Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Did you know that John McCain, Arizona senator and former presidential candidate, is a war hero?

It’s understandable if you didn’t know this, for no one, least of all Senator McCain himself, ever mentions this fact.

In this respect, McCain is not unlike your average combat veteran, particularly those combat veterans from the World War II era, like my late paternal grandfather who died when I was but nine years of age.  Years later, after I reached adulthood, I would ask my father if his dad ever recounted many of his experiences from the war.  My dad would reply in the negative, explaining that most of the men from that generation spoke little about their time in combat.

In other words, they were like McCain, who not only disavows all attempts by others to brand him a war hero, but who aggressively insists that no one ever refer to him as such.

And did you further know that if one of the most visible and among the most influential public figures in the world is dying, that irrespectively of what he’s said or done, it remains immoral to respond to this figure critically?

Senator McCain, you see, has terminal brain cancer. Thus, it is immoral for any remotely decent human being to utter a single critical syllable about him—even if it is in response to remarks that McCain continues to make.

As the reader has doubtless discovered by now, the foregoing paragraphs are to be understood as full-throated sarcasm.  McCain and his admirers have spent decades playing the “war hero” card at every turn.  They continue doing so.  A friend of mine recently remarked that he can’t think of a single other person who has exploited his combat service for personal gain to the extent that McCain has done so.  Neither can I think of anyone who so much as places a distant second.

Even John Kerry doesn’t come close in this regard, for Kerry played the war-hero bit only for the purpose of securing the presidency in 2004.  When that didn’t work, he went silent on this front.

McCain is a different breed entirely.

The claim that McCain is a war hero depends upon the fact that he bombed, from tens of thousands of feet in the air, numerous poverty-stricken Vietnamese villagers—men, women, and children—before being captured and confined for five years to a POW prison.

But bear the following considerations in mind.

(1)That McCain and his fellow pilots sought to cripple Vietcong does not change the brute fact that they inevitably set ablaze the lives of untold numbers of innocents too. The killing, the maiming, the orphaning, and the traumatizing of poor Vietnamese villagers courtesy of McCain and his comrades in the skies is the stuff of nightmares.

If heroism is a moral virtue, it is difficult to discern the virtuousness in McCain’s course of action.

(2)It is undeniably tragic that McCain and other Americans (who never exploited their experiences to advance themselves materially, professionally, and politically, as McCain has) were made to endure torture for years at the hands of the Vietcong.  Perhaps we can admire in those soldiers who suffered the virtues of perseverance, self-discipline, patience, fortitude, and maybe even courage.

Still, a soldier who leaps on top of a hand grenade to prevent harm to his brothers-in-arms acts heroically.

Doctors without borders, those physicians who attend to the wounded and ill in war-torn lands at risk of life and limb to themselves, act heroically.

It’s much more difficult to discern the heroism in the suffering of people whose only alternative to captivity was death, particularly when those same people were the antagonists.

(3) Even if McCain could be considered a war hero, this in and of itself doesn’t tell us anything else about his character.  Benedict Arnold was a super patriot and war hero too.  But perhaps second only to Judas Iscariot, he is remembered today, whether justly or not, as history’s biggest traitor.

(4)If McCain was a war hero for engaging in preemptive violence against a Third World people on behalf of his country, then aren’t the Vietcong, to say nothing of Nazis and other communists who engaged in defensive violence against American invaders for the sake of protecting their respective countries at least as deserving of this distinction?

If one’s answer to this last question is “no,” then, presumably, it can only be because the American cause for which McCain fought in Vietnam was just while the causes of Nazis and communists were unjust. Yet there are two problems with this position.

(a)Assuming for argument’s sake that the Vietnam War was just, this implies that one can risk life and limb for the sake of defending one’s loved ones, compatriots, and homeland, or for the sake of bringing honor to one’s God and one’s ancestors, and yet lack heroism.

(b)It remains, at a minimum, a debatable question as to whether the Vietnam War was in fact just.  Even those Americans who now regret the war tend to regard the soldiers who fought it as “heroes.” If their intuition is correct, if, that is, American soldiers could be heroes for participating in an unjust cause, then so too must we conclude that Nazis, communists, and ISIS soldiers, i.e. those who fought for what most of us view as unjust causes, are heroic.

So, one can be heroic while acting unjustly.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t ways of resolving these paradoxes.  The point here twofold:

First, the concept of a “hero,” particularly a war hero, is not as unproblematic as many assume.

Second, from the assertion that a person is a war hero, nothing much else follows.

(5)Big Conservative (neoconservative) commentators who are now castigating the rank and file of their movement for being critical of McCain in his last days have steadfastly refused to spare an ounce of the compassion that they extend to their hero for the countless human beings around the planet whose lives have been ruined because of McCain.

Not only has McCain, a man whom, one would think, knows better than most the horrors of war, been all too eager to send off generations of young Americans to die and suffer in every conceivable way in one war after the other for the realization of which he’s enlisted his power and influence; McCain is responsible also for the abysmal fate of an incalculable number of Third World people of color whose lives were devastated in these wars.

McCain’s war mongering, from Vietnam to Iraq and several other places in between, left doubtless over a million human beings, men, women, and, most heartbreaking of all, children, destroyed.  Civilian noncombatants perished in astronomical numbers in places like Iraq and as many as 800,000 children there have been orphaned, with 10,000 or so experiencing severe psychological trauma.

Not once has McCain (or any of his neoconservative admirers) ever issued an apology to a single soul for his actions.

And yet the rest of us are supposed to sit in silence while McCain continues to be praised as a “war hero” and as he continues to pontificate from his death bed.

A nationally syndicated talk radio host recently implored his listeners to show some “humanity” by sparing McCain of criticism at this time.  This host enthusiastically supported McCain’s policies, particularly his foreign policies, for decades. I would submit to this host that it is inhumane to allow McCain to enjoy the acolyte of “hero,” to immunize him from criticism. In doing so, we turn our backs on the legions of our fellow human beings to whose incalculable suffering he contributed over his career in “public service.”

 

 

 

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