It has been nearly two weeks since John McCain died, and he would be the first to say it is now time to move on. However, when a hero dies we can reasonably mourn a bit longer.
I did not know McCain personally. I attended Senate hearings where he presided and spoke, but that was it. However, I felt I knew him because on three separate occasions I went to the prison in Hanoi where he was held as a POW. It is hard to convey how graphic that experience was — the stifling tropic heat, the darkness, the stench. All the instruments of torture were still there. The Vietnamese government has preserved all this not because it wants to memorialize the presence of American servicemen but because their own compatriots were previously imprisoned and tortured in the same dungeon by the French colonial authorities who built it.
My reaction in viewing this place was that no human being could expect to last more than a few weeks under such horrific conditions. McCain lasted five and half years and began with an unset broken arm injured when he bailed out of his fighter aircraft over Hanoi. Other American POWs survived as long or even longer than McCain. I have no idea how they did it. McCain, incidentally, was offered early release by his captors when they discovered his father was a famous admiral. He refused because other prisoners would not be released as well.
It should be noted that while McCain was a prisoner, Donald Trump, having avoided the military draft, was living the high life in Manhattan. He later bragged that his sexual exploits at the time made him “feel like a great and very brave soldier.” For good measure, Trump denigrated McCain’s service, saying, “I like people that weren’t captured.”
McCain was repatriated with the other POWs in 1973. After he left the Navy he entered politics, and that is how most of us know him. His career was distinguished on multiple dimensions. One is particularly worth noting; he helped lead the U.S. reconciliation and normalization of relations with Vietnam, visiting Hanoi many times in the process. Ultimately, of course, he ran as the Republican candidate for president. He lost, but had he won he would have brought honor and respect to that great office.
His best memorial is provided by his own words — a message to his fellow Americans as he contemplated the end of his life.
“I have lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil … We’re not always right. We’re impetuous and impertinent and rush into things without knowing what we’re really doing. We argue over little differences endlessly and exaggerate them into lasting breaches. We can be selfish and quick sometimes to shift blame for our mistakes to others, but our country ’tis of thee.
“What good we’ve done in the world, so much more good than harm! We served ourselves, of course, but we helped make others free, safe and prosperous because we weren’t threatened by other people’s liberty and success. We need each other. We need friends in the world and they need us … Humanity counts on us, and we ought to take measured pride in that. We have not been an island. We were involved in mankind.
“Before I leave, I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I’d like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.
“Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect so long as our character merits respect and as long as we share — for all our differences, for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics — a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold — that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all.
“I end my farewell to you with heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully. … I feel it powerfully still. Do not despair of our present difficulties, we believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history; we make history. Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you and God bless America.
“[And now] I’d like to go back to our valley [the Naval Academy at Annapolis] and see the creek run after the rain and hear the cottonwoods whisper in the wind. I want to smell the rose-scented breeze and feel the sun on my shoulders. I want to watch the hawks hunt from the sycamore, and then take my leave … back where it all began.”