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Friday, March 07, 2008

Rereading Vietnam and John McCain's legacy 


Last August, Robert Kaplan wrote a long review essay in The Atlantic that discussed books about the Vietnam war that had received scant attention from the mainstream media or academics who certify such things as worthy. I had printed it off but only got around to reading it this afternoon while killing time in a doctor's waiting room. There is much in there that ought to persuade you that the historiography of that war has not settled down. (Indeed, I speculate that the revision of the history of the Vietnam war has been delayed, in part, because it is considered to have such implications for Iraq and very politicized assessment of George W. Bush's administration.) I do recommend you read the whole thing.

There is one bit in the essay that passed unnoticed last August when everybody had written John McCain's presidential prospects down to zero, but which certainly warrants emphasis today:

What Bud Day and other POWs specifically admired about Nixon was his willingness to strike back in a way that Johnson hadn't. Johnson's bombing halt in 1968 was seen as a betrayal by POWs, and caused disappointment and anger even throughout the U.S. military. Remember that these POWs were often combat pilots—professional warriors and volunteers that is, not citizen soldiers who were drafted. Professional warriors are not fatalists. In their minds, there is no such thing as defeat so long as they are still fighting, even from prison. That belief is why true soldiers have an affinity for seemingly lost causes.

In December 1967, a prisoner was dumped in Day's cell on the outskirts of Hanoi, known as the Plantation. This prisoner's legs were atrophied and he weighed under 100 pounds. Day helped scrub his face and nurse him back from the brink of death. The fellow American was Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III of the Panama Canal Zone. As his health improved, McCain's rants against his captors were sometimes as ferocious as Day's. The North Vietnamese tried and failed, through torture, to get McCain to accept a release for their own propaganda purposes: The lieutenant commander was the son of Admiral John McCain Jr., the commander of all American forces in the Pacific. "Character," writes the younger McCain, quoting the 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody, "is what you are in the dark," when nobody's looking and you silently make decisions about how you will act the next day.

In early 1973, during a visit to Hanoi, North Vietnamese officials told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that they would be willing to free McCain into his custody. Kissinger refused, aware that there were prisoners held longer than McCain, ahead of him in the line for release. McCain suffered awhile longer in confinement, then, once freed, thanked Kissinger for "preserving my honor." The two have been good friends since. McCain blurbs with gusto Bud Day's memoir. The senator writes: "I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the dimensions of human greatness."

Henry Kissinger, we should remember, was himself a soldier in the American army. He was an intelligence officer (quel surprise) and served in the Battle of the Bulge, staying behind at some personal risk after his unit bugged out to interrogate captured German soldiers. Point is, he probably understood what John McCain the prisoner would want without having to be told.

John McCain's military service and "sacrifice" does not, ipso facto, qualify him to be president. It does, however, tell us a great deal about the things he values most when he has to make decisions under extremely adverse conditions, and that is certainly useful for voters to know.

7 Comments:

By Blogger davod, at Sat Mar 08, 07:13:00 AM:

Off the main topic, but does Kissinger's staying behind during the battle of the bulge give any insight into his later actions?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Mar 08, 09:19:00 AM:

A very good question, and not off-topic at all. Indeed, the proposition of the post is that McCain staying behind in Hanoi gives insight into his later actions. While I have had the pleasure of having dinner, once, with Henry Kissinger, I cannot say that I have any particular insight into the question you asked. I can say this, though: He loves the United States with more passion than most native-born Americans.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat Mar 08, 03:06:00 PM:

I would have swallowed my "honor" for a chance to give the Intel guys an accurate and current memory dump of camp layouts, staffing levels, physical descriptions of real bad guys, POW's that were known to be alive, etc.

Tactical bravery is nice and all, but strategic smarts are better.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Mar 08, 05:41:00 PM:

Avenger,

Couldn't the prisoner next in line for release do that exact thing?  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat Mar 08, 08:28:00 PM:

And that guy was scheduled to be released precisely when? And he was originally caught when?

Intel has a very limited shelf life.  

By Anonymous Pasquin, at Sat Mar 08, 09:33:00 PM:

The information that Bud Day and John McCain withheld from their captors was information that if disclosed could have cost American lives. But more than withholding tactical information, the POWs who endured torture rather than swallow their honor refused their captors the chance to pose them with the ilk of Jane Fonda and, in league with CBS and NY Times, thereby generate propaganda that would further undermine their fellow American servicemen.

I’d probably have behaved like Purple, but only because I doubt that I could have summoned the extraordinary courage that McCain and his compatriots displayed. Not all POWs showed such resolve. Those who did earned a gratitude that their countrymen have not yet paid them.

While it is true that courage, honor, and sense of duty do not suffice to make McCain a great president, those qualities recommend him for the job. And he is the sole party among the current crop of candidates who has proven himself to have those qualities.  

By Blogger druu222, at Sun Mar 09, 12:04:00 PM:

This is all very true about McCain's actions as a POW and what it reveals about his character.

Now, in the one in a billion chance that a McCain advisor is reading this, a bit a campaign advice for him:

DO NOT MENTION THE VIETNAM WAR!!!

Do not mention it.. in ANY way, in ANY form, in ANY shape, do not, do not, do not, do NOT mention the Vietnam War, not so much as one syllable. Not a word.

Vietnam is nothing but cyanide to an American politician. You earned five Congressional Medals of Honor there? Great. Shut up about 'em.

It does not matter where you stood, what you did, how you performed. Mention Vietnam and die politically. That is an absolute.

Here endeth the lesson.

I aplogize if I am being too ambiguous.  

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