A year ago, John McCain was written off as a has-been with no hope of securing the Republican nomination for president. And just a few months ago, conventional wisdom had it that the presidency would surely go to a Democrat.
But now that candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are tearing each other to bits, John McCain has a better shot at becoming our next president than anyone might have imagined.
Except for those of us who‘ve read his excellent, heartrending memoir, Faith of My Fathers, that is. The book offers a spellbinding story of a man who never surrendered, even when the price was five-and-a-half years of torture, beatings and imprisonment in North Vietnam.
John McCain‘s war experience is worth examining in light of his support for the war in Iraq and his statement that America could end up occupying the country for 100 years.
My interest in reading McCain‘s book was sparked by a visit to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton“ prison in Vietnam in January. Hoa Lin Prison is an anonymous looking compound in downtown Hanoi which was used to imprison captured Americans during the war.
It was there that John McCain learned firsthand a revulsion for torture that has set him far above other Republican leaders; he‘s virtually the only prominent member of the party to forcefully oppose torture as U.S. policy, including his comment that waterboarding is “a horrible torture technique.“
Built by the French in 1896, Hoa Lin Prison was initially used to torture and imprison Vietnamese rebels. Then, ironically, the tables were turned on the French, who were held and tortured in their own prison by the Japanese during World War II, and then by their former Vietnamese subjects when they lost control of the country in 1954. That legacy of torture and abuse was handed down to U.S. airmen who were held here -- captives taken from more than 3,000 warplanes which were shot down over 10 years of war.
John McCain was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967 when a SAM missile blew off the right wing of his jet. Bailing out, his body crashed into his plane, breaking his left arm, his right arm in three places, and his right knee. But worse was to come. His parachute dumped him in a shallow lake in the middle of Hanoi, where a North Vietnamese soldier broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and then stabbed him with a bayonet in his groin and ankle.
In his book, McCain says an angry mob descended on him, intent on tearing him to pieces. But a woman intervened and he was carted off to prison to be left to die from his wounds. It was only after the North Vietnamese learned that McCain was the son of a prominent U.S. admiral that they provided him with basic medical attention to save him for propaganda purposes.
McCain spent five-and-a-half years in several Vietnamese prisons without any significant surgery or treatment for his broken limbs. He endured torture and beatings that rebroke his arms and he nearly died from dysentery. Once, he was beaten so badly that he lay unconscious on a filthy concrete floor for days on end. His imprisonment included two years in solitary confinement.
While he was imprisoned, McCains father was named Commander in Chief of the U.S. forces in the Pacific. The Vietnamese offered to release McCain after a year of imprisonment to score a propaganda victory, but even though he was in serious danger of dying from his wounds, he refused to leave without his fellow prisoners.
In Faith of My Fathers, McCain explained his decision to stay in prison:
I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admirals son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of Americas class-conscious society. I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country. I was injured, but I believed I could survive. I couldnt persuade myself to leave.
He was beaten nearly to death for refusing to go home, but survived four more years of prison. Eventually, the guards let up on him, and he became the entertainment director and chaplain for his comrades.
John McCain was released in March, 1973. In 2000, he returned to the prison where he was held captive. By that time, he was a U.S. Senator, who helped re-establish diplomatic relations Vietnam. Today, his photo is on the wall of the Hanoi Hilton, along with that of Doug Peterson, another former inmate who became our first ambassador to Vietnam.
McCain is critical of the civilian leaders who put America under the gun in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson and his administration refused to allow the bombing of North Vietnam, or the invasion of the country -- both of which might have resulted in the quick end of the war. Of course, the reason the U.S. held back was because we didn‘t want to risk starting a world war with communist China and the Soviet Union, so perhaps President Johnson had a good idea to begin with.
But McCain does offer some unguarded insights in the book, which was published in 1999, long before our present mess in Iraq. Those comments don‘t square with his recent statements as a candidate. Imagine that McCain is writing here about Iraq, rather than his thoughts on Vietnam:
“War is too horrible a thing to drag out unnecessarily,“ he wrote. “It was a shameful waste to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through awful afflictions and heartache, for a cause that half the country didn‘t believe in and our leaders weren‘t committed to winning... No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the government and the nation lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.“
Wise words, John McCain. Let‘s hope he reads his own book again the next time he gets the urge to volunteer America for another 100 years of a war few believe in.