John McCain Knew the Difference Between Right and Wrong. He Chose Wrong.

During the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, I wrote a syndicated opinion column about John McCain, who then seemed likely to emerge as the GOP nominee. As Americans assess McCain’s life and legacy, this ten-year-old assessment still holds up. Bear in mind, this was written before some of McCain’s more egregious warmongering, such as his attempts to stir up U.S. military attacks against Iran, Syria and Russia, not to mention his decision to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Puffing Up John McCain, POW
by Ted Rall
February 5, 2008

“A proven leader, and a man of integrity,” the New York Post called John McCain in its editorial endorsement. “A naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW, McCain knew that freedom was his for the taking. All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused–and, as a consequence, suffered years of unrelenting torture.”

This standard summary of McCain’s five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, repeated in thousands of media accounts during his 2000 campaign and again this election year, is the founding myth of his political career. The tale of John McCain, War Hero prompts a lot of people turned off by his politics–liberals and traditional conservatives alike–to support him. Who cares that he “doesn’t really understand economics”? He’s got a great story to tell.

Scratch the surface of McCain’s captivity narrative, however, and a funny thing happens: his heroism blows away like the rust from a vintage POW bracelet.

In the fall of 1967 McCain was flying bombing runs over North Vietnam from the U.S.S. Oriskany, an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. On October 26, the 31-year-old pilot was part of a 20-plane squadron assigned to destroy infrastructure in the North Vietnamese capital. He flew his A-4 Skyhawk over downtown Hanoi toward his target, a power plant. As he pulled up after releasing his bombs, his fighter jet was hit by a surface-to-air missile. A wing came off. McCain’s plane plunged into Truc Bach Lake.

Mai Van On, a 50-year-old resident of Hanoi, watch the crash and left the safety of his air-raid shelter to rescue him. Other Vietnamese tried to stop him. “Why do you want to go out and rescue our enemy?” they yelled. Ignoring his countrymen, On grabbed a pole and swam to the spot where McCain’s plane had gone down in 16 feet of water. McCain had managed to free himself from the wrecked plane but was stuck underwater, ensnared by his parachute. On used his pole to untangle the ropes and pull the semi-conscious pilot to the surface. McCain was in bad shape, having broken his arm and a leg in several places.

McCain is lucky the locals didn’t finish him off. U.S. bombs had killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, many in Hanoi. Ultimately between one and two million innocents would be shredded, impaled, blown to bits and dissolved by American bombs. Now that one of their tormentors had fallen into their hands, they had a rare chance to get even. “About 40 people were standing there,” On later recalled. “They were about to rush him with their fists and stones. I asked them not to kill him. He was beaten for a while before I could stop them.” He was turned over to local policemen, who transferred him to the military.

What if one of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center had somehow crash-landed in the Hudson River? How long would he have lasted? Would anyone have risked his life to rescue him?

An impolite question: If a war is immoral, can those who fight in it–even those who demonstrate courage–be heroes? If the answer is yes, was Reagan wrong to honor the SS buried at Bitburg? No less than Iraq, Vietnam was an undeclared, illegal war of aggression that did nothing to keep America safe. Tens of millions of Americans felt that way. Millions marched against the war; tens of thousands of young men fled the country to avoid the draft. McCain, on the other hand, volunteered.

McCain knew that what he was doing was wrong. Three months before he fell into that Hanoi lake, he barely survived when his fellow sailors accidentally fired a missile at his plane while it was getting ready to take off from his ship. The blast set off bombs and ordnance across the deck of the aircraft carrier. The conflagration, which took 24 hours to bring under control, killed 132 sailors. A few days later, a shaken McCain told a New York Times reporter in Saigon: “Now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.”

Yet he did.

“I am a war criminal,” McCain said on “60 Minutes” in 1997. “I bombed innocent women and children.” Although it came too late to save the Vietnamese he’d killed 30 years earlier, it was a brave statement. Nevertheless, he smiles agreeably as he hears himself described as a “war hero” as he arrives at rallies in a bus marked “No Surrender.”

McCain’s tragic flaw: He knows the right thing. He often sets out to do the right thing. But he doesn’t follow through. We saw McCain’s weak character in 2000, when the Bush campaign defeated him in the crucial South Carolina primary by smearing his family. Placing his presidential ambitions first, he swallowed his pride, set aside his honor, and campaigned for Bush against Al Gore. It came up again in 2005, when McCain used his POW experience as a POW to convince Congress to pass, and Bush to sign, a law outlawing torture of detainees at Guantánamo and other camps. But when Bush issued one of his infamous “signing statements” giving himself the right to continue torturing–in effect, negating McCain’s law–he remained silent, sucking up to Bush again.

McCain’s North Vietnamese captors demanded that he confess to war crimes. “Every two hours,” according to a 2007 profile in the Arizona Republic, “one guard would hold McCain while two others beat him. They kept it up for four days…His right leg, injured when he was shot down, was horribly swollen. A guard yanked him to his feet and threw him down. His left arm smashed against a bucket and broke again.”

McCain later recalled that he was at the point of suicide. But he was no Jean Moulin, the French Resistance leader who refused to talk under torture, and killed himself. According to “The Nightingale’s Song,” a book by Robert Timberg, “[McCain] looked at the louvered cell window high above his head, then at the small stool in the room.” He took off his dark blue prison shirt, rolled it like a rope, draped one end over his shoulder near his neck, began feeding the other end through the louvers.” He was too slow. A guard entered and pulled him away from the window.

I’ve never been tortured. I have no idea what I’d do. Of course, I’d like to think that I could resist or at least commit suicide before giving up information. Odds are, however, that I’d crack. Most people do. And so did McCain. “I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate,” McCain wrote in his confession. “I almost died and the Vietnamese people saved my life, thanks to the doctors.”

It wasn’t the first time McCain broke under pressure. After his capture, wrote the Republic, “He was placed in a cell and told he would not receive any medical treatment until he gave military information. McCain refused and was beaten unconscious. On the fourth day, two guards entered McCain’s cell. One pulled back the blanket to reveal McCain’s injured knee. ‘It was about the size, shape and color of a football,’ McCain recalled. Fearful of blood poisoning that would lead to death, McCain told his captors he would talk if they took him to a hospital.”

McCain has always been truthful about his behavior as a POW, but he has been more than willing to allow others to lie on his behalf. “A proven leader, and a man of integrity,” The New York Post says, and he’s happy to take it. “All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused…” Not really. He did denounce his country. But he didn’t demand a retraction.

It’s the old tragic flaw: McCain knows what he ought to do. He starts to do the right thing. But John McCain is a weak man who puts his career goals first.

Later that year, I reminded readers that there was nothing honorable about the Vietnam War:

Every presidential candidacy relies on a myth. Reagan was a great communicator; Clinton felt your pain. Both storylines were ridiculous. But rarely are the constructs used to market a party nominee as transparent or as fictional as those we’re being asked to swallow in 2008.

On the left–OK, not–we have Barack Obama. “The best orator of his generation!” says Ed Rendell, the Democratic power broker who has a day job as governor of Pennsylvania. “The best orator since Cicero!” Republican strategist Mary Matalin swoons. No doubt, Obama reads a mean speech. Take his Teleprompter away, though, and the dude is as lost as George Bush at a semiotics class. Forced to answer reporters’ questions off the cuff, Obama is so afraid of messing up that he…carefully…spaces…each…word…apart…so…he…can…see…them…coming…wayyy…in…advance.

Still more laughable than the notion of Obama as the second coming of JFK is the founding myth of the McCain campaign: (a) he is a war hero, and (b) said heroism increases his credibility on national security issues. “A Vietnam hero and national security pro,” The New York Times calls him in a typical media blandishment.

John McCain fought in Vietnam. There was nothing noble, much less heroic, about fighting in that war.

Some Americans may be suffering another of the periodic attacks of national amnesia that prevent us from honestly assessing our place in the world and its history, but others recall the truth about Vietnam: it was a disastrous, unjustifiable mess that anyone with an ounce of sense was against at the time.

Between one and two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were sent to their deaths by a succession of presidents and Congresses–fed to the flames of greed, hubris, and stupidity. The event used to justify starting the war–the Tonkin Gulf “incident”–never happened. The Vietnam War’s ideological foundation, the mantra cited to keep it going, was disproved after we lost. No Southeast Asian “dominos” fell to communism. To the contrary, the effect of the U.S. withdrawal was increased stability. When genocide broke out in neighboring Cambodia in the late 1970s, it was not the U.S., but a unified Vietnamese army–the evil communists–who stopped it.

Not even General Wesley Clark, shot four times in Vietnam, is allowed to question the McCain-as-war-hero narrative. “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” he argued. The Obama campaign, which sells its surrogates down the river with alarming regularity, promptly hung the former NATO commander out to dry: “Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark.”

Even in an article criticizing the media for repeatedly framing McCain as a war hero, the liberal website Media Matters concedes: “McCain is, after all, a war hero; everybody agrees about that.”

Not everyone.

I was 12 when the last U.S. occupation troops fled Saigon. I remember how I–and most Americans–felt at the time.

We were relieved.

By the end of Nixon’s first term most people had turned against the war. Gallup polls taken in 1971 found that about 70 percent of Americans thought sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. Some believed it was immoral; others considered it unwinnable.

Since then, the political center has shifted right. We’ve seen the Reagan Revolution, Clinton’s Democratic centrism, and Bush’s post-9/11 flirtation with neo-McCarthyite fascism. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Americans–including Republicans–still think we should never have fought the Vietnam War.

“After the war’s 1975 conclusion,” Michael Tomasky wrote in The American Prospect in 2004, “Gallup has asked the question (“Did the U.S. make a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam?”) five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. All five times…respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000.”

Moreover, Tomasky continued, “vast majorities continue to call the war ‘unjust.'” Even in 2004, after 9/11, 62 percent considered the war unjust. Only 33 percent still thought it was morally justified.

Vietnam was an illegal, undeclared war of aggression. Can those who fought in that immoral war really be heroes? This question appeared settled after Reagan visited a cemetery for Nazi soldiers, including members of the SS, at Bitburg, West Germany in 1985. “Those young men,” claimed Reagan, “are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

Americans didn’t buy it. Reagan’s poll numbers, typically between 60 and 65 percent at the time, plunged to 41 percent after the visit. Those who fight for an evil cause receive no praise.

So why is the McCain-as-war-hero myth so hard to unravel? By most accounts, John McCain demonstrated courage as a P.O.W., most notably by refusing his captors’ offer of early release. But that doesn’t make him a hero.

Hell, McCain isn’t even a victim.

At a time when more than a fourth of all combat troops in Vietnam were forcibly drafted (the actual victims), McCain volunteered to drop napalm on “gooks” (his term, not mine). He could have waited to see if his number came up in the draft lottery. Like Bush, he could have used family connections to weasel out of it. Finally, he could have joined the 100,000 draft-eligible males–true heroes, to a man–who went to Canada rather than kill people in a war that was plainly wrong.

When McCain was shot down during his 23rd bombing sortie, he was happily shooting up a civilian neighborhood in the middle of a major city. Vietnamese locals beat him when they pulled him out of a local lake; yeah, that must have sucked. But I can’t help think of what would have happened to Mohammed Atta had he somehow wound up alive on a lower Manhattan street on 9/11. How long would he have lasted?

Maybe he would have made it. I don’t know. But I do know this: no one would ever have considered him a war hero.

28 thoughts on “John McCain Knew the Difference Between Right and Wrong. He Chose Wrong.

  1. Can’t say I see how Vietnam was a war of aggression on America’s part. There are plenty of other reasons to disagree with it, and I’d say that those who avoided taking part in it had good cause for that. But aggression? Against who? They intervened to support their allies – lousy allies, and on partly flawed and partly false premises. But that is no more an act of aggression than our support for Syria.

    • If you don’t see «how [the war on] Vietnam [and other Indochinese states] was a war of aggression on ‘s part», DanilAdamov, how would you define «war of aggression» ? A «defensive war» is perhaps easier to understand, i e, a war against a state that had attacked one’s home, but as far as I know, neither Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos had attacked the US. As to those «allies» you mention, why did the United States, after the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ choose to ally itself with the puppets of the former colonial regime. Surely you don’t mean that e g, that nasty Bảo Đại forced such an alliance on poor Dwight David Eisenhower and his pacifist Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, varefter they had no choice but to «defend» the regime ?…


      • IIRC – North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam (indirectly through proxies at first), and the United States of America is an independent nation that is free to choose its own allies as it pleases.

      • «IIRC – North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam» Obviously, you don’t remember correctly, «DanilAdamov» : after the French debacle at Điện Biên Phủ, the conflict in Indochina was added to the agenda for the Geneva Conference of 26 April – 20 July 1954, which originally was called to discuss the question of Korea. Due to US intransigence, nothing could be done about the latter issue, but with respect to Vietnam, a temporary division of the country was agreed until elections, scheduled to be carried out by July 1956, could be held. The US, as Eisenhower admitted, realising that its proxy would lose, did not allow the elections to take place….

        Perhaps your «memory» is poor because a better one would render your political position invalid ?…


      • I’m sorry, I didn’t see your response. But how does that contradict what I said? Americans backed their guys in Vietnam, just like we backed ours. I don’t see any aggression on their part there, unless you use the term aggression to mean something other than starting a conflict. They didn’t start it by any measure – the communists did, by rebelling against the French and then against South Vietnamese authorities. That America had actively prevented what may have turned out to be a swifter peaceful resolution is true, but that does not make it the aggressor in this scenario.

      • «I don’t see any aggression on their part there, unless you use the term aggression to mean something other than starting a conflict. They didn’t start it by any measure – the communists did, by rebelling against the French and then against South Vietnamese authorities.» Obviously, Gospodin Adamov, you fail to understand the term aggression, which in international relations is currently defined according to this UNO General Assembly resolution from 1974. As obviously English is not your forte, you can perhaps be excused on that account, but I suspect the real reason for your inability to graspd what aggression means in the context of, e g, the US aggression against IndoChina, has less to do with a linguistic disability, and more with an disninclination to understand the matter….


      • Thanks. Admittedly the United Nations is no very great moral authority as far as I am concerned, so I hadn’t thought to consult its definition. If you use it, then I suppose much becomes clearer. Out of curiosity, though, what was the actual act of American aggression, in your opinion? Stationing forces on Vietnamese soil? Bombing North Vietnam? Supporting your country against the Vietnamese rebels? All three at once?

        You are entirely wrong about me being disinclined to understand this, by the way. As a patriotic Russian, I am always happy for more ammunition to use against the Americans. 🙂 Provided it is proper, working ammunition, that is.

      • «Thanks. Admittedly the United Nations is no very great moral authority as far as I am concerned, so I hadn’t thought to consult its definition.» You’re quite welcome, Gospodin Adamov, but since you rejected the notion that the US was the aggressor in Indochina, but proposed no definition of the term «aggression» yourself, I found it appropriate to attempt to enlighten you as to how the term is generally used. But certain types of ignorance, like that you for some reason are pleased to display on these threads, don’t really care to be enlightened, now do they ?…


      • No, if it wasn’t quite clear, I am in fact quite grateful that you have taken the effort to enlighten me on your position. I honestly was not sure where you were coming from, but now that is mostly settled.

      • «I honestly was not sure where you were coming from, but now that is mostly settled.» Only «mostly settled», my dear Gospodin Adamov ? How can we exorcise your remaining doubts ? And your use of the adverb «honestly» to refer to your own actions – surely a perversion ?…


      • “Out of curiosity, though, what was the actual act of American aggression, in your opinion? Stationing forces on Vietnamese soil? Bombing North Vietnam? Supporting your country against the Vietnamese rebels? All three at once?”

    • The fate the US govt was saving its “allies” from is modern-day Vietnam, minus all the intervening blood-letting. Hardly a valid pretext to fight a war of choice.

      • The fate the Americans were saving their allies from was a violent overthrowal, occupation, purges and a coercive conversion to a socialist economy. That the system has mellowed out later has no bearing on this. They had little reason to expect that at the time, and in any case, does that somehow negate all the intervening bloodshed at the communists’ hands?

      • @Daniil

        I truly do enjoy reading your perspective on things.

        But on to your question – the US and Soviets/Chinese played tug-of-war with Vietnam. None actually cared about the fate of the people, they only wanted the strategic advantage of owning that piece of real estate.

        It doesn’t matter to a rice farmer whether the dictator calls himself ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist’ it has very little impact on his life. What does matter are things like Agent Orange, carpet bombing, and My Lai.

        The South Koreans got off fairly well in the struggle between the Stupor Powers. The Afghans and Syrians, not so much.

        “It’s hard to convince people that you’re killing them for their own good” – Molly Ivins

      • «The fate the Americans were saving their allies from was a violent overthrowal [Sic !], …» Nice grasp of English, by the way…. 😉


    • As the Counter Punch article to which the article to which you link itself links, Antiwar7, notes :

      The American media accepts McCain’s “war hero” myth as gospel …

      ; without «heroes», how drum up support for a war of aggression abroad ?…

      I don’t give a tinker’s damn what Mr McCain did during his captivity; I am much more concerned with what he did prior to being captured – i e, participated with enthusiasm in a war of aggression abroad – and especially, what he did after he was release – i e, equally enthusiastically advocated still more such wars. If that is what «heroes» are made of, then we need fewer of them….


      • I do care about what happened in his captivity, because his story helped give him the platform and power to facilitate so many wars afterwards.

        And if the truth is that he was never tortured, and lied about it, then making that well-known would help discredit all of his pro-war policies.

      • «And if the truth is that he was never tortured, and lied about it, then making that well-known would help discredit all of his pro-war policies.» You make a not unimportant point there, Antiwar7, but to my mind, to anyone who cares to examine them, those policies discredit themselves….


      • «yes, but this is a powerful tool to reach those who don’t see that clearly yet.» Again, Anitwar7, I see your point – but those who are unwilling to see US wars of aggression abroad for what they are are probably going to be equally unwilling to accept the dethronement of Mr McCain from the position of a «war hero». Concentrating on the latter issue is, to my mind, more likely to lead to a discussion/debate/argument for and against Mr Trump than to an examination of US actions in IndoChina after WW II….


  2. Bear in mind, this was written before some of McCain’s more egregious warmongering, such as his attempts to stir up U.S. military attacks against Iran, Syria and Russia, …

    I do bear that in mind, Ted, and thus will not take issue with your decade-old characterisation of Mr McCain as someone who could distinguish between right and wrong. For the rest, perhaps we should observe the old Latin adagede mortuis, nil nisi bonum, which leaves us little to say about this inveterate warmonger….


  3. > John McCain demonstrated courage as a P.O.W., most notably by refusing his captors’ offer of early release. But that doesn’t make him a hero.

    Truth, both the part about not being a hero as well as the ‘courage’ – staying with his mates when he could have left took a huge brass pair; and there is not a human on earth that can withstand torture.

    But can someone fighting an unjust war be a hero? My brother served in ‘nam – he volunteered because at the time, he believed that he was doing The Right Thing and Defending His Country. Hell, I believed the narrative earlier on – eventually I wised up, but that took a little more perspective.

    My brother came home with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor for a selfless act of valor, saving his squad and most likely his ship by putting out a fire in an ammo dump. (“everyone else was smart enough to run the other way”)

    So, yeah, my brother is a hero. OTOH, he never did figure out that ‘nam was a lie. He wasn’t fighting for anyone’s freedom, let alone “ours.”

    Neither was McClain – I don’t know what he believed when he joined up. I do know he was an unabashed hawk in later years (“bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran”) But then he might have been the last GOP tool with principles (even if he didn’t always follow them.)

    • Lots of people have some kind of principles, and many even try to live by them with rather more consistency than the late John McCain appears to have shown. I’m not sure that’s worth all that much. Depends on the exact kind of principles.

      Agreed on people fighting in injust wars possibly being heroes, provided they did not do anything injust themselves and earned that qualifier through their actions. Those German fighter pilots who shot down British bombers absolutely qualify in my books. McCain doesn’t – the most heroic thing he appears to have done is refuse early release. Which as both you and Ted Rall have said shows character, but isn’t especially heroic, especially when court martial and disgrace were a likely alternative.

      Would anyone break? I don’t know. Some people haven’t. I recently read about the poet Nikolai Oleinikov, who was tortured for months by the “evil communists” here in the 30s after having fought for them in the 10s and 20s. They disagreed with his absurdist poems, taking them for satire (then again, perhaps they weren’t wrong – he had grown disenchanted with them by then). He did not break and refused to say a word against anyone, even his worst enemies whom he perhaps could have taken with him. Eventually he died from their exertions.

      Much closer to McCain in time and in space, there was John Dramesi, who tried to escape captivity twice, was tortured – and never broke, and later even tried to get into politics himself but didn’t succeed.

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