From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1 October 2008
A Hero Betrays His Civilization
It is immoral to flaunt one’s pain, and even more immoral to permit one’s surrogates to do it for you, as is happening with Sen. John McCain’s campaign.
This is not merely the extension of the despicable American “Cult of Victimization” — I’m a victim, therefore you owe me. It is worse, because McCain was a genuine hero. To understand why it is worse, you must understand the nature of his heroism as a POW.
It wasn’t what you think.
The heroism of the POWs was the antithesis of macho confrontation; patriotism and religion played significant but secondary roles in their resistance. For those reasons, their accomplishment was greater than most people realize
Much has been written by and about the POWs, who engaged in a constant battle of wits with their captors. The primary North Vietnamese goal was not to extract useful information but to use the POWs as propaganda during the hard first half of the war, and then as bargaining chips during peace negotiations.
The goal of the POWs was to be as little use to the enemy as possible and most succeeded to an astonishing degree. Their achievement is all the more impressive when you realize that those who collaborated were not ill-treated. All a prisoner had to do to stop the torture, end the isolation, get decent food and medical attention, maybe even early release was, as a venerable rule for success in Congress puts it: “To get along, go along.”
To understand the POW experience, read the writings of the late Adm. James Bond Stockdale, whom most Americans remember only as Ross Perot’s inept 1992 running mate. Some know that he won the Medal of Honor for his courage as a senior officer organizing resistance during his nearly eight years of captivity. But it was a special kind of organized resistance. Stockdale once described himself as “the lawgiver of an autonomous colony of Americans who happened to be located in a Hanoi prison.”
And that was the key to it all.
To resist the enemy and maintain their own dignity and self-respect, the POWs had to create and then defend their own civilization. This civilization had its own living, evolving language, its own culture and oral history, its own laws and standards. These were based upon one great goal, unity and one great truth: In the torture room, the torturer usually wins.
The POWs’ legal code forbade its members to collaborate willingly and mandated torture and maltreatment. Make the enemy work for everything they get, make them start all over again each time. But it also set limits, down to the details of how long to try to endure before giving in. Still, this system could not have worked without three other aspects.
The first was a profound respect for other people’s privacy and sources of inner strength. Classical philosophy, especially Stoicism, was enormously important to Stockdale. But he was keenly aware that his mainstay was not shared by all, and many did not like to discuss their own deepest strengths. The second aspect was to be absolutely honest with one’s fellow POW citizens about one’s real-world strengths, weaknesses and conduct. The third, although it is a very weak word, was forgiveness. Nearly everyone broke, many more than once. But those who were honest about their failings and resisted as best they could remained citizens, worthy of respect and love.
Thus the civilization of the Hanoi Hilton: uncompromising unity and purpose, based upon practical realism, ruthless honesty, great compassion and enormous respect for privacy and difference. Citizenship in the prison polity came to be the vital common denominator. How a man behaved as a citizen was what mattered most.
Sad to say, we all know those values are antithetical to our lives, whether as individuals or as a nation, today. As for McCain, who was a citizen in good standing of the Hanoi Hilton polity and an honorable naval officer for 23 years, he has been a professional politician for the past 26 years. That, too, has formed his character.
For McCain is not running for president merely as a former POW who knows what civilization and citizenship are and can cost. He is running as the standard bearer of the Republican Party, and in his party now, where are the honesty and compassion, the respect for other people’s souls and values?
The Republican Party pretends the past eight years haven’t happened. It demands we pretend that it has not become the hate-filled mélange of crabbed fundamentalists, blind ideologues, financial wastrels and intellectual shills we know it to be. It demands that we ignore its ever-greater alienation from reality.
Bluntly, the Republican Party asks us to do the very thing that would have destroyed the Hanoi Hilton polity. Fake it.
And that is unforgivable.