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American Heroes

John McCain (front right) with his squadron.
(Source: Library of Congress/US Navy)

United States Senator John McCain died on 25 August of 2018. Former Presidents and colleagues praised him as a bipartisan role model for civility in discourse, an exemplary American, and a war hero. Commemorations in Washington D.C. lasted several days. Sincere condolences to his family and friends.

It’s normal to show empathy while a family is mourning. Many Americans took comfort in the idea of McCain as a symbol of unity. Or they used his reputation to point out the failings of the current President from his same political party.

Words and history are important. They shape culture, beliefs and future actions. With all due respect for his service, suffering and his family – since a story about his life and legacy is being used for political purposes we can ask some questions of the people using him as a symbol.

What did McCain do throughout his life? What is a hero? And what is the purpose and impact of Americans from both political parties lionizing him?

John McCain grew up at the start of the Cold War. He was son and grandson of Navy Admirals. In 1958 he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. In a speech to Academy students in 2017 he said, “I wasn’t too thrilled” to be there at the time and, “was relieved to graduate – fifth from the bottom” out of 899 students.

As a 31 year old pilot in Vietnam McCain flew 23 bombing missions in ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’. From 1965 to 1968 it killed at least 72,000 Vietnamese civilians.

In 1967 his plane was shot down over Hanoi. It broke both his arms and a leg. Civilians rescued him from a lake. As a prisoner of war he was tortured, beaten, and forced to make propaganda statements. He was returned to the U.S. after 5 years and hailed as a war hero. 

The details of those early life events events and the historical context are worth digging into. 

The year McCain was shot down a 25 year old Muhammad Ali was national boxing champion. Ali was African-American and grew up under segregation – without full American freedoms or Admiralty in his family.

Ali refused to join the military. He was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in Federal prison. He lost his title, his income, and could not leave the country. 

Also in 1967 civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech titled ‘Beyond Vietnam’. He called for ending the war. And he connected racism, war, and the worst aspects of American capitalism. 

He once quoted Ali. “We are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression." King was killed early in 1968 while John McCain was also suffering as a prisoner in Hanoi. 

McCain served in the U.S. Congress for 36 years starting in 1982. He supported President Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America. He was caught in a scandal supporting bankers who had supported his campaign. And he opposed a law honoring civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. 

But he also supported lifting U.S. sanctions on Vietnam, co-sponsored a law regulating campaign donations, and supported appointment of African-American, women, and liberal Federal Court judges.

Twice he failed to be elected President. Despite praise for his bipartisan work reportedly some aids and colleagues claimed his temper disqualified him from that highest office.

Given that history - what is the purpose of calling John McCain a role model for civility, an exemplary American, and a (war) hero?

The U.S. is in a crisis of government. The current President is being investigated for possible business and political crimes. New reports claim even his senior officials see him as unfit for the job and a danger to the U.S. and the world. 

Oversimplified - there is anxiety and fear on both sides of an ideological divide. Some people elevate McCain to shame the President. Some truly believe McCain is a bipartisan hero and beacon of unity. Some hope focusing on McCain’s best moments will lure Americans towards a political center.

Words and history are important. What are the risks and impacts of calling John McCain a hero?

The racism, militarism and policy failures that exist in American history are not John McCain’s sole fault or responsibility. He grew up immersed in them himself. And at times he appeared to step outside that worldview. He claimed the freedoms and privileges he enjoyed should be available to all.

Calling McCain a political hero is inseparable from his status as war hero. In American culture ‘war hero’ carries more weight than ‘civil rights hero’ or ‘peace hero’. He leveraged his war hero title for political advantage. 

Using ‘war hero’ also means ‘don’t question war policy.’ In that context invoking McCain’s hero title makes it harder to critique any policies he championed and discounts the experiences of those continuing to live with the impacts. 

Most often McCain treated military action and punishment as solutions, and discounted claims they might be symptoms and causes.

In the 1990’s McCain worked with both parties to push stronger laws and longer jail times for drug and gang crimes. The laws were sometimes written and often enforced disproportionately affecting “black and brown and poor” people. The U.S. now has the largest most expensive prison system on earth.

In the early 2000’s he was a loud, early and influential voice in support of President Bush’s attack on Iraq. The pretenses for invasion have been proven false, and the costs to Iraqis and Americans continue to be large. 

Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos together are the most bombed countries in history. At the time of the war they were largely agrarian countries with peasant populations. The people still suffer from unexploded ordnance and the impact of chemical agents. The U.S. did not normalize trade relations with them until 1992, 1994, and 2004 respectively. 

Words and history are important. 

John McCain gets credit for the times he exceeded the ideology of his upbringing, acknowledged mistakes, forgave and collaborated with political opponents, and spoke and acted against the position of his political party. He served in the military and Congress all his life. Undoubtedly he suffered in Hanoi. 

And Vietnam is the underlying context for McCain being referred to as a political, war, and true American hero throughout a week of commemorations. The term was used by his family in mourning. Nearly everyone else was using it at least in part as a tool in a political context.

From Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war - This way of settling differences is not just. “ American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde cautioned, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The current call for American unity includes a call to nationalism. American culture can demonstrate unity when it inherently includes and validates the lived experiences of fellow humans and all the ongoing impacts of America’s history – both positive and negative. 

America can move “Beyond Vietnam” and dismantle the cultural remnants of a 1950’s Cold War worldview after it recognizes and addresses the deep cultural assumptions and values tied to the terms ‘hero’ and ‘war hero’.

The U.S. is facing a crisis of government. It can address one of the roots by redefining heroism.