John McCain is widely acknowledged, by himself and many others, to be a war hero. He is unfailingly described as such by the international media and by his peers in the Republican and Democratic parties, to the extent that his heroism is now almost an established fact. But having read a bit about his military record, I must ask in all honesty: what heroic act did he do? Where was the heroism?
The underachieving scion of a family of US Navy admirals, McCain spent his short period of active service (about twenty hours' flight time) bombing civilians in North Vietnam in 1967. He flew over cities in a heavily armed warplane and dropped tons of high explosive on them, on one occasion hitting a fish factory and destroying a number of barrels. While the bombing raids were dangerous for him — as evidenced by his eventual shooting down — they were, it is safe to say, rather more dangerous for the people underneath, and you wouldn't necessarily call them heroes. Besides, it was McCain's job to fly these missions, and in that, he was only continuing the family business. If he is a hero for doing that, then so is my local butcher.
It can't be said, either, that getting shot down and ejecting from your plane is a particularly heroic act — at the very least, I think you will agree, a heroic act should be voluntary. Perhaps the Vietnamese guy who rescued him from drowning in a lake was being heroic, but I, like McCain's many hagiographers, will ignore this person.
After his rescue, McCain was kept for five years as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he was routinely subjected to torture. Torture is no doubt a brutal, harrowing, mentally and physically shattering experience, but enduring it is not heroic. The unfortunate inmates of Guantanamo Bay are not heroes, and neither were the subjects of those well-publicised images from Abu Ghraib. Being tortured does not make one a hero, but a victim. A torture victim is not admirable; a torture victim is pathetic.
There is no indication that McCain behaved any differently under torture than ordinary mortals: he eventually broke down and did what he was told to, much like everyone else. Much play is made of his refusal to accept the offer of an early release*, as the son of the US Naval commander in Vietnam: but this is basically the minimum one would expect of a man with a shred of dignity. If he had walked free while leaving his less well-connected comrades in the slammer, then he would have kissed goodbye to any hope of a future political or military career.
And that about sums it up for McCain's so-called war heroism. While he no doubt displayed courage during his service and captivity, and while I wouldn't wish the suffering he endured on anyone, to call him a "hero" based on this record is quite flatly an abuse of the term, and one with definite political implications.
A necessary criterion for being a hero is that one acts for a noble cause, or at the very least towards some noble effect. Courage and valour and remarkable achievement are not enough. Many members of the Waffen SS displayed great courage in World War 2, and individuals among them performed remarkable acts of sacrifice to save their comrades in battle. They fought, for the most part, against numerically and economically superior foes, and still achieved many great victories against the odds. And yet we tend not to regard these men as heroes. This is because the cause they fought for was not noble.
McCain can only be seen as a war hero if he is portrayed as one who sacrificed greatly for a noble cause; in other words, if the Vietnam War is portrayed as a noble conflict. But the Vietnam War, from the American side at least, was not a noble conflict. It was an unprovoked, aggressive invasion by the world's largest military superpower of an impoverished nation that posed no threat to the US or its inhabitants. This invasion killed millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians, who were bombed, shot, poisoned and burned alive; it destroyed the countries' infrastructure, and threw much of Southeast Asia into political turmoil.
When I was growing up, all this was widely known and taken for granted. Portrayals of the Vietnam War in the popular media were almost universally negative: think of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, 19, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War, among others. The war was agreed, even by right-wingers, to have been at best a shameful mistake, a waste of life and resources, a bad idea. It was hard for anyone in possession of the facts to argue otherwise.
But now I detect a definite change in official opinion. And I'm not alone. One IMDB user, in his negative review of Full Metal Jacket, says
"I would submit that the public's views on Vietnam have changed since Kubrick made his film. Many Vietnam vets are now retiring and in recent years have finally been getting recognition for their service. The public's current determination to support the troops "downrange", fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a reflection of the shame we feel for the way we treated Vietnam vets back during their war. Even those who bitterly oppose the current war are quick to say they still support the troops...."
What's more, in bringing about this change, US liberals are leading the way. When Lieutenant Kerry was reporting for duty in 2004, he and his supporters openly campaigned on his war record. His Vietnam experience and his battlefield decorations were, we were told, a good thing, and when the Republican "Swift Boat Vets" confabulated slurs against this record, Democrats fell over themselves to tell us that no, he really did kick ass in Vietnam. The larger, sordid truth of what he and the US military were doing there was never mentioned. The Democrats pursued, unequivocally, a pro-Vietnam-War campaign; a stance they have not abandoned in the meantime. As the IMDB commentator above correctly notes, Obama and Clinton constantly tell us how much they support the troops, and never fail, when the situation arises, to pay deference to McCain's "heroic" war record.
The rehabilitation of the Vietnam War has to be seen in the context of America's present and future armed conflicts. The US invasion of Vietnam, it should be remembered, was defeated not only by the efforts of the Vietnamese, but also by the protests of US citizens at home. Conditions in the US during the war were explosive: in 1968 there was nearly a popular uprising. A repeat of this might seem unlikely today, but both establishment parties are keen to keep it unlikely in the future, as they prepare to settle into war for the long term in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly Iran. So it's in their interests to portray the Vietnam War as a positive experience, to drum up patriotic support behind it, to preserve and advance the myth of America as an unfailingly heroic presence on the world stage.