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John McCain, the Unrepentant Warrior

Photo Source AFGE | CC BY 2.0

The hero-worship of John McCain’s militarism misses the point that the Vietnam War was not World War II, and that individual heroism in the wrong cause cannot overcome the catastrophic errors of believing that might makes right. Physical bravery should not overshadow moral weakness. McCain’s military exploits deserve recognition only in so far as we do not forget the larger moral and political errors in which they took place.

David Foster Wallace dramatically summarized McCain’s heroism in his 2000 Rolling Stone article from the South Carolina primary campaign trail. He wrote:

“In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you…”

The war hero label stuck with McCain throughout his life. He was the son and grandson of admirals. His decision to remain in prison instead of leaving before those who were imprisoned longer has been presented as a rare positive note in a war that saw millions of Vietnamese die as well as over 57,000 American soldiers. McCain’s story allows people to forget the gross miscalculations of the Vietnam War (“We were wrong, very wrong,” said Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara much later) and its loss of lives.

For those who opposed the war, McCain’s heroism is a mixed bag. Wallace’s rendering of McCain’s courage makes no mention of the horrors of the war, as have many other tributes. Wallace said: “But there’s something underneath politics in the way you hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. … It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the-charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, because it’s what makes McCain’s ‘causes greater than self-interest’ line easier to hear.”

Wallace placed individual courage above institutional atrocities, Agent Orange and all. “causes greater than self-interest”? When does individual heroism trump egregious governmental errors? Today we pay tribute to whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg for rendering public the Pentagon Papers and the courage of the New York Times and the Washington Post for printing them. Because of Ellsberg, the Times and the Post, we learned that many in the U.S. government knew the Vietnam War was a mistake.

What about those who show courage in following the wrong orders? McCain’s courage in solitary confinement was part of the Code of Conduct of the United States military. He was a good airman – in spite of being third-rate student at the U.S. Naval Academy. And for the rest of his life he continued to believe in the use of military might. The current bloated United States military budget was named in his honor.

To his credit, John McCain, post Vietnam, was strongly opposed to the use of torture. His disagreements with Vice-President Dick Cheney over waterboarding are a tribute to the lessons he learned in Vietnam. His thumb down signal anticipating his refusal to join Republican colleagues in overturning the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will also be part of his positive legacy.

But, again, can someone be a war hero in the wrong cause? Candidate Donald Trump commented about McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”Besides being insulting coming from someone who avoided military service because of some minor ailment, Trump made no mention of the war involved. Captured while fighting for what cause?

Without questioning John McCain’s individual courage as a prisoner of war, we should not forget his gung-ho militarism. His Vietnam War experience in no way diminished his fervor for the United States military. He continually called for more troops in Iraq and later the Surge, was enthusiastic about continuing American military presence in Afghanistan, and was a fervent Cold Warrior in favor of NATO and against Russia. McCain’s chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee was his “last and perhaps greatest role in the Senate,” according to one eulogy. Whatever lessons he learned against torture in Vietnam did not lead him to question the overarching positive role of the military.

The world is not made of nails and the United States is not its hammer. John McCain’s courage as a prisoner of war is being used as a form of remembrance of great American war heroes such as Audie Murphy and even John Paul Jones. His self-deprecating humor – when asked about how he slept the night after his 2008 electoral defeat, he said: “Like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried” – as well as his ability to reach out to Democrats are a tribute to a senator of stature. But his individual heroism should not allow us to forget the disastrous war in which he fought.

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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