[Publisher's Note] | McCain's War, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher's Note]

McCain’s War


"Although McCain participated in a morally unpardonable war in which the United Sates killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, one can’t help sympathizing with him in his reduced state." 

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on December 4, 2017. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

The announcement of the season’s big documentary event, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War, left me pretty indifferent. Extensive reading on the subject, as well as my own reporting in Southeast Asia in 1996, allowed me to believe I knew a great deal about Vietnam. Moreover, I didn’t have any desire to relive the sorrow I feel when I think about a conflict that affected my family in the 1960s (my older brother’s fight with the draft board) and gravely wounded it much later (my sister’s disastrous marriage to a Vietnam veteran). Nevertheless, I was unable to stop myself from turning on the television to take a look, and so I ended up viewing images that swept me back to the violent horror that was the war I grew up with and connecting them with the dangerous and stupid politics that are the current reality in Donald Trump’s America. We’re far from being finished with Vietnam, and I confess that Burns and his collaborator, Lynn Novick, deserve better than condescension from me.

That said, I remain impressed by a particular criticism of the filmmakers that the French lawyer Véronique Truong published in Revue Défense Nationale. She argues that the Burns-Novick history of the Vietnam War is, to the detriment of the Vietnamese, “an American history—you could almost call it a pastoral—the self-portrait of a breathless, vertiginous, discordant United States…. If we’re viewing a war seen from the inside, it’s from inside the United States, not Vietnam.” An emblematic example from Truong: the film’s soundtrack is comprised of prominent Anglophone rock and “includes not a note of Vietnamese music.”

All the same, I’m willing to forgive Burns a lot because of a two-minute interview presented in the fifth episode of the series. We see an American pilot lying in a Vietnamese hospital bed: John McCain, whose A-4 Skyhawk was shot down while he was on a bombing mission over Hanoi. When I first saw this interview, I immediately assumed it had been part of a propaganda effort on the part of the North Vietnamese, produced with the intention of embarrassing their famous prisoner of war (McCain belonged to U.S. military royalty; his father, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., was commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command, which included the Vietnam theater, during almost the entire period of his son’s incarceration). In the interview, in black and white, the future Republican senator and presidential candidate addresses his wife, the mother of his three children, on the other side of the world; struggling to hold back tears, he says, “I would just like to tell my wife that I’m going to get well, that I love her and hope to see her soon. I’d appreciate it if you tell her that…. I’m sure that I will get well. That’s all I have, that’s it. Thank you.”

Despite two fractured arms and a fractured leg, not to mention shock, McCain manages to smile at the end of the clip. Maybe he was simply glad to be smoking a cigarette in the company of the interviewer, François Chalais, and the cameraman, Jean-Paul Janssen. Burns doesn’t name the two journalists—a discourtesy, since we should be grateful to them for their scoop, obtained sometime between October 26, 1967, the day McCain parachuted out of his damaged airplane, and January of 1968, when the interview was broadcast in France. A handsome young man and a scion of the American elite, McCain perfectly embodied the self-destructive, ignorant arrogance of the United States at the time, an arrogance transformed into victimization and pathetic defeat. Although McCain participated in a morally unpardonable war in which the United Sates killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, one can’t help sympathizing with him in his reduced state.

McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, two of them in solitary confinement, and was tortured by his captors in an effort to obtain a “confession” of criminality. At the end of his rope, McCain eventually yielded—a profound humiliation for him, I imagine—but he didn’t accept the North Vietnamese offer to free him before his comrades who’d been imprisoned for a longer period of time, a move that would have violated the US military code, which forbids the acceptance of preferential treatment from the enemy. This was an act of courage worthy of admiration, whatever one’s view of the war might be.

While still a candidate two years ago, our thuggish president, who dodged military service thanks in part to bone spurs in his feet, declared that McCain was “not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Trump disgraced himself with that vulgar mockery. It came back to me when I saw the footage of McCain, suffering on his hospital bed. I realized that by electing Trump, we have unleashed a vengeful demon as punishment for our failure to acknowledge the immense suffering we caused both in Southeast Asia and at home. Trump’s malignant hypocrisy about the war—and everything else—may well be the sentence we deserve.

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