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John McCain: War Criminal, Not War Hero

Photo Source AFGE | CC BY 2.0


“I hate the gooks,”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) doubled down when asked on the 2000 presidential campaign trail about his continued use of the racist slur for Vietnamese people. “I will hate them as long as I live.”

In the mind of the settler-colonialist, the white invader is always the victim and the people he invades, occupies, expels or exterminates are always the aggressors, going all the way back to the Native American genocide. McCain was never able to understand that in Vietnam, as in just about everywhere else they went, Americans were the invaders, not the victims. Even as McCain deserves praise and perhaps even admiration for the manner in which he endured the unendurable while imprisoned in Vietnam, we conveniently forget what he was doing when he was shot down over Hanoi. That day, US warplanes were bombing and strafing a light bulb factory in the densely populated capital, where thousands of innocent men, women and children were being killed by relentless American aerial attacks.

One Man’s Terrorist…

Bombing civilian targets is a war crime. It was a war crime in Vietnam and it was a war crime in Serbia too, one of the at least 13 countries McCain wanted to bomb, bomb, bomb over the course of his congressional career. As Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and other NATO powers waged the 1999 air war against the Serbian people in order to preserve the alliance’s credibility,” McCain supported the brutal bombing campaign, which targeted utilities, hospitals, apartment buildings, nursing homes, railways, bridges, marketplaces and media outlets. Here’s a little refresher on the Geneva Convention:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works.

McCain had previously backed bombing Iraq’s water purification plants during the first Gulf War, a war crime later proven to be part of a US plan to cripple that country’s infrastructure through sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children. Many would call this an act of terrorism, but McCain was never one to shy away from supporting terror when he felt it necessary. He personally donated $400 to Nicaraguan Contra rebels while angrily declaring that “historians will look back and view the vote that cut off… aid to the Contras as a low point in United States history.” Congress banned such aid after widespread reports of horrific Contra atrocities like this one:

Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.

Of course, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, or perhaps both at once. The People’s Mujahedin of Iran, better known by its Farsi acronym MEK, was a State Department-designated terrorist group that had previously assassinated half a dozen US officials back when it was fighting the Shah’s regime. After the Shah’s ouster, MEK waged a guerrilla terror war against the Islamic Republic, endearing it to US leaders including McCain who supported and arranged secret training for its fighters in Nevada.

In 2009, McCain was part of a delegation of conservative senators who traveled to Libya to meet longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who briefly flirted with US rapprochement after agreeing to scrap his weapons of mass destruction program. McCain even promised to help the Gaddafi regime acquire US weapons. But the Libyan love affair was short lived and by 2011 McCain was a leading voice for war against Libya, accusing Gaddafi of having “American blood on his hands.” Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton was more than willing to amplify McCain’s war call, pressing a reluctant Barack Obama to add Libya to the Bush-beating list of countries he bombed.

The Woman and the Ape

Iran was a longtime target of McCain’s threats, with the senator infamously channeling his inner Beach Boys on the presidential campaign trail in 2007. McCain’s animus toward Iranians, a nation whose people are among the most America-loving in the world, bordered on pathological. Upon learning that $158 million worth of American cigarettes were exported to Iran in violation of US sanctions he quipped, “maybe that’s a way of killing them.”

Oh, McCain was a joker, all right. Here’s one of his greatest hits: during his initial run for Senate back in 1986, McCain asked a Washington, DC audience if they’d heard “the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die?” Ready for the knee-slapping punchline? “When she finally regained consciousness and tries to speak,” McCain continued, “her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, Where is that marvelous ape?’”

McCain’s periodic misogyny spared no one. During a 1992 campaign stop, his wife Cindy playfully noted that the then-56-year-old was losing his hair. “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt,” he lovingly retorted. It was more than just shocking words — when it came to issues of reproductive rights, equal pay, workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, McCain repeatedly demonstrated a disdain for women that’s been forgotten in all the lofty eulogizing.

No to MLK Day, Veterans and 9/11 First Responders

His relationship with black people was just as fraught with controversy. McCain vehemently opposed the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, a popular move in a state known for its racism but a shock to millions of Americans who watched McCain vote against the holiday even after President Ronald Reagan finally approved it. He also supported flying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol and, more importantly, consistently pushed policies and actions that fueled racial economic disparities and the disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color.

What’s arguably most confounding about the recent media fawning over McCain is the myth-making surrounding his record on veterans’ issues. Lost amid all the gushing over McCain’s patriotic service is the fact that he voted dozens of times against funding for veterans’ health care and other crucial services, claiming they were “too expensive.” Yet McCain had no problem waging and expanding the never-ending “War on Terror” that has cost more than a million lives and more than $5 trillion taxpayer dollars. McCain’s reluctance to spend public funds to care for the men and women who put their lives on the line while fighting to advance the government’s agenda is indeed curious given it was the public who financed his own education at the United States Naval Academy.

Also too expensive for McCain’s taste was the 9/11 first responders’ health care bill, which provided life-saving medical care for the thousands of police officers, firefighters, paramedics and others who selflessly rushed to the burning Twin Towers that fateful morning and who suffered from deadly cancers and other diseases years later. A watered-down version of the bill was ultimately passed after months of Republican objection.

Grading McCain

McCain surely gets an “A+” grade from the military-industrial complex, for endless war spending was always a top priority for McCain. Taking care of those who fight, and who are physically and mentally maimed by fighting, not so much. That’s likely why the nonpartisan Disabled American Veterans graded him a 2 out of 10 for his poor record on veterans issues, and why Afghanistan Veterans of America gave him a “D” for, among other travesties, voting against additional body armor and PTSD funding for troops.

He also gets an “F” for peace. McCain seemed to deplore peacemakers. When activists interrupted a congressional appearance by Henry Kissinger, who promoted and protected genocide, illegal wars and invasions, military coups, terrorism and torture on every inhabited continent, McCain ordered Capitol police to remove the “low life scum.” Not Kissinger, mind you, but rather the protesters. Ask yourself, who are “low life scum,” those, like Kissinger and McCain with the blood of millions of innocent men, women and children on their hands, or those trying to stop such slaughter?

War Hero? War Criminal.

John McCain is only a “hero” in the settler-colonialist mind. By the letter of the law, he was a war criminal. We Americans may praise McCain for opposing Bush-era waterboarding, or for standing up to the bigot who called Obama a Muslim at a campaign rally, or for casting the deciding vote that saved millions of Americans’ health insurance. Yet one is reminded of Chris Rock reality-checking a black man boasting about how he pays his child support and stays out of jail. “You’re supposed to pay your child support, you’re supposed to stay out of jail,” the comedian retorts. Well, you’re supposed to be against torture and racism and people dying because they can’t afford insurance. In a sane world, these things wouldn’t even be up for debate.

Alas, this is no sane world and so we see the surreal, Orwellian spectacle of a war criminal hailed as a war hero, of a warmonger praised by purported peace-lovers like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of someone who staunchly opposed MLK being fondly remembered by the NAACP and by America’s first black president. Americans have short, convenient memories. We also love lionizing monsters, from Columbus to Andrew Jackson to Henry Kissinger. In a nation built upon a foundation of genocide and slavery and maintained through global militarism, Olympic feats of mental gymnastics are regularly performed in service of empire. McCain faithfully served the empire and will be rewarded with a lofty place in the official narrative. But in the annals of truth, the John McCain story will read quite differently.

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Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. 

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