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For Whom the Bell Tolls: War, Peace and John McCain

A firestorm of controversy swirled around Senator John McCain as he struggled with a form of brain cancer that is almost always fatal. I don’t think that any other public figure has had as much attention about their public and private  life as the senator from Arizona. One commentary on the left about him featured a photographic still from the Wizard of Oz with a munchkin holding up a sign celebrating the death of the wicked witch (“Why You Should Celebrate Loudly And Unapologetically When John McCain Dies,” Greanville Post, May 8, 2018). Is that how far some have come on the left in denying the basic humanity of someone who is dying? The English poet John Donne’s words from “For Whom the Bell Tolls” come to mind: “They toll for thee.”

Those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War and were in the military have views about issues of war and peace that can be seen on a continuum from pacifism to extreme militarism, and every possible view in-between those two poles.

An article in the Guardian (“‘John McCain is not fighting a losing battle’: a senator defends his legacy,” May 12, 2018), towed a common line in terms of the senator’s record and did not mention the Vietnam War in detail, where McCain took part in Operation Rolling Thunder as a navy fighter pilot. Recall that more bomb tonnage was dropped on Vietnam than during the whole of World War II and masses of civilians were killed: 3 million people being about the most reliable estimate. There were many innocent civilians among those millions of people who were protected by the Geneva Convention that prohibited such mass killing that is now euphemistically sometimes called collateral damage. We, as a nation, are good coming up with euphemisms about war.

Vietnam was a war about unthinking opposition to communism, the right of a nation to self-determination and nationalism, empire, and was thick with a disdain for the entire Vietnamese people. The taunts of “gook” and “Charlie” come to mind.

John McCain was mercilessly tortured by the North Vietnamese after his plane went down over the north and he was held and tormented for over five years. The senator became a fierce opponent of torture, but remained a supporter of US wars that often lead to torture. He opposes Gina Haspel for torturer-in-chief of the CIA, but war has given us that free rein of torture.  Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition come to mind. Attacks by a Trump (who did not break a sweat over the Vietnam War) administration adviser sought to cynically dismiss the senator’s suffering. The latter in itself tells much about the moronic makeup and callousness of this president and his administration. He is not even smart enough to keep his ignorant mouth shut in the face of dying. Prisoners of war have absolute protections under the Geneva Conventions, and John McCain was given none of those. As part of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War and a war resister, I recall the recklessness of some in the antiwar movement who lionized and romanticized the government of North Vietnam and completely ignored some of the actions that that government carried out. Perhaps it was immaturity and perhaps it was ignorance? The North was fighting to reunify a country arbitrarily cut up by the West after World War II. Self-defense, however, does not give a fighting force and a government the absolute right to ignore the rights of noncombatants. The US and its allies in Vietnam certainly ignored the rules of war there. Empire seems to give many a carte blanche to murder and torture and ignore both national and international law.

As the controversy around Senator McCain swirled, I wondered what a face to face encounter with him would be like, but face to face meetings with senators rarely take place. He rebuffed efforts by the peace movement during the Vietnam War to meet with him during his captivity. I would like to ask the senator what constitutes a just war and a just cause. Has there ever been a just war? The historian Howard Zinn categorized the war in which he flew over Europe in the 1940s as a just cause, but certainly not a just war.

In 2010, at the end of the work day while completing the US Census, I met a Vietnam Veteran who had suffered the horrific effects of having been exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange during the war. He was dying and had fought a long battle to get veterans’ benefits for his illness. We sat and talked on his porch in rural Massachusetts after I finished the work with him on the census. He said that he had learned much about the issues surrounding the war and he could now see that there was much wrong about the war. When I asked him how he felt about war resisters who had moved to Canada to seek sanctuary during the war, he said that he could see himself standing at the Canadian border with a rifle and shooting at them.

It shocks me that such levels of animosity remain from that war. As a veteran and war resister and protester against much of US domestic and foreign policy over many decades, I cannot personally hold on to such rancor. It solves nothing and takes away the common denominator of humanity that gives rise to war in the first place. There must be a common ground on which those with opposing views and actions can meet. Without that commonality we lose our humanity and perhaps our world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. framed the argument of meeting one’s enemies or opponents as human beings, but he was assassinated by the same forces of hate that drove those human beings outside of the limits of their humanity to acts of vicious violence and terrorism. And it was on the issues of war and peace that he became a marked man.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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