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3 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM

John McCain and public virtue

Ray Nothstine
John McCain and public virtue

Sen. John McCain, who passed away on Saturday, is undeniably the most famous prisoner of war held captive and tortured by the North Vietnamese. McCain was one of 591 Americans returned by North Vietnam over several months during “Operation Homecoming” in 1973. But in our current politicized era, McCain’s fame somewhat overshadows the leadership and lessons of many other great Americans tortured by their Marxist captors.

McCain often praised fellow prisoners as being “stronger” and “braver” than himself, giving credit to leaders like Medal of Honor recipient Bud Day for saving his life. Sadly, much of the media and our politically obsessed culture are focused more on leveraging McCain’s death for today’s political scoreboard. However, if America wants to right its ills, it must relearn the moral lessons and servant leadership from those tortured in Hỏa Lò Prison – the infamous Hanoi Hilton – and other camps.

Another notable POW at Hỏa Lò was Admiral James Stockdale. He is well-known in American politics too, as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. Stockdale was supposed to be a stand-in candidate until Perot settled on a more “polished” replacement. But Perot never pulled the trigger. Stockdale’s performance in the debate with former Vice President Dan Quayle and then-Senator Al Gore was widely mocked, particularly by entertainment figures. Ed Rollins, former campaign director for Reagan-Bush 84, worked with the Perot campaign and called it the greatest political injustice of his lifetime. “Congress should pass a law requiring every person who laughed at him during the vice-presidential debate to read the citation that explains why Stockdale received the Medal of Honor for his conduct as a senior prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than eight years,” wroteRollins.

Before his foray into national politics, which was just a favor to a friend, Stockdale was a college president, a Hoover Institution fellow, lecturer, and scholar of the classics. In his book “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot,” Stockdale wrote, “Those who study the rise and fall of civilizations learn that no shortcoming has been surely fatal to republics as a dearth of public virtue, the unwillingness of those who govern to place the value of their society above personal interest.”

Robinson Risner is another POW McCain effusively praised. For good reason. Risner has a statue commemorating his heroics and defiant attitude towards his torturers on the U.S. Air Force Academy campus near Colorado Springs, Colo. He wrote one of the most haunting and arresting accounts of his ordeal in “The Passing of the Night.” Like Jeremiah Denton’s “When Hell Was in Session,” and Jerry Coffee’s “Beyond Survival,”these books are authoritative depictions of the centrality of faith in the fight against a materialistic worldview and secularism that has now wreaked moral havoc and angst across the Western world. Words are just words, but McCain’s voting record where women’s rights are concerned speaks for itself. He voted to restrict abortion and, in 2015, to defund Planned Parenthood if it carried on providing abortions to women with unwanted pregnancies. We know that votes like these can lead to serious consequences: deaths from backstreet abortions, increased levels of poverty, the perpetuation of cycles of social and economic inequality. McCain also voted against the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act in 2014: the bill was an effort to ensure women could access contraception and gynaecological services without being denied healthcare benefits by their providers because of those providers’ “beliefs”. Nor was he prejudiced against women only when it concerned contraception or abortion: he also voted against a bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate against female employees with the same experience being paid less their male counterparts doing exactly the same job.

 Does that mean that McCain was a misogynist? He definitely held sexist attitudes: anyone with access to his voting record or a list of some of his more choice jokes about women would be able to glean that. (He once told one about a woman “raped repeatedly and left to die” by a murderous ape waking up and asking, “Where is that marvellous ape?”, a joke so astounding in its layers of misogyny that I find it borderline nonsensical.) There is real irony in the fact that he was given sole credit for the “deciding” vote that blocked the repeal of Obamacare in 2017, when in reality that accolade should belong to two Republican women, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

But therein lies the rub. McCain was also responsible for a number of morally upstanding actions. He came from a long military dynasty, but refused early release from a Vietnamese POW camp ahead of his other colleagues when his captors found out who he was. He conceded to Obama with a long speech that recognised the suffering of African Americans throughout US history and acknowledged the importance of his election for them. He consistently stood against Donald Trump’s anti-immigration, isolationist stance, memorably releasing a statement to the Pakistani American Khan family, whose son was killed in action in Iraq: “Thank you for immigrating to America. We’re a better country because of you.”

But then there’s the racism. “I hate the g**ks,” McCain said in 2000 (yes, the year 2000). “I will hate them as long as I live.” When challenged, he responded that he was referring specifically to the prison guards in Vietnam who tortured him, and “I will continue to refer to them in a language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends”. It’s unclear what happened next: some report that he apologised and said he would never use the term again. Federal prosecutor Shan Wu wrote this year that he had chosen to believe this version of events, and forgave McCain for using the racial slur, even though he had been called the same thing by bullies at school.

“He could have done better,” he wrote, “... but we all should have done better. And we all must do better by calling out wrong when we see it and practicing forgiveness toward ourselves and each other.”

Many of these men preceded McCain in death. After all, they were the more senior officers who sacrificially and so often took the brunt of the torture, attempting to shield those under their command. Virtually all of them were aviators, and many never flew again, their bodies too twisted and ravaged for the cockpit. Some POWs like Lance Sijan and Ronald Storz were tortured to death for their country.  

Many of them languished so long in North Vietnamese prisons that they came back to an entirely different America that, for them, offered up shocking images of moral and cultural decline.

The writer is editor of the Civitas

Institute in Raleigh, USA

Much of the political and media praise being heaped on McCain is for partisan political purposes, such as CNN’s coverage, which stressed every point on which the talking heads perceived McCain to be politically different from (and better than) President Donald Trump. But the legacy and witness left by these warriors is not about power or politics, but service and sacrifice. “In the Hanoi Hilton, I learned that leading with honor is about doing the right thing, even when it entails personal sacrifice,” wrote former POW Lee Edwards.

In his literary masterpiece “When Hell Was in Session,” Denton noted that “We can now add our testimony to that of great heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.” In a country starving for truth, a new generation of Americans would be wise to read and acquaint themselves with the testimony of why such sacrifice produced such unity and greatness against enormous odds. One can hope that much of the enormous outpouring of deserved gratitude and respect for McCain can transcend politics, and move the nation towards a life of sacrifice in the service of something far greater.

The writer is  is editor of the Civitas Institute in RaleighUSA




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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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