his childhood. Thanking God for getting him this far, he briefly mistook his own voice for another American's. Now, he had to summon all that remained of his wits, and his formidable courage, to make the most fateful decision of his life: to make one last dash now or to wait for daylight. His choice might win a hero's welcome or indefinite pain and suffering; the blessings of a wife and children or the cruelty of an angered enemy; freedom or captivity; life or death.

He chose to wait.

Two weeks earlier, on August 26, 1967, Air Force Major George "Bud" Day had been shot down and captured north of Vietnam's DMZ. He had broken his right arm in three places, painfully sprained his knee, and battered his face when he ejected from his F-100 fighter jet. The North Vietnamese who captured him had roughly set his fractures, fashioned a crude cast for his broken arm, bound his ankles together, and put him in a hole in the ground until he could be transported north. Tough old bird that he was, Bud decided to go home instead. Late in his first night of captivity, he freed himself from the ropes, crawled out of his hole, and quietly began his trek to the other side of the DMZ and an American airfield, twenty miles or so to the south.

Over the next two weeks, he traveled at night and slept when he could during the day. He waded through rice paddies, dragged himself across jungle floors, climbed hills, crossed rivers, wandered in circles under dense jungle canopy, narrowly evaded recapture, and, once, risked exposing himself to enemy fire while floating down the Ben Hai River on two pieces of bamboo. He subsisted on dew and rainwater, a handful of berries now and then, and a couple of live frogs he swallowed out of desperation. He became ill, unable at one point to keep water down. He burned with fever. But he was tougher than most men, and braver. And he kept moving south.

Finally, near the end of the thirteenth day of his escape, he came to rest within a mile of a forward American air base. He watched helicopters and aircraft take off and land, signaled one or two unsuccessfully, and fought the impulse to run toward his countrymen as fast as a starving, half-dead man with a bum knee and a broken arm could. But he restrained himself. Given his condition and the powerful temptation posed by the prospect of imminent rescue from his miseries, his restraint strikes me as almost as superhuman as the astonishing feat of endurance and guts that had brought him so close to salvation. Of course, as I would soon come to know, Bud Day is no ordinary man.

He had the presence of mind and discipline in the most trying of circumstances to weigh the risks of hurried action. He assumed that the perimeter of the airfield was mined. And he worried that in the dark, a limping, crooked, sun-darkened scarecrow of a man hastily making his way toward the base might be mistaken for someone other than an American pilot by a wary sentry with a loaded M-1 and an aversion to taking chances. So, he concluded that he would wait for daylight to make his approach, and he lay down in the jungle for one last night.

It was a sound decision. It might have been the right one. The perimeter was likely mined, and he very well could have been mistaken for the enemy and fired upon. It was certainly a difficult decision, though. So much was at stake, and there were so many unknowns on which to base a truly existential decision. It was a very hard call.

He had made the decision not knowing if time would prove him right or wrong, not knowing anything for certain. Would he be captured in the night? Would he be alive in the morning? He knew only that he had exercised the discipline necessary to make the best decision he could. Cowardice had not restrained him, informed caution had—that and courage, the courage to endure another night of terror and suffering. He was aware of his situation, its risks and rewards. He had weighed his prospects as judiciously as time and circumstances allowed. And he chose well.

He had chosen well from the beginning of his odyssey to its end. When almost any other man in his condition would have rejected the idea of escape as impossible, he had risked it. Not rashly or mistakenly—he had assessed his circumstances correctly. He had not been tightly bound. He had not been kept in a cell but in a shallow, underground shelter. Perhaps, because his captors had not imagined that a man in his shape could manage an escape attempt, he hadn't been closely guarded. He was familiar with the terrain, and he had known the direction and distance to safety. He had had the cover of darkness.

He had believed in the mission. He had had confidence in his ability to accomplish it, not an irrational confidence born of conceit. He had known he had courage and stamina sufficient to overcome his injuries. He had known the time was right. His physical condition would decline with every day of captivity, and soon he would be taken north to prison. He did not act for himself alone, but for his family, to whom he wished to return. He was inspired by his duty to them and to the military code that exhorted captured Americans to escape if possible. He could see it was possible, when others would have seen the contrary.

His last decision, too, was a question of timing. Was it better to risk friendly fire and tripping a mine in the dark or to risk capture? He made a sound, informed, and hard decision that the risks of the former were greater than those of the latter. He would wait.

He had earned his freedom, fought for it, like no other man I have ever known. He should have had it.

As it turned out, he was to wait nearly six years for the freedom he had nearly grasped that night. He had risen with the dawn and made his way toward the base. In the open, several yards from the last jungle between him and safety, he was spotted by two North Vietnamese soldiers. They shouted at him to stop. He made a run for cover, and just before he reached it a bullet to his left leg brought him down. He hid in the bush as best he could. He lay still, trying not to breathe or groan from the pain, his heartbeat the only sound. He listened as his enemies tore madly through the jungle, shouting and firing indiscriminately. He lay still as one of them drew almost near enough to touch him but for a moment still could not see or hear him. And then he did.

They tortured Bud for his heroism on the long ride to Hanoi. They tortured him even more cruelly once he arrived at the dark, daunting, and dangerous prison they called Hoa Lo, the "fiery furnace." Torture could change a man forever. But it didn't change him. He was as tough, as brave, and as confident the day he left captivity as he had been the day he had almost escaped it.

He had made a sound decision, in a crucible few people ever encounter. It had probably been the right one. But it had not worked out as he had hoped. That was his misfortune, and he was man enough to accept it without crippling regret.

As unfortunate as his capture was for Bud, it was salvation for many others. Few leaders in Vietnam's prisoner-of-war camps were as honorable, brave, and inspiring as he was. The courage of his heroic escape attempt was recognized by a Medal of Honor, which was also given him for the trials he so bravely endured on behalf of all of us in the long years ahead. Included in the credit he can always claim is my life. But for Bud Day and his misfortune, I do not I think I would have ever left that prison. But that is another story.

I tell this part of Bud's story because it involved such a fateful and admirable decision. In the time I shared his circumstances, I would see him make other hard and, sometimes, life-risking decisions, and in my judgment they were usually the right ones. But I think this one, a decision with everything on the line, revealed all the attributes I most respect about good decision making and exemplary decision makers. It is one of the rare instances when the assessment of the quality of the decision doesn't depend most, or even much, on its outcome. The proof isn't always in the pudding, but it is often enough that we have come to accept that maxim as gospel. Not in this case. Part of the reason for that is that we can never know for certain whether, had he chosen the other course, he would be alive to tell the tale. But more, it is because in the direst circumstances, suffering physically and mentally from extraordinary hardships, with no counsel, no assistance of any kind, utterly on his own, with his emotions in tumult, he managed to think clearly and carefully about his choice and make a sober, considered judgment. He committed himself to it, checked what was surely a hypercharged survival instinct, and went to sleep.

He was as aware of his situation, the environment in which he must make a decision, as was possible. He knew the terrain. He knew how to navigate it. He understood the risks and the opportunities. He believed he had the necessary resources—in this case, his own fortitude—to achieve his objective. He had taken the measure of his enemies, understood as much as he could about their methods and resources. He appreciated the potential for catastrophic mishap when an eighteen-year-old sentry is startled in the dark.

He had known when the right moment was at hand to slip his ropes, having sensed that it would soon pass. And when he made his final decision, he sensed that the moment for his last effort had not arrived.

He had foresight. He could see the possible where most others would have seen disaster and hopelessness.

His foresight, as foresight often is, was rooted in his confidence. Conceit is often mistaken for confidence. His was an instinct honed from years of experience and preparation. He was sure of himself, but it wasn't vanity that made him so. He trusted his strength and practical sense. It had always served him well. Vietnam was his third war, and this hadn't been his first existential decision. He compensated for his weakness, his desperation. And he trusted he had the courage to stick it out.

He acted with humility. He did not risk everything to avoid imprisonment and worse for his own sake but for that of the family he loved well, and who needed him.

And, finally, he had been inspired, beckoned by duty and an officer's sense of honor.

I have long believed these—awareness, foresight, timing, confidence, humility, and inspiration—are the qualities typically represented in the best decisions and in the characters of those who make them. What follows is a tribute to those qualities and to people who possessed them in character and action.

The stories in this book were chosen because they illuminate at least one of these qualities. Indeed, as in Bud Day's decision, many of them possess all the aforementioned attributes. But our purpose with each story is to focus on just one and to learn by example, if not how to make a difficult decision, then how to judge one after—and, pos-sibly, before—it is made, to see if it can claim these qualities, which seem common to the best decisions.

We have not sought to provide a procedural formula for difficult decision making, such as Benjamin Franklin offered his friend, the British scientist Joseph Priestly. Write two columns on a piece of paper, he advised, listing the pros and the cons of a given course of action, and add items to each over time as they occur to you. Often the hardest decisions must be made without benefit of time to examine every possible consequence. Ideally, if we foresee that such a decision will eventually confront us, we can undertake an elaborate analysis before the moment for action arrives. But that is not always possible. Sometimes we must grasp the situation immediately or in a very short period of time, which allows only the most cursory review of our options and their potential outcomes.

We must prepare ourselves, of course, for such eventualities, by learning all we can about the situations in which we bear responsibility. We must understand, to the best of our ability, the people involved, with us and against us. We must know ourselves, our own strengths and weaknesses, and how best to employ the former and compensate for the latter. We must remember, almost instinctively, the lessons we have learned from earlier decisions, both those that succeeded and those that did not. And we must learn to act when necessary, no matter how challenging the obstacles, and to wait when caution is appropriate, no matter how urgently we feel the need to proceed.

But procedures for decision making will always vary, depending on the circumstances and our qualities. We all have our idiosyncrasies, the values, habits, instincts, cares, and superstitions—accumulated throughout our lives—that influence our judgment. When I assess a decision, I want to know all I can about the character of the decision maker before I examine the properties of the decision, its outcome, or how it was arrived at. When General Eisenhower alone gave the signal to launch the invasion of Europe, he wrote a statement claiming all blame should it fail and giving all credit for success to the courage and resourcefulness of his soldiers. That tells us a lot about Eisen-hower's character and offers evidence of the quality of his decision that is as important as the factors or procedures he used to make it. That he accepted his enormous responsibility so honorably, and with such gravity, suggests that it was made with great care and with humility. It seems obvious that who decides is as important as what is decided.

In the end, it is always character that most moves history, for good or ill.

I cannot offer a several-step, how-to-make-a-great-decision plan for beginners. I would be hard pressed to provide a cogent description of how I make decisions. The ways I have arrived at important decisions, both right and wrong ones, have varied over the years. I hope this has resulted in a progressively better approach. But I have blundered often enough in recent years to forswear such a boast.

My life has been blessed with the good company of many people of exemplary character and sound reason, who made hard calls with courage and humility. I have learned from their examples. If I fail to heed those lessons when making an important decision, the fault doesn't lie with the stars, but with my own deficiencies. When I have done well it is because I have had the best teachers, whose examples made a hard call clearer to me and, in some instances, easier to make.

I knew a man who slept through the night, when everything hung in the balance. He would accept whatever the day brought, whether it be joy or sorrow. He had done his best and had taken his rest. And that, my friends, is all that is required of any of us.


Naval aviators claim to have invented the term "situational awareness" to describe an aviator's comprehension of the tactical situation he encounters when flying a mission—how well he keeps track of everything that is happening or likely to happen around him. Where is he in formation? Where is the ground? How close is he to the target? What's his fuel level? How is his aircraft performing? Are his avionics functioning correctly? Are weather conditions hampering the operation and increasing its risks? Where is the enemy, or where is he likely to be? What are the scope, location, and range of the enemy's air defenses? Is he evaluating new information he perceives or that is communicated to him and altering his expectations accordingly? These are but a few of the scores of variables he must keep track of to increase the likelihood of his mission's success.

There are more subjective judgments involved in the decisions he must make during his mission. How good a pilot is he? How good are the other pilots in his squadron? How experienced are they? How fatigued? How good is the enemy? How experienced? How stressed? What personality attributes of his or his squadron mates might affect his judgment? Is he steady under pressure? Are they? Is he brave enough? Does flying seem natural to him, or is it a complex and exacting chore that makes him anxious and distracts him from the achievement of his mission? Is he the overconfident type? Do the other fliers' reactions to the situation, the weaknesses and strengths of their personalities, cause him to take risks he shouldn't or to elude his responsibilities? Is he so gung ho or so flushed with adrenaline that he is heedless of increasing danger? Is he the type who, when he hears the tone that warns him the enemy's weapon system has locked onto him, keeps barreling in on his target, or does he take immediate evasive maneuvers? He must understand and try to compensate for all these variables as he makes decisions that will affect the outcome of the mission and, perhaps, determine whether he lives or dies.

That's what they taught me in aviation school anyway. And personal experiences reinforced the lesson. On my last combat mission in Vietnam, having survived several mishaps that could have but did not cost me my life, I wasn't as acutely aware of the danger to my own well-being that the mission entailed. Instead of interpreting my previous experiences as evidence that things can and often will go wrong when flying, particularly in dangerous and stressful conditions—an awareness that should have made me more heedful of the danger—I had developed a false sense of my own invulnerability. And that characteristic of my ego, which I felt no need to check, discounted the danger I personally faced. I placed too much faith on what was beyond my knowledge or control: luck. And my luck ran out that day. When I heard the warning tone that an enemy SAM battery had locked onto me, I was moments away from dropping my bombs on target. I thought I had enough time to do my job and still evade the missile I knew would probably be coming my way. I also allowed my desire to get the hell away from Hanoi, which, thanks to Soviet assistance, had become the most heavily air-defended city in history, to encourage me to strike first and evade second. I didn't want to come back for a second run. I had five and a half very long years to regret my decision and the lapse in self-awareness that prevented me from recognizing the cockiness that had blinded me to one of the immutable principles of war and life: luck is unreliable.

Obviously, not every important decision involves stakes that are so consequential. But gaining the most acute awareness of both the objective and subjective circumstances in which you make a decision, in the time allotted for making it, increases the quality of every decision. The first question you need to answer is: What are the stakes involved? What is at risk and how much is it at risk by your decision? If the stakes are grave—life or death, the success or failure of an important enterprise, the well-being or peril of a loved one—you will proceed cautiously and expend every effort and every last second to gather relevant information before you decide. If your object would be irretrievably lost by the wrong decision, you will feel that burden even more. If the stakes are not so grave, or if you know you will have time to compensate for a bad decision, then you might have the space to consider bolder action—one that might carry a greater risk of failure but will achieve more significant success if it proves to be right. Of course, sometimes circumstances are so dire that only a bold decision can rescue you from them. If that's the case, good luck. You're going to need a lot of it, and a lot of courage. Perhaps you are not required to make any decision at all but have glimpsed an opportunity to advance a particular interest. Do you know what it could cost you? Is it worth the risk? Are you confident you understand the environment, so that your gamble is more than an expression of your desires, that it has a decent chance to succeed?

Time is the second consideration. When does the problem become unsolvable? When will the opportunity pass? Will you have another opportunity to recover from the wrong decision? What is the last moment you have to decide, and do the chances of success diminish or increase by waiting? Is patience a virtue or a risk? How much time do you have to think and to discuss it with others? Is more information attainable in any realistic time frame? Are you required to make a decision on the spot? If so, then you answer the third critical question.

Are you prepared for the decision? Do you know your business? Have you already gained the knowledge to make the call? Do you know what you don't know? Have you trained to follow an urgent-decision protocol that can be executed in the time available? Are you experienced in making right decisions on the spot or at length in an environment like the one you now confront, with the same players involved and similar risks and rewards at stake? If the situation involves human opponents, do you know how prepared or experienced they are? Do they know what they don't know? Are you reasonably sure you have the means to execute the decision? Does it matter? Are there other people with more experience and better preparation to whom you can turn for advice?

If you have more time to make a decision, then you must make yourself more aware. You can gather more information, consult a wider circle of advisers, study your situation and review similar decisions, seek answers to questions you know are pertinent, and identify questions that aren't immediately apparent.

Fourth, do you have confidence, an informed confidence, that the information you are using to make the decision is reliable? Are your assumptions no more than groupthink, conventional interpretations of situations that may differ in important, perhaps unknown ways from the one you are currently in or that have not been reassessed in light of incoming information? Or are they based on observations of the specific situation? Have you weighed conflicting evidence and come to a sound conclusion as to which is more accurate? The answer to these questions may well rely on personal knowledge you possess about the sources of that information. Has the source been reliable in the past? Is it experienced with providing such information? If it is human intelligence on which you rely, what are your sources' qualifications for locating and evaluating relevant information? What are their motives? Could they have hidden motives? Have they given you reason in the past to doubt their judgment? Do they have the ability to separate the important from the extraneous? Do they understand your needs? Do they see the situation in the same way or differently than you do? Do you know why? Remember, garbage in, garbage out, as computer programmers say. False information is often perpetuated and will lead you to not only one bad decision but possibly several if it forms the premise of your strategic thinking and is not exposed as false in good time.

A large part of the reason the United States invaded Iraq was our confidence that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was making significant progress in developing nuclear weapons. That confidence was in part based on information from previously unreliable or questionable sources. Part of it was based on the comfort we took from the fact that the intelligence services of many other countries shared that assumption. Leave aside the question of whether we would have invaded had we known the true state of his weapons programs: some have argued we shouldn't have; others, myself included, argued that Saddam still posed a threat that was best to address sooner rather than later. I mention this issue only to illustrate how false information perpetuated other mistakes. Soon after the invasion, we devoted time and manpower and the priority concentration of our civilian leadership to efforts to scour Iraq for weapons that weren't there, when it would have been far better to concentrate our efforts and our soldiers on more critically important tasks, such as securing conventional arms depots and dealing with the pockets of resistance we left behind in the race to Baghdad. The political and military mistakes we have made in Iraq offer a variety of examples of insufficient awareness. Books, rather large ones, have been written to cover them all. An important part of awareness is anticipating the decisions you will have to make if your initial decision proves successful. For instance, we were well aware of the quality of the Iraqi army, the conditions we would fight in, the stability of the regime we sought to destroy, even the character of the tyrant we deposed. We designed a force and an operational plan to dispense with them quickly. But we did not plan for or have the force ready to deal with our success. We didn't know what would happen in Iraq if we achieved our initial objective by the means we employed, and we were very slow in realizing what was needed when it did happen. That proved to be a very serious and tragic mistake.

The last and indispensable component of awareness is the most subjective: personal knowledge of the people involved in and affected by your decision. And the most important part of that equation is self-awareness. Are you better at seeing the big picture and less adept at gathering and evaluating details? Are there people around you to compensate for that? Are you patient? Impulsive? Are you intimidated by a lack of consensus among your advisors? Are you dismissive of dissent? Do you have a tendency to focus on finding support for a judgment you have already made and to discount contradictory evidence? Once you've made up your mind, are you intent on moving on? Or will you change your mind even late in the game, if other facts come to light? Are you too prone to doubts? Or are you the kind of person whose treasured hopes have in the past trumped lessons learned from hard experience? What are your most common mistakes? Do you work well under pressure, or are you much better when you have time to wait on more information, on additional help, or for events to become clearer? Have your instincts served you well in the past? If so, do you trust them more than contradictory facts or the advice of experienced counselors? Most important, do you know these things about yourself? What have you done to compensate for them? Have you a team designed, at least in part, to compensate for your shortcomings? These are but a few of the many personal questions that have to be answered before making an informed decision. And they should be asked and answered before you are confronted with the need to make a decision.

What do you do when a routine checkup leads to an unfortunate diagnosis and you are confronted with choosing between two or more forms of treatment? Do you simply ask the doctor for his or her advice and give your assent to the decision? Do you know your doctor well enough? Is your trust based on anything more than familiarity and amiability? If your doctor is not qualified to make that recommendation, he or she will likely send you to someone who is. Have you sought additional opinions? Have you searched for information about the nature of your disease? What are the rates of success for each proposed treatment? Do you know how much time you have before your situation becomes so acute that it limits your options? Do you understand the nature of the proposed treatments? Do you know enough about yourself to know if you can withstand mentally and physically some treatments better than others? If surgery is required, have you taken care to find the best surgeon available? Have you chosen a hospital that is well regarded for the kind of surgery or treatment you need?


On Sale
Feb 29, 2008
Page Count
480 pages

John McCain

About the Author

John McCain was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 and was named one of America’s ten best Senators by Time magazine in 2006. During his military career he received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, and a Distinguished Flying Cross. His wife, Cindy, lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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