MOBILE, ALA.—"A proven leader, and a man of integrity," the New York Post called John McCain in its editorial endorsement. "A naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW, McCain knew that freedom was his for the taking. All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused—and, as a consequence, suffered years of unrelenting torture."
This standard summary of McCain's five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, repeated in thousands of media accounts during his 2000 campaign and again this election year, is the founding myth of his political career. The tale of John McCain, War Hero, prompts a lot of people turned off by his politics—liberals and traditional conservatives alike—to support him. Who cares that he "doesn't really understand economics"? He's got a great story to tell.
Scratch the surface of McCain's captivity narrative, however, and a funny thing happens: his heroism blows away like the rust from a vintage POW bracelet.
In the fall of 1967 McCain was flying bombing runs over North Vietnam from the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. On October 26, the 31-year-old pilot was part of a 20-plane squadron assigned to destroy infrastructure in the North Vietnamese capital. He flew his A-4 Skyhawk over downtown Hanoi toward his target, a power plant. As he pulled up after releasing his bombs, his fighter jet was hit by a surface-to-air missile. A wing came off. McCain's plane plunged into Truc Bach Lake.
Mai Van On, a 50-year-old resident of Hanoi, watch the crash and left the safety of his air-raid shelter to rescue him. Other Vietnamese tried to stop him. "Why do you want to go out and rescue our enemy?" they yelled. Ignoring his countrymen, On grabbed a pole and swam to the spot where McCain's plane had gone down in 16 feet of water. McCain had managed to free himself from the wrecked plane but was stuck underwater, ensnared by his parachute. On used his pole to untangle the ropes and pull the semiconscious pilot to the surface. McCain was in bad shape, having broken his arm and a leg in several places.
McCain is lucky the locals didn't finish him off. U.S. bombs had killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, many in Hanoi. Ultimately, between one and two million innocents would be shredded, impaled, blown to bits and dissolved by American bombs. Now that one of their tormentors had fallen into their hands, they had a rare chance to get even. "About 40 people were standing there," On later recalled. "They were about to rush him with their fists and stones. I asked them not to kill him. He was beaten for a while before I could stop them." He was turned over to local policemen, who transferred him to the military.
What if one of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center had somehow crash-landed in the Hudson River? How long would he have lasted? Would anyone have risked his life to rescue him?
An impolite question: If a war is immoral, can those who fight in it—even those who demonstrate courage—be heroes? If the answer is yes, was Reagan wrong to honor the SS buried at Bitburg? No less than Iraq, Vietnam was an undeclared, illegal war of aggression that did nothing to keep America safe. Tens of millions of Americans felt that way. Millions marched against the war; tens of thousands of young men fled the country to avoid the draft. McCain, on the other hand, volunteered.
McCain knew that what he was doing was wrong. Three months before he fell into that Hanoi lake, he barely survived when his fellow sailors accidentally fired a missile at his plane while it was getting ready to take off from his ship. The blast set off bombs and ordnance across the deck of the aircraft carrier. The conflagration, which took 24 hours to bring under control, killed 132 sailors. A few days later, a shaken McCain told a New York Times reporter in Saigon: "Now that I've seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I'm not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam."
Yet he did.
"I am a war criminal," McCain said on 60 Minutes in 1997. "I bombed innocent women and children." Although it came too late to save the Vietnamese he'd killed 30 years earlier, it was a brave statement. Nevertheless, he smiles agreeably as he hears himself described as a "war hero" as he arrives at rallies in a bus marked "No Surrender."
McCain's tragic flaw: He knows the right thing. He often sets out to do the right thing. But he doesn't follow through. We saw McCain's weak character in 2000, when the Bush campaign defeated him in the crucial South Carolina primary by smearing his family. Placing his presidential ambitions first, he swallowed his pride, set aside his honor, and campaigned for Bush against Al Gore. It came up again in 2005, when McCain used his experience as a POW to convince Congress to pass, and Bush to sign, a law outlawing torture of detainees at Guantanamo and other camps. But when Bush issued one of his infamous "signing statements" giving himself the right to continue torturing—in effect, negating McCain's law—he remained silent, sucking up to Bush again.
McCain's North Vietnamese captors demanded that he confess to war crimes. "Every two hours," according to a 2007 profile in the Arizona Republic, "one guard would hold McCain while two others beat him. They kept it up for four days ... His right leg, injured when he was shot down, was horribly swollen. A guard yanked him to his feet and threw him down. His left arm smashed against a bucket and broke again."
McCain later recalled that he was at the point of suicide. But he was no Jean Moulin, the French Resistance leader who refused to talk under torture and killed himself. According to The Nightingale's Song, a book by Robert Timberg, "[McCain] looked at the louvered cell window high above his head, then at the small stool in the room." He took off his dark blue prison shirt, rolled it like a rope, draped one end over his shoulder near his neck, began feeding the other end through the louvers." He was too slow. A guard entered and pulled him away from the window.
I've never been tortured. I have no idea what I'd do. Of course, I'd like to think that I could resist or at least commit suicide before giving up information. Odds are, however, that I'd crack. Most people do. And so did McCain. "I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate," McCain wrote in his confession. "I almost died and the Vietnamese people saved my life, thanks to the doctors."
It wasn't the first time McCain broke under pressure. After his capture, wrote the Republic, "He was placed in a cell and told he would not receive any medical treatment until he gave military information. McCain refused and was beaten unconscious. On the fourth day, two guards entered McCain's cell. One pulled back the blanket to reveal McCain's injured knee. 'It was about the size, shape and color of a football,' McCain recalled. Fearful of blood poisoning that would lead to death, McCain told his captors he would talk if they took him to a hospital."
McCain has always been truthful about his behavior as a POW, but he has been more than willing to allow others to lie on his behalf. "A proven leader, and a man of integrity," the New York Post says, and he's happy to take it. "All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused ..." Not really. He did denounce his country. But he didn't demand a retraction.
It's the old tragic flaw: McCain knows what he ought to do. He starts to do the right thing. But John McCain is a weak man who puts his career goals first.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.