I keep hearing from readers that McCain gets no credit for heroism for rejecting an early release from the Hanoi Hilton because the military code of conduct required as much. They say he was merely obeying rules, not demonstrating heroism, and avoiding a likely court martial upon his return to the U.S. Here’s a link to the relevant code.
While it’s true that the Code of Conduct requires certain behaviors of prisoners, I don’t see how McCain’s decision to abide by those requirements diminishes his strength of character. I should think that facing a court martial would be less horrifying than facing torture and possibly death. I wonder what all those who criticize or diminish his conduct would have done?
To help in that self-analysis, here’s an excerpt from McCain’s 1973 first-person account of his capture, his decision not to accept an early release and the consequences that followed:
With this “The Cat,” who was sitting there with a pile of papers in front of him and a pen in his hand, broke the pen in two. Ink spurted all over. He stood up, kicked the chair over behind him, and said, “They taught you too well. They taught you too well”—in perfect English, I might add. He turned, went out and slammed the door, leaving “The Rabbit” and me sitting there. “The Rabbit” said “Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you. Go back to your room.
What they wanted, of course, was to send me home at the same time that my father took over as commander in the Pacific. This would have made them look very humane in releasing the injured son of a top U. S. officer. It would also have given them a great lever against my fellow prisoners, because the North Vietnamese were always putting this “class” business on us. They could have said to the others “Look, you poor devils, the son of the man who is running the war has gone home and left you here. No one cares about you ordinary fellows.” I was determined at all times to prevent any exploitation of my father and my family.
There was another consideration for me. Even though I was told I would not have to sign any statements or confessions before I went home, I didn’t believe them. They would have got me right up to that airplane and said, “Now just sign this little statement.” At that point, I doubt that I could have resisted, even though I felt very strong at the time.
But the primary thing I considered was that I had no right to go ahead of men like Alvarez, who had been there three years before I “got killed”—that’s what we say instead of “before I got shot down,” because in a way becoming a prisoner in North Vietnam was like being killed.
About a month and a half later, when the three men who were selected for release had reached America, I was set up for some very severe treatment which lasted for the next year and a half. . . .
They took me out of my room to “Slopehead,” who said, “You have violated all the camp regulations. You’re a black criminal. You must confess your crimes.” I said that I wouldn’t do that, and he asked, “Why are you so disrespectful of guards?” I answered, “Because the guards treat me like an animal.”
When I said that, the guards, who were all in the room—about 10 of them—really laid into me. They bounced me from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes. Then I was taken to a small room. For punishment they would almost always take you to another room where you didn’t have a mosquito net or a bed or any clothes. For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked.
Read the whole thing here.