Patriotism is often about believing not thinking. It appeals especially to people who would rather be told what to believe than to think for themselves. For far too many Americans, believing is seeing, i.e., they only see what they believe. Reflection, curiosity, introspection, questioning their political and religious authorities, and considering contrary evidence never make it past the walled-up certainty of belief guarding their emotional security. They are easily manipulated by political leaders who hide lawless international and discriminatory domestic policies behind ethnocentric beliefs: like, “America is the greatest nation in the world,” and has a divine mission to spread its God-given “freedom and democracy to the darkest corners of the world.” Rubber stamp these beliefs with “God bless America” and the ethnocentric and imperialistic masquerade is complete. Such is the blind patriotism driving much of the 2008 presidential campaign. A self-deceiving and potentially self-destructive patriotism that threatens the very security of America.
Enter Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain. Various polls reveal that a majority of voters believe he is the most qualified to be commander-in-chief. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that McCain had “a striking . . .advantage as commander-in-chief . . . albeit perhaps not surprising given his military background.” According to the poll, “Seventy-two percent of Americans—even most Democrats—say he’d be a good commander-in-chief of the military. By contrast, fewer than half, 48 percent, say Obama would be a good commander-in-chief.” 1
A Gallup poll found that many Americans believe Senator McCain is especially qualified to be commander-in-chief. The poll reported, “John McCain’s life experience has earned him a solid national reputation as someone who can serve as the nation’s commander-in-chief, with 80% saying he can handle the responsibilities of this important role. Barack Obama,” the report continued, “lags well behind on the same measure, but does pass the 50% public confidence threshold.” 2
A USA TODAY/Gallup poll disclosed that Senator McCain’s military experience greatly impresses many Americans. The poll’s findings: “McCain is rated more highly than Obama in just one of 10 categories—as a ‘strong and decisive leader.’” He “remains competitive, both because of trust in his ability to keep the country safe and questions about Obama. The sole issue on which McCain clearly is favored is terrorism…. He’s also seen as better able to make decisions on security issues.” 3 McCain’s extensive Senate experience with defense issues and his military service, especially his 5 ½ years as a Vietnam prisoner of war, are believed to make him “stronger and tougher . . . more decisive . . . more capable on hard-edged problems like Iraq, terrorism and guns . . . [with] “Whites . . . prefer[ing] him by 2-to-1 for keeping the country safe.” 4
Not surprisingly, a majority of White evangelical Christians, who supported the Bush Administration’s criminal pre-emptive invasion and occupation of Iraq, strongly favor Senator McCain as “commander-in-chief.” In June, an AP-Yahoo News poll found that people who attend church at least once a week support Republican McCain over Obama, 49 percent to 37 percent.” The poll also revealed that “those who attend church less often tend to favor Obama.” And, “White evangelical Christians who attend church weekly favor McCain by huge margins.” 5
As the hymn goes, “Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before.” Blind faith prostituting the cross by turning it from a symbol of Jewish liberation from Roman occupation into a symbol of Christian conquest and conversion. Blind faith and blind patriotism: two sides of the same ethnocentric/imperialistic coin.
“Stronger and tougher?” On November 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, Chair of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen and Women and sister of an Air Force Academy graduate missing in Vietnam since 1967, testified at a public hearing of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, the hearing recorded by and a tape obtained from C-SPAN. Committee member Senator McCain laid in wait for her, and would bring her to tears.
Mrs. Alfond began on a challenging note:
Senators, it has not gone unnoticed by the POW/MIA family members that it has taken 11 months for the Select Committee to even give a cursory hearing or quasi-review of the evidence of thousands of Americans who fought in World War II and the Korean War and the Cold War, who were abandoned, with the exception of the excellent efforts and the chronology of documents on the Korean War released yesterday by Senator Smith.
The only Committee member present for Mrs. Alfond’s testimony was Senator Bob Smith (R-NH), Vice Chair of the 12-member Select Committee, which was comprised of six Republican and six Democrat senators—with the Chair, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), leaving the hearing before Mrs. Alfond’s testimony. The presence of only Smith was noted and lamented by Alfond, who assumed that the absence of the eleven other senators may suggest a lack of commitment.
Mrs. Alfond repeatedly used the word “abandoned” to define the US government’s policy toward those missing in the above wars and in the Vietnam war:
The simple act of asking for live POWs now held by the Vietnamese has never been done by the US government, because to ask for these POWs is to tacitly acknowledge the US government knows they are alive. This is exactly the point: that the Committee has worked so hard to deny that any live US prisoners have been held since they were abandoned in 1973 [giving examples to substantiate her point]. . . . The National Alliance of Families believes that your Committee has discredited or concealed particularly persuasive information that shows US POWs are being held in Southeast Asia.
Mrs. Alfond repeatedly expressed her concern that the Committee would soon end its work. She said, “For the Select Committee . . . to pretend it can write the final chapter on the POW/MIA issue [without viewing all the relevant documents it has requested] would be a sham. She ended, as she began, with a challenge:
I have one final point. It is the view of the National Alliance of Families that there is no way in God’s green earth that the Select Committee can finish its job, close its doors and write its report by Christmas and do justice to the Committee’s charter or to the remaining questions on the POW/MIA issue. (Audience applause.)
Shortly after Mrs. Alfond completed her testimony, Senator John McCain entered the hearing room, sat next to Vice Chair Senator Smith, and soon began a “stronger and tougher” rebuttal:
As with several other issues you are misinformed, Mrs. Alfond. . . . So for you to somehow allege members of the Committee are ready to shut down, of course, is incorrect. [when Alfond tried to respond, McCain, pointing a finger at her, said] I want to finish, Mrs. Alfond. Don’t interrupt me like you did Senator Smith. Ah, ah. So for you to allege that, along with many other allegations that you made that are patently and totally false deceptions to the American people, especially, especially your allegation that what was achieved by the recent agreement with the Vietnamese as being a fiasco, etc. etc., and you were quoted in the media, ah, is of course patently false as well.
Mrs. Alfond again tried to respond to Senator McCain’s derisive attack, which led him to more bullying: “Now, I’d like to finish, Mrs. Alfond. I’d like you to direct the witness to let me finish, Mr. Chairman. . . .
A “stronger and tougher” self-contradictory and projecting Senator McCain continued:
And I don’t denigrate your efforts and your patriotism and your beliefs. And I’m sick and tired of you denigrating mine and many other people who have different views than yours. And now I’m finished, Mr. Chairman.
But a “stronger and tougher” and really projecting Senator McCain was not finished. After having interrupted Mrs. Alfond, he said:
Mr. Chairman, could I point out again, one more point again? The reason I obviously appear upset [italics added] is because I have respected the views and the openness of those who are in disagreement on ways to approach this issue—on information we have and evaluation of it. But, [italics added] I have not denigrated their character, their patriotism, or anything else, . . . And I would urge, no matter what happens with this issue, or the Committee, that we finally lift this issue up to some degree, respectfully disagree with one another over certain specifics. . . . But let’s show a little respect when we have differing views. And that way I think we will much easier accomplish the goals that all of us seek. . . . Let’s stop tearing people down who have disagreements on specifics of this issue, and work together to get it resolved. [No applause] Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
But a “stronger and tougher” and still projecting Senator McCain, now holding Mrs. Alfond’s written report, was not finished:
May I say, Mr. Chairman, that Mrs. Alfond’s remarks in her written statement are far stronger than she just alleged. Quote: “The recent four thousand, eight hundred photographs of cases is yet another example of Committee duplicity.” I’d like you to tell that to some of the families who have finally had their nightmare [it appears at this point that Senator McCain pronounced a word that began with the letter f and it was bleeped]`ended, Mrs. Alfond. I’d like you to . . . .
A, at times, tearful Mrs. Alfond interrupted: “I’ve been speaking to them, sir.”
“No,” interrupted Senator McCain, continuing:
I’ve been talking to them and they are grateful and they are happy, and this is, in the view of experts, a significant breakthrough. Now, when you, youse (sic) call it a fiasco and committee duplicity, then you and I have strong disagreement, Mrs. Alfond.
Then came the climax:
Mrs. Alfond: Sir, it was not the fiasco of the four or whatever remains came back or information on remains. The fiasco was the people who stood out and said, “We have written the end, the final chapter of Vietnam.”
Senator McCain:(interrupting) No one said that.
Alfond: That was in the statement the first day: “The final chapter is coming to an end.” And we have not even come close to the final chapter of Vietnam, World War II, Korea or the Cold War. (Audience whooping and clapping, and McCain staring angrily.)
McCain: No one said what you are saying they said, Mrs. Alfond. I have no more questions.
Senator McCain abruptly rose from his seat, spun his chair under the head table and angrily walked out of the hearing-to the verbal disapproval of audience members. 6
The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs ended it work on January 2, 1993, and issued a final report on January 13, 1993.
Why did Senator McCain allow himself to “obviously appear upset” with Dolores Alfond’s testimony? On April 25, 2000, an extensive article called, “The War Secrets Senator John McCain Hides: Former POW Fights Public Access to POW/MIA Files,” by Sydney Schanberg, editor of ABPnews.com’s investigative unit, focused on widespread bewilderment about McCain. Schanberg is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1975 reporting on the upheaval in Cambodia and author of a best-selling book on which the Academy Award-winning movie, “The Killing Fields,” was based. His article is believed to provide an important context for understanding the “stronger and tougher” McCain who showed up at the 1992 hearing. Schanberg wrote:
Since McCain himself, a downed Navy pilot, was a prisoner in Hanoi for 5 ½ years, his staunch resistance to laying open the POW/MIA records has baffled colleagues and others who have followed his career. Critics say his anti-disclosure campaign, in close cooperation with the Pentagon and the intelligence community, has been successful. Literally thousands of documents that would otherwise have been declassified long ago have been legislated into secrecy.
Regarding the “prisoners left behind,” Mr. Schanberg supports critical parts of Mrs. Alfond’s testimony, and goes on to report the speculation of others regarding Senator McCain:
A smaller number of former POWs, MIA families and veterans have suggested there is something especially damning about McCain that the Senator wants to keep hidden. Without release of the files, such accusations must be viewed as unsubstantiated speculation. The main reason, however, for seeking these files is to find out if there is any information in the debriefings, or in the MIA documents that McCain and the Pentagon have kept sealed, about how many prisoners were held back by North Vietnam after the Paris peace treaty was signed in January 1973. The defense and intelligence establishment has long resisted the declassification of critical records on this subject. McCain has been the main Congressional force behind this effort.
Schanberg reported that in 2000 APBnews.com had been unsuccessful in obtaining from Senator McCain “his own POW records.”
Mr. Schanberg stated, “McCain stood out because he always showed up for the committee hearings where witnesses were going to talk about specific pieces of evidence. He would belittle and berate these witnesses, questioning their patriotism and otherwise scoffing at their credibility. All of this is in the record in the National Archives.” Schanberg also described McCain’s abusive treatment of Dolores Alfond. A condensed version of Schanberg’s article still appears on the National Alliance of Families website, “BITS ‘N’ PIECES May 6th 2000”
Sixteen years later, Mrs. Alfond was quoted on Senator McCain’s 2008 presidential candidacy: “ ‘ I wouldn’t think that he should be president. He’s very hot-tempered,’ . . . recall[ing] the rough treatment she received from McCain in 1992 during her appearance at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.”7
Senator McCain is “more decisive”? In 1999, when Senator McCain rose in the polls to potential presidential candidacy status, the Arizona Republic, his home state newspaper, published a front-page story and an editorial warning of his “volcanic temper.” The Washington Post quoted the editorial:
If McCain is truly a serious candidate for the presidency, it is time the rest of the nation learned about the John McCain we know in Arizona. There is also reason to seriously question whether he has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president of the United States.8
The Washington Post story quoted Senator McCain as saying, “ ‘Do I insult anybody or fly off the handle or anything like that? No, I don’t’ insisted McCain.” 9 A short fuse of a presidential candidate needing a short memory.
“Capable on hard-edged problems like Iraq, terrorism and guns”? At an April 18, 2007 town hall meeting in a VFW center in South Carolina, an audience member prefaced a question with, “It is well documented that we have for quite a long time known where the real problem is in the Middle East. Yeh, and in fact,” he continued, “the president adequately described it as the ‘Axis of Evil.’ . . . How many times do we have to prove that these people are blowing up people now never mind if they get a nuclear weapon.” His question: “When do we send them an airmail message to Tehran?” (Audience clapping and verbal approval) McCain responded, “You know that, that old Beach Boys song, “Bomb Iran’”—which elicited laughter. McCain then sang, to the tune of “Barbara Ann,” “Bomb bomb bomb bomb . . .,” ending with laughter which elicited greater laughter from his audience. 10
Senator McCain’s callousness is seen in the fact that bombs dropped on Iran would kill and wound countless women and children and older and younger persons, and lead to terrible suffering and counter attacks on the U.S. and its allies and more horrible suffering. Tragically, McCain’s “toughness” and “decisiveness” and obvious need of having power over people prevent him from seeing other persons as human beings with feelings and hopes and rights. How revealing! What makes him laugh would make countless other human beings cry—and die! His emotional instability and presidency could very well turn Iran into another Iraq.
Senator McCain’s more recent joke about Iran is his response to a question regarding a survey showing the increased imports of cigarettes to Iran: “Maybe that’s a way of killing them.” Evidently, with the help of his wife poking him, “he quickly caught himself, saying ‘I meant that as a joke.’” 11 “Maybe that is a way of killing them.” His preoccupation with killing Iranian people is frightening and forewarning of the destruction he could cause with his finger on the powerful “commander-in-chief” trigger.
“Capable on hard-edged problems like Iraq”? Senator McCain has been a “stronger” and “tougher” and “more decisive” supporter of the Bush Administration’s falsely based, unnecessary, immoral war against and occupation of Iraq. In fact, he has no issue with the United Sates staying a “100 years in Iraq.” 12 His need to delude himself and Americans about this unconscionable international crime against humanity led him to visit Iraq in 2007, during which he claimed there were neighborhoods in which he, and anyone, could safely walk. On April 5, 2007, NBC Nightly News showed him, at the time, walking through a marketplace wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by “100 American soldiers, with three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships overhead.”
Such insanity. Instead of starting fires and destroying homes in Iraq, America’s National Guard and other military should be putting out the fires destroying homes and land in California and elsewhere. What a commentary on “keeping the country safe”: Governor Schwarzenegger having to call in firefighters from Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” 13
Instead of forcing over four million Iraqi civilians to flee their homes and become refugees in response to the Bush administration’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the US military should have been at home sandbagging river banks in the Midwest, rescuing citizens, and providing recovery and redevelopment aid to those made refugees by flood waters.
Instead of fighting so-called “terrorists” abroad, US military should be fighting fires and floods and hurricanes and other disasters that terrorize Americans here.
Instead of using America’s wealth to destroy another country’s life-sustaining infrastructure, our government should be investing these resources in our nation’s own schools, health care, highways and bridges, public work projects, and energy research and development.
Instead of blind patriotism that justifies the killing of over 1.2 million Iraqi civilians and the sacrificing and maiming of tens of thousands of American lives, a different reality is needed about the war against Iraq: it is not about achieving “success” or “winning” or withdrawing with “honor” or even about the war being a “mistake” or “ill-conceived” or “not worth fighting.” It is about wrongdoing and repentance and restitution and impeachment proceedings and reconciliation.
Senator McCain’s military experience no more qualifies him to be “commander-in-chief” than a chronic heart patient’s experience qualifies him to be a cardiac surgeon.
It is not about believing is seeing but about seeing and doing “self-evident” truths. It is not just about “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but about a country founded and built on the bones of Native Americans and the backs of enslaved Africans. It is not about allegiance to a nation but about a nation’s allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” everywhere. It is not about “God bless America” but about America blessing all of its citizens “from sea to shining sea.” It is not about “America is the greatest nation in the world,” but about the world in which everyone is great. It is about everyone’s right to see for himself and herself.
Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain, and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. “McCain Tops Obama in Commander-in-Chief Test; Stays Competitive on Iraq,” Analysis by Gary Langer, ABC News, July 14, 2008.
2. “McCain vs. Obama as Commander-in-Chief,” by Lydia Saad, Gallup, June 25, 2008.
3. “Poll: Obama has edge over McCain,” by Susan Page, USA Today, June 22, 2008.
4. “McCain, Obama images take shape,” Associated Press, msnbc.com, July 7, 2008.
5. “Obama courts conservatives with new faith program,” by Jennifer Loven, Associated Press Writer, Yahoo1.News, July 1, 2008.
6. “Soviet Involvement with Vietnam POW/MIA’s,” hearing of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, C-SPAN, Nov. 11, 1992.
7. “Part 1: Could short fuse blow up McCain’s candidacy?,” Media General News Service, Feb. 15, 2008.
8. “McCain’s Temper May Become an Issue,” by Scott Thomsen, Associated Press Writer, Oct. 31, 1999.
10. “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb Iran,” YouTube, Added Apr. 19, 2007.
11. “McCain’s Latest Iran Joke,” by Michael D. Shear, washingtonpost.com, July 8, 2008.
12. “McCain Flip Flops Again: 100 Years in Iraq ‘Would Be Fine With Me,’ Even a Million Years,” by Matt, Think Progress, Jan. 4, 2008; “McCain defends ‘100 years in Iraq’ statement,” CNN Politics.com, Feb. 15, 2008.
13. “Governor Schwarzenegger Calls Up Additional 2,000 National Guard Troops to Help in State’s Firefighting Effort,” Press Release, Office of the Governor, July 11, 2008.