It's been intriguing to me watching the way McCain and his Republicans have used his war history as a prisoner of war in this campaign. The conventional notion of military heroism, for better or worse, celebrates the conquering hero or the dedicated warrior who goes down fighting. Here is the Maverick's own version, from the text of his acceptance speech posted at the Republican Convention site:
I’ve been an imperfect servant of my country for many years. But I have been her servant first, last and always. And I’ve never lived a day, in good times or bad, that I didn’t thank God for the privilege.
Long ago, something unusual happened to me that taught me the most valuable lesson of my life. I was blessed by misfortune. I mean that sincerely. I was blessed because I served in the company of heroes, and I witnessed a thousand acts of courage, compassion and love.
On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn’t any worry I wouldn’t come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure; my own pride. I didn’t think there was a cause more important than me.
Then I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and an angry crowd waiting to greet me. I was dumped in a dark cell, and left to die. I didn’t feel so tough anymore. When they discovered my father was an admiral, they took me to a hospital. They couldn’t set my bones properly, so they just slapped a cast on me. When I didn’t get better, and was down to about a hundred pounds, they put me in a cell with two other Americans. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even feed myself. They did it for me. I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence. Those men saved my life.
I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our Code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America. But I turned it down.
A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I’d been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I’d been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.
When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. And then he told me to get back up and fight again for our country and for the men I had the honor to serve with. Because every day they fought for me.
I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.
I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.
Presidential candidate John McCain has made his military experience and record the centerpiece of his campaign for the presidency. Yet we know little more than what the McCain campaign has told us about that record. Rolling Stone offered an overview that raised a few questions, and the Los Angeles Times published a fleeting (albeit partially erroneous) glance that went beyond McCain's campaign literature. However, no serious and hard investigative examinations have been made to determine if McCain's claims about his "heroic" record are true.
Joseph Lelyveld in his flawed but perceptive article John & Sarah in St. PaulNew York Review of Books 09/11/08 (10/09/08 edition) gives a decent description of how McCain presented his experience as a prisoner who was tortured as a central part of his campaign autobiography in his acceptance speech at the National Republican Convention in September:
None of that would have mattered had he a strong vision to offer along with the set piece on his ordeal in Hanoi, which was more affecting coming from his lips than it had been in the dozen or so renditions the delegates had sat through, especially when he spoke with humility about the experience of being broken under torture. But there was no fresh fare in the parts of the speech that were supposed to be substantive. [my emphasis]
Conventional elements of the hero image are there in McCain's convention presentation, of course. The dedication, the professed humility, the concern for his comrades over himself.
But the emphasis in this story is on his suffering as a prisoner. And there's one part that clearly departs from the usual model. When he was tortured, he said, "they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me."
The notion that a soldier should be able to hold out from giving information or cooperating with his captors under torture no matter what is understood by those who delve into this grim subject to be foolish. Even the witch-hunters of the early modern era knew that their victims would "break" and confess to worshipping the Devil, which would mean they were not only be painfully executed but, if they believed the Church's claims, they would be excommunicated and thus spend eternity in Hell.
But why would someone use the confession that his torturers "broke me" in a speech where he was trying to state his qualifications to be the most powerful governmental leader on Earth?
Part of it is clearly the "politics of victimhood" practiced by the Republicans. Richard Nixon starting in 1969 used the plight of POW's being held by North Vietnam in that way. It was not the Americans soldiers and Vietnamese that were being unnecessary victimized by the US government's Vietnam War policies. It was the American soldiers who were being victimized by The Enemy. And that the torture victims were being victimized was true. But it was also a political device to allow belligerent white conservatives to identify with a patriotic victim.
Old Man Bush, whose Presidency only looks good in comparison to his awful son's, made heavy use of the politics of victimhood in the Gulf War. As he began the buildup of American troops in Saudi Arabia to drive the Iraqi Army out of occupied Kuwait, he encouraged a "yellow ribbon" campaign among the public. It was actually promoted by a technically private group that was in reality directed by the Pentagon and the administration. The effort was called Operation Yellow Ribbon and promoted by groups like "Operation Eagle". (A closer scrutiny at the time would probably have shown that it really pushed the envelope on laws against the government propagandizing its own citizens. But war fever was building up, and despite the serious reservations about the war in Congress, nobody seemed to want to address such issues too heavily.)
As Jerry Lembcke relates in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (1998), Saddam was threatening to hold American nationals in Iraq as hostages, a threat which generated great public outrage. The person left in charge of the American Embassy there, Joe Wilson, showed particular bravery and initiative in successfully demanding that the hostages be released. His later reward, as we know, was to have his wife Valerie Plame outed as an undercover CIA officer by Bush the Younger's administration.
But Old Man Bush made full use of the hostage incident. As Lembcke writes:
As we know, George Bush stayed the course to war and successfully transferred much of the sentiment that had been mobilized around hostages to soldiers. In effect, soldiers became the new hostages that needed to be rescued - by other soldiers, of course. Soldiers thus became the ends and the means of George Bush's war. [my emphasis]
The ultimate comingling of hostage and troop-support symbolism was in the use of yellow ribbons - the quintessential hostage/prisoner symbol - for a support-the-troops symbol.
And Old Man Bush was able to translate "support the troops" into "support the war", at least in the minds of his supporters. And the Gulf War was popular.
So the politics of victimization is nothing new for the Republicans, even in relation to heroic military symbolism.
But Juan Cole has some valuable thoughts about McCain's victim story in Rambo and the Mean Girl 09/05/08. We know that in the real world, torture can cause long-term, even permanent psychological damage. It's by no means a given that surviving torture makes someone a stronger person. Some people are destroyed by it.
Cole writes of McCain:
McCain dwelled at length on his years as a prisoner of the Vietnamese and even adverted briefly to having been broken by torture. The rage and abasement of that moment when he signed a confession of war crimes and denounced the United States [the sentence breaks off in the original]
McCain has spoken of his breaking before, as in an October 12, 1997 60 Minutes interview that his critics sometimes misquote:
'Sen. McCAIN: I m--made serious, serious mistakes and did things wrong when I was in prison, OK?
WALLACE: What did you do wrong in prison?
Sen. McCAIN: I wrote a confession. I was guilty of war crimes against the Vietnamese people. I intentionally bombed women and children.
WALLACE: And you did it because you were being tortured...
Sen. McCAIN: I...
WALLACE: ...and you'd reached the end of the line.
Sen. McCAIN: Yes. But I should have gone further. I should have--I--I never believed that I would--that I would break, and I did.'
Cole then reflects of McCain's record of eagerly supporting war in the decades since, including his enthusiastic support of violent Muslim jihadists in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Godless Commies in the Soviet Union. We called Al Qa'ida types "freedom fighters" back then, of course. Brave, fiercely independent freedom fighters.
It was out of the Reagan jihad about which McCain was so enthusiastic that al-Qaeda emerged.
The Iraq War is another Rambo moment for McCain, another opportunity to redeem himself and his country from the failure of Vietnam. McCain's insistence on a "victory" in Iraq that he will not define is more the compulsive acting out of an internal script than it is military strategy or tactics. ...
McCain's Rambo foreign policy sets him on a course of confrontation with Russia, which he has not forgiven for its aid to Vietnam in the old days, and with Shiite Iran, which his party's propaganda continues to confuse with Sunni radicalism of al-Qaeda.
One of those slick films shown at the convention on Thursday commemorating the victims of 9/11 actually asserted that "it began in 1979" with the taking of US embassy personnel hostage in Tehran. The film then skipped over to the Sunni radicals. I can't understand what the Iranian hostage crisis has to do with 9/11. This conflating of all Muslim movements, in which McCain frequently engages, is just another Big Lie. Iranians were upset by 9/11 and sympathetic to the US, holding candlelight vigils. President Khatami spoke heartwarmingly against the terrorism that had struck the US, explaining that Iran had also suffered grievously from terrorism. [my emphasis]
And he also observes that McCain's experience has not made him visibly cautious about war:
McCain keeps saying that he knows war and hates it and wants to avoid it. But no one can name a war in recent memory that he did not wholeheartedly promote. He was an enthusiastic cheerleader for Vietnam, Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Gulf War, and the 2003 Iraq War. His record strongly indicates that if elected he will plunge the US into yet more violent conflict, in a never-ceasing quest to wipe out that stain on his character, of having been broken in Vietnam, and that blemish on US nationalism, of defeat.
McCain cannot conceive of ordinary people being important, or of the simple proposition that the US could not subdue a left-nationalist mass movement in a densely populated Asian country. It was physically impossible. [my emphasis]
Cole is speculating, of course, about how McCain's experience of being a torture victim affected his thinking. But in the circumstances, it's a plausible speculation.
In any case, Cole describes McCain's warlike foreign policy perspective accurately, based on his public record. That should be a bad enough sign for anyone. But if it's intensified by a personal obsession to get revenge for his own personal pain and humiliation, that could be even worse. It would be perfectly human for him to have such an inclination. And perfectly dangerous and destructive in a President of the United States.