John McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. His plane was shot down and he was taken to the Hanoi Hilton. After some time in solitary confinement, relocation, and episodes of torture he was offered release. He refused it, stating that he would only leave once everyone who’d been there longer was released.
That’s the official story from the McCain “camp” and you can verify it on Wikipedia. Naturally Wikipedia is watched and edited carefully by McCain’s “camp” so we know that’s the official story – just check out the Cultural and Political Image section.
McCain’s public persona is very much steeped in the idea that he is an American hero. He leads with his character out front and his service to his country right along side. So, what makes him a hero?
That sacrifice of refusing early release is a strong case. The Stolen Thunder blog agrees, specifically listing McCain’s refusal and his resistance to torture as heroic. Mike Benge says he was just following orders – everyone had been ordered not to accept early release.
McCain’s focus on character first is another possibility for claiming the hero status. His own words describe a desire to act as an example of honour and service for everyone, especially his children. Those same words describe some quiet, everyday heroic behaviour from one of his captors. And yet many would tell you McCain lacks those very qualities. In general, the POW/MIA activist community hates him as pointed out in depth in the Phoenix New Times. Patty O’Grady of University of Tampa lays the cards on the table with some open questions. Her father was in both prison camps that McCain was in. Eric Wattree says, “A hero is one who acts with nobility of purpose, and selflessly sacrifices his life, or places his life in imminent danger to promote the interests of the nation or his comrades. That doesn’t define McCain…”
Michael Moore (even less neutral than Wikipedia) wrote in his recent Mike’s Election Guide 2008:
John McCain is already using the Vietnam War in his political ads. In doing so, it makes not just what happened to him in Vietnam fair game for discussion, but also what he did to the Vietnamese … I would like to see one brave reporter during the election season ask this simple question of John McCain: “Is it morally right to drop bombs and missiles in a ‘heavily populated’ area where hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians will perish?”
So what’s the answer? Unfortunately an American presidential election is not the place to look for the truth about people. There is too much effort put into spin on both sides of the table – one of the sad parts about only having two sides to the table.
If John McCain sacrificed his freedom for solidarity, then I would label him a hero. If John McCain lives with honour and service, then I would label him a hero. I wonder if we’ll ever know.