At John’s prompting, I read the account of John McCain’s captivity. Aside from the jaw-dropping details and a reminder that we often skim over a term like “war hero” without appreciating what it really entails, three things struck me. First, no wonder McCain doesn’t give a darn what polls say or what political party establishment figures think, nor fear the political repercussions of unpopular stances. Losing a primary or even an election is small beans, no doubt, for him. Certainly, he did not survive years of horror, except by consulting his own and the military’s code of honor. This, by the way, is not an unalloyedly positive quality. While it makes for courageous decisions under political pressure, it also may make it nearly impossible to get him to do things he just doesn’t want to, but should.
Second, this is someone who has a fundamental understanding of totalitarian evil based on personal experience. After detailing the excruciating torture and sadistic treatment by his communist captors, he explains his reaction to the bombing of Hanoi which began in 1972:
We knew at that time that unless something very forceful was done that we were never going to get out of there. We had sat there for 31/2 years with no bombing going on–November of ’68 to May of ’72. We were fully aware that the only way that we were ever going to get out was for our Government to turn the screws on Hanoi. . .
The only reason why the North Vietnamese began negotiating in October, 1972, was because they could read the polls as well as you and I can, and they knew that Nixon was going to have an overwhelming victory in his re-election bid. So they wanted to negotiate a cease-fire before the elections.
I admire President Nixon’s courage. There may be criticism of him in certain areas—Watergate, for example. But he had to take the most unpopular decisions that I could imagine—the mining, the blockade, the bombing. I know it was very, very difficult for him to do that, but that was the thing that ended the war. I think the reason he understood this is that he has a long background in dealing with these people. He knows how to use the carrot and the stick. Obviously, his trip to China and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with Russia were based on the fact that we’re stronger than the Communists, so they were willing to negotiate. Force is what they understand. And that’s why it is difficult for me to understand now, when everybody knows that the bombing finally got a cease-fire agreement, why people are still criticizing his foreign policy—for example, the bombing in Cambodia.
This is a man who with every fiber of his being believes that totalitarian regimes only respond positively in negotiations when forced to do so. In short, he believes in leverage.
Finally, there is a matter-of-fact tone in his writing. And the story reveals an extraordinary ability to remain cool under the worst of circumstances. There are many people who have presence of mind and a reassuring unflappableness, but not many are stress-tested in this extreme way. Not a bad quality, and not one every candidate for office has had an opportunity to demonstrate.
So it it easy–ironic, because his tale is so extraordinary–to discount McCain’s POW experience. But maybe it has far more relevance than many imagine.