The day after John McCain died, I happened to visit a memorial to Confederate prisoners of war at Point Lookout, Maryland. Flying a Confederate flag overhead, the monument seemly ironically features a quote at the base from Maya Angelou.
I realized the way I felt about the soldiers commemorated there was decidedly similar how I felt about John McCain the POW in Vietnam: They both fought for a cause that was unjust and ended up enduring real suffering.
We can feel some measure of compassion for human agony regardless of the morality of the person living it. Celebrations of anguish, whether of John McCain’s death or Osama Bin Ladin‘s killing leave me simply sad.
Of course, celebrations over the assassination of Bin Ladin were commonplace in the U.S. and McCain’s death has prompted a virtual media and political deification of a serial war criminal. In a sense, he represents the latest example of Trumpwaching — that is, the laudatory echo chamber around McCain is fueled in large part by an at least implicit put down of the current psudo isolationist president who, for better or worse, got multiple military draft deferments.
Of course, the greatest discrepancy, rarely hinted at, is how humanized someone like McCain is and how rarely victims of the wars he pushed are. Does the average American know the name of a single civilian Vietnamese or Iraqi victim of the U.S. military?
But we have reams of selective information about McCain, endlessly depicted, like clichés of Confederate commanders, as a great war hero, full of nobility and honor.
But unlike Confederates who faced a Union army on a level playing field, he dropped bombs from thousands of feet in the air on an impoverished country struggling for its own independence. The U.S. establishment virtually invented the South in Vietnam, backing a war that could seem like a civil war — with the effect of bleeding the nation.
Pushing aggressive wars, some portrayed as civil wars, would be a pattern McCain would back as a congressman and senator in the coming decades: Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen — country after country ripped apart, all with predictable carnage.
Not only can we say that McCain backed criminal military enterprise after enterprise, but he fabricated with incredible gall. For example, saying on CNN before the invasion of Iraq “I believe that success will be fairly easy” and then, in 2007, telling MSNBC “I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough. And those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of an easy task, then I’m sorry they were mistaken. Maybe they didn’t know what they were voting for.”
Neo-confederates claiming that the Civil War was about states rights and not slavery have got nothing on McCain.
McCain notably never backed away from calling his Vietnamese captors “gooks” and into the 1980s voted against sanctions on apartheid South Africa and against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.
James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, states that while monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson abounded in the U,S., only recently was a statue to James Longstreet dedicated at Gettysburg, though he was second in the Confederate command there. Loewen notes: Longstreet would embrace equality for African Americans.
Similarly, U.S. military veterans who fought in Vietnam and who spoke out against U.S. militarism have either backtracked from a serious critique of it — like John Kerry — or been remarkably marginalized by the political and media establishment.
And it is the marginalization of such principled veterans, the victims and consistent critics of those wars that helps keep the wars going.
The quote from Maya Angelou? “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Indeed.