John McCain’s years of captivity in Hanoi, held by the North Vietnamese after his plane was hit by a missile, rightly became one of the centerpieces of his life. His resistance to his captors as he was tortured, kept in solitary confinement and given clumsy medical care was how he was recognized and revered by Americans. He walked with a limp when the Americans were released in 1973, and he never had full mobility of his arms.
Yet, when it came time for the U.S. to finally engage with the Vietnamese in trade, educational and cultural endeavors, McCain joined with Secretary of State John Kerry to give weight to those introductory meetings.
As a senator, McCain worked to make the world a safer place, to either deflect looming warfare or to end it. He made innumerable trips to the Middle East, the eastern end of the Mediterranean and Africa to try to convince foreign leaders that solutions to whatever they wanted or objected to could be reached peaceably. Human rights, freedom and justice were always a part of whatever he was advocating.
Not surprisingly, it was the interrogations carried out by Americans after Sept. 11 which he found most objectionable. What went on at secret locations in foreign countries, and at Guantanamo, reflected poorly on America, he said.
Those interrogations, which included physical and psychological pressures, gained only limited amounts of information from terrorists and suspected terrorists, but undercut America’s moral standing in the world.
In “The Restless Wave,” by McCain and Mark Salter, McCain described what gave Americans prisoners value:
“My fellow POWs and I could work up very intense hatred for the people who tortured us. We cussed them, made up degrading names for them, swore we would get back at them someday. That kind of resistance, angry and pugnacious, can only carry you so far when your enemy holds the cards and hasn’t any scruples ... Eventually, you won’t cuss them. You won’t refuse to bow...”
Here’s the heart of what he believed: “Still, they can’t make you surrender what they really want from you, your assent to their supremacy. No, you don’t have to give them that, not in your heart. And your last resistance, the one that sticks, the one that makes the victim superior to the torturer, is the belief that were the positions reversed you wouldn’t treat them as they have treated you. The ultimate victim to torture is the torturer, the one who inflicts pain and suffering at the cost of their humanity.”
McCain was a tireless advocate for America and what he thought would give people everywhere better lives. We all wonder if we could resist as a prisoner as he did, and then serve so successfully in public office. Had he led this country at the time, the extreme techniques at Guantanamo and the distant interrogations would not have taken place.