The "shared ideals" of a hero

Posted: May 25, 2006 12:05 AM

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.

His captors offered him an early release from prison, knowing that he was the son of an admiral. They yearned to shame him, to embarrass the United States. But as he writes in his memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," he learned by the examples set by his father and grandfather. When he refused the final offer on the Fourth of July, the North Vietnamese, enraged, tortured him for the next two years in the most brutal ways.

This personal story, heroic though it is, shouldn't necessarily encourage anyone to vote for him, but it compels the respect of decent people. The senator has become something of a maverick in Washington, where mavericks are rarely appreciated, often strongly opposing both the president and party. If college students want only speakers with nothing much to say, they will get the mush they deserve.

One student at the New School, dissenting from the mob, complained that "in our classes we're taught the value of inclusion of all people, except of course conservatives, Republicans, war heroes, Christians, people with old-fashioned family values."

The senator had a story for the students about how maturity often cures the naive young. "I had a friend once, who, a long time ago, in the passions and resentments of a tumultuous era in our history, I might have considered my enemy. He had come to the country that held me prisoner, that deprived me and my dearest friends of our most basic rights, and that murdered some of us. He came to denounce the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our cells. I thought it a grievous wrong then, and I still do."

That man later apologized for what he recognized as a terrible mistake. He believed the war was wrong, a thoroughly respectable opinion. But he lost sight of the values all decent Americans share. The senator not only accepted his apology, but worked with him to promote human rights: "We worked together for our shared ideals." That's the lesson we must hope the noisy students one day learn.