As a veteran, I must pay my respects to a fellow warrior who showed valor far above and beyond his call of duty. David Foster Wallace described the critical days in a 2000 Rolling Stone article. An extended quote:
You probably already know what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd 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, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right 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. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him.
U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. 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. Try to imagine this.
He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this.
All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go.
This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused.
The U.S. 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 long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain.
But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? It so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
After this demonstration of superior honor and valor and physical and moral courage, John McCain returned home and entered politics. He turned out to be a pretty standard issue hawkish corporate Republican, with a bit of racism mixed in, who never saw a tax cut or war he didn’t like. He saved the ACA, but he gave us Sarah Palin and never really pushed back against Trumpism the way one might expect a hero who truly loves his country would.
I wonder why not – John McCain showed more physical and moral courage early in life than he did close to the end. But few human beings could endure what he went through without breaking down completely. He was a true American hero who loved his country, suffered for defending it as his personal honor demanded, and then returned home to continue serving as he felt driven to serve. I disagreed with him on almost every issue, but I respect few men more than I do John McCain. Rest in peace.