FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

June 26, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The U.S.-Iran Imbroglio: Dangerous Lessons To Be Learned
Paul Street
Reflections and Correspondence at the Abyss
John Laforge
Trump’s Ministry of No Information
Paul Edwards
Fool Me Twice
Rob Hager
Warren and Sanders: Compare and Contrast
John Steppling
The Monkey’s Face
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A World of Shadows
Jaspal Kaur Sadhu Singh
Correcting a Colonial Injustice: The Return of the Chagos Islands to Its Natives
Binoy Kampmark
Violent Voyeurism: Surveillance, Spyware and Human Rights
Jonah Raskin
Reflections on Abbie Hoffman and Joshua Furst’s Novel, Revolutionaries
Dave Chapman
The Hydroponic Threat to Organic Food
June 25, 2019
Rannie Amiri
Instigators of a Persian Gulf Crisis
Patrick Cockburn
Trump May Already be in Too Deep to Avoid War With Iran
Paul Tritschler
Hopeful Things
John Feffer
Deep Fakes: Will AI Swing the 2020 Election?
Binoy Kampmark
Bill Clinton in Kosovo
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Japanese Conjuncture
Edward Hunt
Is Mexico Winding Down or Winding up the Drug War?
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump’s Return to Full-Spectrum Dominance
Steve Kelly
Greed and Politics Should Not Drive Forest Policy
Stephen Carpa
Protecting the Great Burn
Colin Todhunter
‘Modified’: A Film About GMOs and the Corruption of the Food Supply for Profit
Martin Billheimer
The Gothic and the Idea of a ‘Real Elite’
Elliot Sperber
Send ICE to Hanford
June 24, 2019
Jim Kavanagh
Eve of Destruction: Iran Strikes Back
Nino Pagliccia
Sorting Out Reality From Fiction About Venezuela
Jeff Sher
Pickin’ and Choosin’ the Winners and Losers of Climate Change
Howard Lisnoff
“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran”
Robert Fisk
The West’s Disgraceful Silence on the Death of Morsi
Dean Baker
The Old Japan Disaster Horror Story
David Mattson
The Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Tyranny of Ego
George Wuerthner
How Mountain Bikes Threaten Wilderness
Christopher Ketcham
The Journalist as Hemorrhoid
Manuel E. Yepe
Yankee Worship of Bombings and Endless Wars
Mel Gurtov
Iran—Who and Where is The Threat?
Wim Laven
Revisiting Morality in the Age of Dishonesty
Thomas Knapp
Facebook’s Libra Isn’t a “Cryptocurrency”
Weekend Edition
June 21, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Brett Wilkins
A Brief History of US Concentration Camps
Rob Urie
Race, Identity and the Political Economy of Hate
Rev. William Alberts
America’s Respectable War Criminals
Paul Street
“So Happy”: The Trump “Boom,” the Nation’s Despair, and the Decline of Joe Biden
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Ask Your Local Death Squad
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Fake Food, Fake Meat: Big Food’s Desperate Attempt to Further the Industrialisation of Food
Eric Draitser
The Art of Trade War: Is Trump Winning His Trade War against China?
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s Russian Problem
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail