In the summer of 1968, 31-year-old U.S. Navy Lt. Commander John S. McCain III – a prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese POW camp – was offered by his captors a chance to go home.
McCain’s father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., had just been awarded command of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, and the North Vietnamese saw an opportunity for a propaganda stunt: Show the world a “merciful” North Vietnamese government, while simultaneously creating a sense among other American prisoners that the “blue bloods” among the POW ranks would easily accept preferential treatment.
The younger McCain refused the bait.
Wracked with dysentery, having been tortured as a POW for nearly eight months (he would be imprisoned for another five years), at times suicidal, nearly killed upon ejecting from his crippled A-4E Skyhawk (shot down over Hanoi), and beaten and bayoneted during his capture; McCain simply said “no.”
The young Naval aviator couldn’t go home; not and leave behind those men who had been imprisoned and tortured longer than he.
McCain’s rejection of the enemy offer seems remarkable to many journalists who have recently been covering the presidential campaign of the now 71-year-old U.S. senator from Arizona. Some have asked, “How could you not go home?” McCain’s response is almost always something along the lines of, “Most of my fellow POWs would have done the same thing I did.”
A salute to his fellow former-prisoners: But it was much more.
What the journalists who have been covering McCain don’t understand – and which the North Vietnamese also failed to grasp – is that McCain’s actions were not – and are not –unusual for an American fighting man; and when I say American fighting man, I am specifically speaking of those trained for service in the various combat arms fields.
Granted, the average person would have jumped at a chance to leave hell and go home. So there is nothing wrong with the question.
But to an American combatant – soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine – there are many things worse than separation from loved ones, mental and physical torture, and death. Those things which are an aversion to the American combatant, in his purest form, include: betraying or abandoning others, quitting when others are still on the job, lying about anything, cheating, stealing, exhibiting cowardice, cooperating with an enemy, surrendering when one still has the means to resist, or in any way violating the Code of Conduct for U.S. fighting forces or any other written or unwritten honor code. And it is something that endures beyond one’s service.
Rarely – if ever – would an American fighting man lie about (much less feel a compulsion to lie about) an incident of an imagined Bosnian sniper attack. An American fighting man would not be able to deny the knowledge of the maniacal rantings of a racist anti-American with whom he had maintained a familially-close relationship for 20 years. Nor would he be able to maintain such a relationship with such a hater of America.
This doesn’t mean there are not selfish, dishonest souls carrying rifles, driving tanks, flying jets, or perhaps even working around nuclear weapons. There are. The military is not without less-than-creditable characters. Nor are the military’s combat arms fields without bad people. But there are far fewer immoral men as a percentage of the whole in combat arms units than there are immoral men and women in greater society.
It’s difficult for most Americans to get their heads around this, because most are not – and have never been – military combatants.
Most people believe that most adults lie sometimes or exaggerate for whatever reason, cheat at some level, and probably look out for numero uno at the expense of others. And it is widely believed that to do any of those things is not actually dishonoring oneself: It’s just getting by, perhaps being resourceful, or simply being human. After all, what someone else doesn’t know, doesn’t hurt them. Right?
The ready acceptance of dishonor and dishonesty is why when U.S. Marines were accused of murdering innocent civilians “in cold blood” in Haditha (November 2005) it was automatically assumed among the anti-Iraq war crowd and in the mainstream media that they did murder, even when the accused Marines said they did not.
The politicized reasons given for the Marines’ alleged “cold-bloodedness” have been everything from the Marines being over-stressed to being predisposed to evil to fighting in an unpopular war. Those of us who have been Marines – or soldiers, sailors, and airmen – or who have in some civilian capacity served with them up close and personal, know that for a single Marine to murder or kill an innocent person – though some Marines surely have over the Corps’ 232-year history – is an anomaly. And for several members of a unit to commit murder is almost impossible.
The reasons are simple: Putting others ahead of oneself, being honest, and – to borrow an oft-uttered phrase – “being a Boy Scout” is a part of the mix which drill instructors have always tried to whip into raw recruits. Moral men simply make better, more-disciplined fighters who will put the unit above themselves. So as a consequence, former fighters are, more often than not, going to be good, moral people.
We’ve all heard of Good Conduct Medals and phrases like the Army’s (at West Point) “Duty, Honor, Country,” and the motto of Marines, “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful). Then there is the Honor Concept at the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain’s alma mater, a portion of which reads:
“Midshipmen are persons of integrity… They do not lie. … They do not cheat. … They do not steal.”
But to outsiders, medals are just attaboys, and mottos, codes, and oaths, just words
Insiders however understand it’s all a part of building character and maintaining a person who is to be tasked with extremely difficult missions: This kind of person has to be the proverbial Boy Scout. He has to be the kind of American who will accomplish what he says he is going to do – or what he is directed to do – no matter what. His mission or his cause is always greater than his own self-interest. He must of course be resourceful, and he may have to change the plan along the way, but he doesn’t cut corners in terms of delivering on promises and achieving objectives. He doesn’t step on his peers to achieve that objective. He works with the man on his right and his left. He helps others as much as he can along the way. If someone betrays him or does him wrong, the good man does not seek equally wrong payback. Good men strive for the goal line together, and they bring with them all of their dead and wounded.
That’s the kind of person John McCain was raised to be by his father and grandfather, both of whom were admirals. That’s how the Navy trained – and still trains – its aviators (and other officers and sailors performing combat missions). And that’s why a physically broken future-presidential candidate did the right thing back in 1968.