Politics & Policy

John McCain: A Hero Under Fire

(Reuters photo: Samantha Sais)
His enemies reserve a special venom for the man whose heroism under torture was beyond imagining.

Dianna Orrock, a Republican national committeewoman from Nevada, has retweeted an article calling for Senator John McCain’s death. “Amen,” she wrote, appending her comment to someone else’s screed entitled “Please Just F***ing Die Already” on Medium.

Hilariously, Orrock is trying to wriggle out of this one. She claims that she doesn’t actually want McCain to die, but that she only agreed with the “sentiments” of the article.

However, the article’s author, Caitlin Johnstone, seemed to have foreclosed that possibility: “If you’re waiting for the part where I say I’m just kidding and would never wish death on anybody,” she wrote, “please allow me to make myself clear: I sincerely, genuinely hope that Arizona Senator John McCain’s heart stops beating, and that he is subsequently declared dead by qualified medical professionals very soon.”

Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

Their ranting about “neocon warmongers” shows that these women have problems. But let’s not pretend that they are alone in their hatred of Senator McCain. For years, McCain has been more than a target for anti-interventionists and immigration restrictionists. He is a hate figure for the Left and the once-fringe Right.

This can be explained rationally. McCain is a foreign-policy hawk in a time when hawks are under assault in both parties. McCain is a “comprehensive immigration reform” kind of guy in a time when deportation is either a crime against humanity or a moral necessity. And McCain has spoken out and sometimes voted against Trump in a time when you’re either with him or marching with the Resistance.

This makes sense but seems wanting, because the exact same thing could be said about, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham. To be sure, Graham has taken a few hits, but they tend to be dismissals, not vicious assaults on his character. McCain, on the other hand, is cast as an evil warmonger by a thousand conspiracy websites.

A true hero, returned home from war, disturbs the natural order of a society; classically, it cannot just let him be.

My explanation for this is the same as my explanation for McCain’s nomination for president in 2008 and my explanation for the early success of his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000: John McCain is a hero.

This presents an old problem. A true hero, returned home from war, disturbs the natural order of a society; classically, it cannot just let him be. Considered superior in virtue by the people, he becomes a symbol of the nation at its best. His person becomes a veritable national flag. This makes the hero useful and dangerous — the former if he lacks further ambition, and the latter if he has plans of his own.

Consequently, the hero must be either venerated and elevated or cynically scorned and abased. He must be given some form of power, like General Eisenhower, or destroyed, like General MacArthur. In the latter case, he will not be allowed to remain a hero, which is to say, a threat. He must be dragged down from his pedestal and robbed of his greater symbolism and meaning, which holds the key to his claim to power.

Maybe you think this is a little much for old John McCain, with his “crusty voice,” as President Trump put it. But I’d ask you to read the following, taken from David Foster Wallace’s essay “Up, Simba” in 2000.

In October of ’67 McCain . . . was flying his 26th Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi, and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, and the ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb . . . Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of North Vietnamese men all swim out toward you. . . . McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90 degrees to the side, with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. . . . He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken only about five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison — a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton, of much movie fame — where for a week they made him beg for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let the other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) go untreated. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. . . . After he’d hung on like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, the prison people came and brought him to the commandant’s office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. . . . And John S. McCain III, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused the offer. The US military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a much longer time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The prison commandant, not at all pleased, right there in his office had guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real: a man without teeth refusing release.

When you imagine “a man without teeth refusing release” in order to satisfy his code and serve his country, you begin to understand why it is so important for some to malign McCain’s character or to deny him his hero status, as our president did. He has to be a “warmonger” to Jimmy Carter and Rand Paul, and “The Poster Boy for Establishment Illegal Immigration Dishonesty” to Breitbart. He must be some sort of sellout or some sort of crazy.

Otherwise, Senator John McCain is just a man with a code and a flag. Otherwise, he’s just an American hero.

Pray for his speedy recovery.

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Elliot Kaufman — Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review. He studies political theory and history at Stanford University. His writing has previously appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Stanford ...

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