Op-Eds by Jim
No Ordinary War, No Ordinary Hero
February 25, 1990
by James Webb, The New York Times
John McCain’s presidential campaign, more clearly than any since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower, emphasizes military biography over political accomplishments. Just as Eisenhower was embraced by the nation for the leadership he showed in World War II, any discussion about Mr. McCain begins with his ordeal as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Even though Vietnam was a divisive war that is not yet resolved in the national consciousness, Mr. McCain can appeal to all sides. He is an inspiration to many veterans and conservatives, who see some validation of their service and also of the war they believe was justly begun, well fought on the battlefield and mindlessly boggled by the political process at home. At the same time, many who opposed the war can nonetheless support the man because of his personal ordeal, without facing the intellectual complications of directly facing the issues of the war itself.
This broad appeal is unique, especially because it is based on suffering rather than concrete battlefield accomplishments. Eisenhower, after all, gained fame for directing the allied victory in the European theater. Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill. Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant were battlefield heroes in the Civil War. Andrew Jackson won renown for his victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans. George Washington led the Continental Army during the war for independence.
John McCain’s historic contribution, it would seem, was to rot in a Hanoi hellhole for more than five years as the nation ripped itself apart in venomous political debate. But a closer look brings deeper insight into why most Americans have come to hold this defining experience in such great esteem.
The Vietnam prisoner of war experience was itself unique in our history. American P.O.W.’s have frequently endured brutality, particularly in Asia, where the death rates of P.O.W.’s in our last three major wars was above 40 percent. The Korean war saw the first major attempts at what became known as brainwashing, where interrogators and political commissars sought to “turn” Americans against their own government.
But in Vietnam, the manipulation of the prisoners became a dominant part of Hanoi’s overall strategy to turn the American people at home against the war.
Thus, American P.O.W.’s were at center stage for years during the political debates here at home, even as they suffered in relative anonymity in Hanoi. The North Vietnamese, who referred to their prisoners as their negotiating “pearls,” refused throughout the war to provide a complete listing of those who were in captivity. From time to time, the prisoners were paraded in front of cameras to make confessions of “war crimes,” or brought to meetings of visiting “peace” delegations. Medical attention was often withheld from those who refused to cooperate. The pressure on a daily basis to repudiate one’s own country was often relentless.
That the majority of these prisoners returned from such a nightmare in early 1973 with their patriotism intact was an ennobling experience for all Americans, who by that time had grown confused, war-weary, and decidedly less than noble in their dealings with each other over the war.
Throughout his political career, Mr. McCain has benefited from the halo effect of that emotional homecoming. And critics today have accused him of harping on his experience as a prisoner of war to burnish his image as a presidential candidate, using it to evade questions about his policies and leadership.
But if there is insight into Mr. McCain’s leadership style, it is with the question of how he worked to normalize relations with Vietnam. To his credit, the man who is so often criticized by opponents for divisiveness succeeded in working across the widest imaginable spectrum of interests in order to bring the Vietnam War and its aftermath to a full resolution. At the same time, as in his dealings with other issues, like campaign finance reform, his relentless pursuit of a solution to the normalization question and the singularity of his approach left a trail of bruised egos and avowed revenge seekers.
Despite his P.O.W. background, Mr. McCain frequently angered veterans groups by moving forward toward normalization when they were still pushing for a fuller accounting of those still listed as missing in action. Having been in prison during the most hostile period of antiwar protests, he has displayed little understanding of how deeply many combat veterans were scarred by the reception they received upon coming home.
Never having served on the ground in South Vietnam, he seldom articulated a concern for those South Vietnamese who had suffered immensely in the war and its aftermath. And he created a perception in some circles that he would reach over allies to work with enemies by allying himself to Senator John Kerry, who once headed Vietnam Veterans Against the War, as well as providing political cover for President Clinton when normalization was announced.
In fact, these actions may be one reason for the rather surprising statistic that shows George W. Bush running as well among veterans as Mr. McCain himself. But the fact is, Mr. McCain succeeded, and he took the country with him. Yes, he used his prisoner of war credentials to their full impact. Certainly he could have been smarter and more respectful of the travails of others, and more conscious of buttressing his supporters as he reached out to his adversaries. But he took on the most contentious diplomatic issue of our time and pursued it to a satisfactory conclusion.
Resolving this issue may not show John McCain’s ability to unite disparate groups, but it is certainly testimony to his ability to lead.