FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail