John McCain on Character and Heroism

The Arizona senator and former POW tells us about some of the people he admires.

BY: Interview by Dena Ross

 

Continued from page 1

John Kerry and I worked very hard for a full accounting of the POWs and MIAs [in Vietnam]. We worked hard for the normalization of relations because we felt it was very important to have a reconciliation between old enemies. And so, at the time, to hate your enemy who is doing very bad and cruel things, including killing your friends, is not totally inappropriate because it gives you a source of strength, particularly when you're combating evil.

John McCain on intelligent design
After the ordeal on the battlefield ends, you focus on reconciliation. [For example,] what the United States did after World War II, with our two great enemies, the Germans and the Japanese. We hated them at the time, but once the conflict was over, we did everything we could to help them.

You also write that you "needed to believe in God to maintain through all of the horrors of war a sense of moral responsibility to struggle to remain a human being." Could you elaborate on this "struggle to remain human"?

John McCain recites the 23rd Psalm
When you are deprived of all of the luxuries, and even the basics of a normal life, if you aren't careful, your condition-mentally and physically-can deteriorate to something less than what you wanted to be. So maintaining human dignity is so important. That's why the chapter about [Holocaust survivor] Viktor Frankl is so important, where in Auschwitz, as he said in such eloquent fashion, "they can take everything away from you except the right to choose your own way." That, to me, is maintaining your dignity. Then no matter what happens to you, you've had a life, a record, that you could be proud of.

So remaining human is, in part, based on how much dignity you've retained?

Yes. You've got to retain your dignity and then you are capable of all of the other qualities-loyalty to your friends, loyalty to your country-but if you lose your dignity then...

You become less human?

You not only become less human, but you lose your allegiance to something greater than yourself.

When you were a POW, what would you talk to God about?

John McCain on talking to God
I would pray for deliverance from prison every day. But I would pray that that deliverance would be an honorable deliverance only, in keeping with the best interests of my country.

One time I was designated to be the room chaplain when we moved into a room of about 25 of 30 prisoners. We used to have...this was when the treatment improved rather dramatically.we would have church services. And I remember one time I gave a little talk, not a sermon, but a little talk about the parable of Christ, when he was asked should they pay taxes. And he held up a coin with the head of Caesar on the coin and he said, "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's." Meaning that if you're doing Caesar's work then you shouldn't ask for God to help you out.

I was doing my country's work when I flew into combat and so I felt that there's nothing wrong with asking for God's help. But remember that you shouldn't expect miracles and you should want that deliverance to be in the best interest of everybody, not just yourself.

In your previous book, "Faith of My Fathers," you say that your mother was the daughter of an Episcopal minister and that she saw to your religious instruction. Your father seemed a lot more private about his faith. Who is your model for religious life now?

I've sort of evolved in my religious faith. And I think probably because of my failings and mistakes in life I'm a much bigger believer in redemption. I really believe that redemption is a very important part of our religion. I'm much more of a believer in a loving God, a personal God. I'm much less inclined in every way to believe in a vengeful God.

What is your favorite prayer?

Probably the 23rd Psalm. (Listen to Sen. McCain recite the prayer.)

In your book, you write about Pat Tillman. When he enlisted in the Army and gave up his NFL career, he was called a hero. When he died, he was an even bigger hero. Yet when word came out that he was killed by friendly fire, it seemed like his heroism was lessened to some. Do you feel he's any less of a hero because of the situation surrounding his death?

I do not in any way feel that he's been diminished in the slightest. But, having said that of course, we're confused and unhappy that the army bungled the investigation so bad and it very tragically-but understandably-caused bitterness in his family. So all this controversy about the circumstances surrounding his death did not diminish his hero status, but it diverted a lot of attention from his true heroism.

Last year Beliefnet editors chose Pat Tillman as Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of the year.

Oh really! That's wonderful! I'm so glad you did that.

One of our finalists this year is Capt. Ian Fishback, whom you obviously know well.

Yes, indeed. He's a wonderful young man.

Does he embody good character?

Not only good character, but courage. The military is a bureaucracy, which does not lend itself to individual actions that are counter to what the bureaucracy thinks is best. So I admire him enormously. He had the courage to stand up and say what he thought was best for his country. He had his country's interest above his own ambitions.

Do you think if you were in his place you would have done the same thing?

I would hope so. But I can't tell you that I would have that kind of courage. I wish I could.

Why Darwin is one of McCain's heroes...
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  • Continued on page 3: »

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