Memorial Day is hard upon us, when we celebrate the heroes of all our wars. The day has become mostly the marker for the first day to properly wear summer whites. War is still making heroes, but we don't celebrate them anymore. We live in the age of the anti-hero, the rebel without a cause, or worse, the rebel whose cause is mostly how to live the soft life of sloth and ease. Courage is oh-so-retro. Young people who celebrate profiles in protest, not courage, can't recognize a hero when he moves in their midst.
When John McCain arrived at Columbia College to speak at a special commencement event, the students circulated orange umbrellas and matching buttons as symbols of protest. At the New School in Manhattan, hundreds of students signed a petition to disinvite him as the commencement speaker. Dozens of graduates and professors turned their backs when he took his seat on the commencement stage.
The students were mostly angry over the senator's defense of the war in Iraq. To the surprise of no one who knows him, he stood firm, giving the same speech he gave earlier at Liberty University in Virginia, the unabashedly Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. He received a warmer welcome there for a message about the value of disagreements "over the size and purposes of our government, over the social responsibilities we accept in accord with the dictates of our conscience and our faithfulness to the God we pray to, over our role in the world and how to defend our interests and values in places where they are threatened."
He spoke eloquently of the reasons he supports the war in Iraq, "not to chase vainglorious dreams of empire, not for a noxious sense of racial superiority over a subject people, not for cheap oil . . . not for the allure of chauvinism . . . not for a foolishly romantic conception of war. I stand that ground because I believed, rightly or wrongly, my country's interests and values required it."
No one is more entitled to speak of the foolishness of the "romance of war." The parents of the Class of '06 remember what many of their children never learned, how John McCain spent five and a half years as a prisoner of the brutal Vietnamese communists, at the miserable prison the American pilots called "the Hanoi Hilton" and at an equally brutal prison called "the Plantation." He survived on four spoonfuls of rotten fish and vegetables twice a day. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with only rats and mosquitoes, where a naked overhead light bulb was never turned off.