If I had ignored the less important conventions of the Academy, I was careful not to defame its more compelling traditions: the veneration of courage and resilience; the honor code that simply assumed your fidelity to its principles; the homage paid to men who had sacrificed greatly for their country; the expectation that you, too, would prove worthy of your country's trust.
Appearances to the contrary, it was never my intention to mock a revered culture that expected better of me. Like any other midshipman, I had wanted to prove my mettle to my contemporaries, and to the institution that figured so prominently in my family history. My idiosyncratic methods, if you can call them that, amounted to little more than imaginative expressions of the truculence I had used at other schools and in other circumstances to fend off what I had identified, often wrongly, as attacks upon my dignity.
The Academy, despite the irritating customs of plebe year and the encumbrances it placed on the individualist, was not interested in degrading my dignity. On the contrary, it had a more expansive conception of human dignity than I possessed when I arrived at its gates. The most important lesson I learned there was that to sustain my self-respect for a lifetime it would be necessary for me to have the honor of serving something greater than my self-interest.
When I left the Academy, I was not even aware I had learned that lesson. In a later crisis, I would suffer a genuine and ruthless attack on my dignity, an attack that, unlike the affronts I had exaggerated as a boy, left me desperate and uncertain. It was then I would recall, awakened by the example of men who shared my circumstances, the lesson that the Naval Academy in its antique way had labored to impress upon me. It changed my life forever.
Excerpted from Faith of My Fathers by John McCain with Mark Salter. Copyright© 1999 by John McCain. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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