McCain: Gripped in a dangerous militancy which mocks any talk of peace Print E-mail
Monday September 8 2008

War, honor, and John McCain

By James Carroll

THE NADIR of John McCain's time in the North Vietnamese prison came when, under terrible pressure, he gave his captors a false confession. I asked him about it. He said, "I think at that moment, coming back to my cell, knowing what I'd just done, whose son I was, whose grandson . . . well, it was very, very difficult. They [the interrogators] didn't want a confession, they just wanted me to feel this . . . this . . ." He could not finish the sentence, but I knew the word he wanted: dishonor. The worst experience of McCain's life, as he felt it, was the dishonor he brought to his family and his nation when he broke. In his cell, he attempted suicide.
Honor defines the man. People marvel at the McCain prison saga - how he refused an early release, ahead of prisoners held longer than he - but that refusal was McCain's dogged effort to reclaim the honor he thought he had lost. It worked. The 1973 photo of Richard Nixon greeting the freed McCain in his white uniform and on crutches became a national icon. As sacrificial victims do, the maimed McCain took on a mystical aura, which became his political identity.

A man of honor, McCain became the source of honor. Antiwar activists who came to regret the extremity of their protests sought him out to apologize, and he forgave them. In befriending John F. Kerry, as many saw it, McCain restored the honor that had been besmirched by Kerry's antiwar actions.

When Kerry and he led the Clinton-era effort to lift the embargo against Vietnam, which required debunking the myth that the Vietnamese were still holding Americans in jungle cages, it was seen as McCain returning honor to the enemy that had abused him. Such actions endeared McCain to the liberal press corps, many of whom, having never been at ease with their avoidance of military service, felt their own honor restored by his attentions.

But lurking below all of this was the real content of the lesson McCain took from his ordeal. His years in prison coincided exactly with the period in which Americans across the political spectrum reckoned with the failure of the Vietnam War. To McCain, the war was never a failure. To regard it as such was akin to the false confession he had given in his moment of weakness. War, rather, is a source of meaning and nobility. Wars are to be won, period. That resolve of McCain's is what enabled his survival. He comes by such belligerence of spirit far more honorably than the chicken hawks who have shaped policy in Washington, but it leaves McCain in the grip of a dangerous militancy.

After 9/11, McCain emerged as a tribune of militant victimhood, embodying in himself the wounded and angry spirit of Americans' first reaction to the Al Qaeda assaults. With McCain, militant victimhood has been a permanent reaction, and he has reinvented his political career around it. His insistence that the war in Iraq continue indefinitely is his way of dealing with the evident fact that ending that war must involve a reckoning with its character as shamefully unnecessary. McCain's notion of honor makes any such reckoning unthinkable. War equals honor.

For the liberals he derides, facing up to the nation's dishonor has become the new meaning of honor. That is nonsense to McCain because, in prison, it was by making the nation's honor his unrepentant absolute that he was able, in repentance, to reclaim his personal honor. Bravely confronting his own failure, that is, made him incapable of confronting his nation's. McCain's dynamic here is tragic - and, in a national leader, dangerous.

McCain spoke to me of his prison experience 12 years ago. He did so reluctantly. Honor requires such reticence. Alas, now pressed by his political handlers, McCain cheapens that experience in ads, and by using it as cover. When Jay Leno recently joshed him about his many houses, for example, he cited "5 1/2 years in a prison cell. I didn't have a house." It is sad to see John McCain dishonor his own core value in this way, but it is clear why he does so. Nothing else qualifies him to be president.
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James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.