John McCain's Service In Vietnam Was a Tragedy
Shortly after his release from Hanoi, John McCain meets Richard Nixon.
During the Vietnam War, our country dropped more bombs on southeast Asia than all sides let loose in World War 2, and doused more than 3,000 of the regionâs villages with one of the deadliest substances known to humankind. Those 7,662,000 tons of ordnance â" and 13 million gallons of Agent Orange â" recognized no distinction between civilian and soldier. Americaâs war planners didnât either. When Henry Kissinger ordered âa massive bombing campaign in Cambodiaâ in 1970, his instructions were simple: âAnything that flies on anything that moves.â Our bombs brought hundreds of thousands of unarmed humans to a permanent stillness by t he conflictâs end â" and nearly 40,000 more in the decades since. There are Vietnamese children walking the Earth today who will die by stumbling on the landmines we planted, or unexploded ordnance we left behind. There are as-yet unborn Vietnamese babies who will enter the world with misshapen heads and giant tumors as a result of the defoliants we showered on their country 50 years ago.
During the Vietnam War, we measured our success in dead âViet Congâ; except when we measured it in dead âgooksâ of any kind. In the village of My Lai, our soldiers slaughtered more than 500 civilians (after raping and torturing some lesser number). In the Mekong Delta, the 9th Infantry division claimed an enemy body count of nearly 11,000 â" but turned in fewer than 750 weapons. By our governmentâs own estimates, the unit killed as many as 7,000 civilians. By the account of one soldier within the 9th, the unit committed a âMy Lai each month.â
During the Vietnam War, we sent nearly 60,000 American soldiers to their deaths, and condemned more than 300,000 to serious injuries. We did all this in the name of democracy (even though weâd helped the government of South Vietnam block a national unity election, which had been mandated by the Geneva Accords, because it was afraid that it would lose). Or, we did it all because the Communists could not be allowed a foothold in Southeast Asia (even though the presidents who waged the war all suspected that they couldnât be denied one).
But also, during the Vietnam War, a patriotic young American from a military family requested combat duty, and was assigned to an aerial campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder (which would kill at least 50,000 civilians). On his 23rd mission, the young manâs plane was shot out of the sky. He broke both arms and one leg ejecting from the vehicle. North Vietnamese beat and bayoneted him once he hi t the ground. Then, they took him to a military prison where he was tortured, starved, and beaten to the brink of suicidal ideation. He was offered a way out of this torment, thanks his fatherâs clout. But availing himself of that special privilege would have devastated the morale of his fellow prisoners, and handed a propaganda victory to the enemy. So he refused his opportunity for release, and spent the next five years in near-constant suffering â" and the rest of his life, as an American war hero.
This week, that last story was referenced in the first sentence of countless obituaries. The preceding context was mentioned in virtually none of them.
And, on one level, thatâs perfectly appropriate.
John McCain did not plan the Vietnam War. He didnât lie to the American people about the nature of the conflict, the atrocities it entailed, or the probability of its success. He merely trusted the civili an leadership that did. There is no reason to doubt that McCain believed he was in Vietnam to risk his life â" and then, to endure a living hell â" in defense of our nationâs highest ideals. His willingness to sacrifice his own well-being to what he believed to be Americaâs interests deserves our awe-struck admiration. (As an upper middle-class âsoyboyâ â" whose most heroic feat of self-abnegating physical endurance probably involved a full bladder and broken-down A train â" I have no doubt that Iâd prove myself a lesser man than McCain, were I ever asked to accept years of torture for a cause that I believed in.) As the senator is laid to rest, one can reasonably argue that respect for his family, and legacy, compels us to isolate his act of transcendent patriotism from the indefensible war that produced it.
But there are hazards to such myopia. McCainâs loved ones deserve to take pride in the sacrifices he made at the âHanoi Hil ton.â But we, as a nation, do not. The United States asked John McCain to risk his life â" and kill other human beings â" for a war built on lies. We asked him to give some of his best years on Earth â" and the full use of his arms â" to an illegal, unwinnable war of aggression. The story of McCainâs time as a prisoner of war should inspire national shame. It is a story about our government abusing the trust of one its most patriotic citizens. But itâs (almost) never presented as such. Instead, in stump speeches, op-eds, and obituaries, McCainâs service is typically framed as a testament to our nationâs greatness, or an affirmation of its finest values.
This distortion invites broader misconceptions. The selfless sacrifices of American soldiers are supposed to be lamentable costs of war, burdens that can only be redeemed by the justness of the cause that demanded them. And yet, the way we remember McCainâs heroism threatens to invert this pr inciple. In celebrating his discrete act of patriotism â" while ignoring the question of what cause it served â" we risk treating the selfless sacrifices of American soldiers as ends in themselves.
In his tribute to McCain this week, the Rand Corporationâs Phillip Carter aptly described the model of heroism that he epitomized (without interrogating its more troubling implications):
[A]s America wrestled with the violence done on its behalf in Vietnam, society came to venerate more those warriors whose courage was exemplified by their suffering and perseverance. McCain epitomized that type of heroismâ"all the more so because he volunteered to stay in Hanoi and endure more, out of loyalty to his country and fellow captives. His was a valor that even those opposed to the war could honor; McCainâs suffering is a parable for Americaâs during a long, costly, and polarizing war.
Christian Appy, a prominent historian of the Vietnam War, has argued that the cultivation of this peculiar form of heroism enabled an eradication of Americaâs historical memory of the conflict, and thus, of its capacity to learn from the warâs mistakes:
In 1971â¦a remarkable 58% of the public told pollsters that they thought the conflict was âimmoral,â a word that most Americans had never applied to their countryâs wars.
How quickly times change. Jump ahead a decade and Americans had already found an appealing formula for commemorating the war. It turned out to be surprisingly simple: focus on us, not them, and agree that the war was primarily an American tragedy. Stop worrying about the damage Americans had inflicted on Vietnam and focus on what we had done to ourselves.
â¦Americans began to treat those who served the country as heroic by definition, no matter what they had actually doneâ ¦ You no longer had to believe that the missions American âheroesâ fought were noble and just; you could simply agree that anyone who âserved Americaâ in whatever capacity automatically deserved acclaim.
â¦Although a majority of Americans came to reject the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq in proportions roughly as high as in the Vietnam era, the present knee-jerk association between military service and âour freedomâ inhibits thinking about Washingtonâs highly militarized policies in the world.
In 2012, MSNBCâs Chris Hayes voiced a similar concern on a Memorial Day episode of his weekend talk-show. âIt is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words âheroes,ââ Hayes observed. âWhy do I feel so [uncomfortable] about the word âheroâ? I feel comfortable â" uncomfortable â" about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetori cally proximate to justifications for more war.â
This sentiment was not well-received. Hayes quickly issued an apology. And yet, the idea that invoking the heroism of the war dead is ârhetorically proximate to justifications for more warâ isnât a radical one. In fact, itâs a notion tacitly endorsed by president Trumpâs own speechwriters.
Last year, when the commander-in-chief made his argument for prolonging the longest war in American history â" a conflict in which the U.S. has neither a credible strategy for victory, nor significant national interest â" he devoted much of his remarks to celebrating the sacrifices of fallen soldiers.
American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives â" and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds they achieved total immortality.
By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.
â¦Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.
But what the âmen and women who serve our nation in combatâ truly deserve is a country that reveres their lives more than their suffering â" and, therefore, that only asks them to endure the latter in wars that are just, winnable, and necessary.
If we wish to honor McCainâs wartime-sacrifice, we must remember it less as an example of the kind of heroism we wish to emulate, than of the kind of tragedy that our nation is duty-bound to avoid repeating.Source: Google News Vietnam | Netizen 24 Vietnam