Why Is John McCain Considered a “War Hero”?

Nobody in the media dares to question John McCain’s heroism. But my daughter, Grace, who lives in Miami, wants to know why he is considered a war hero. She sent me a link to a story about a man named Mai Van On, a Vietnamese peasant who risked his life to save McCain from drowning, and she contends that On is the real hero in the McCain story.

McCain’s “heroism” has bothered me for some time. Thousands of American service men and service women have been captured. Thousands have been imprisoned and tortured. Some have broken under torture, some have not. Do we even know the names of all those who endured torture without breaking?

Where are their medals? How many houses do they own? How much do they pay for their shoes? Nobody cares. Some of them are probably among the 150,000 homeless veterans on American streets today.

Besides, what part of a U.S. president’s skill set calls for the ability to endure torture? Do we want a president who gets shot down, or one who is skillful enough to avoid enemy fire? Surely the object of military conflict is to shoot down the other guy, not get shot down yourself?

Perhaps On should have gone into politics. He seems more like a genuine hero. According to the account on the Web, it was On who ran from the safety of a bomb shelter at the height of an air raid and swam out into a lake to rescue McCain.

A site called Mail Online tells the story, and the writer accuses McCain of “betraying” his Vietnamese rescuer. After reading the story, I don’t agree that McCain was guilty of betrayal, but (not uncharacteristically) he seems to have been guilty of ingratitude and self aggrandizement. According to the Mail Online story:

Lieutenant Commander McCain was drowning, tangled in his parachute cord after ejecting when his Skyhawk bomber was hit by a missile, and – with the help of a neighbor – On dragged him to shore. When bystanders attacked McCain, stabbing and beating him, On drove them off.

mccain heroNearly three decades later, a Vietnamese government commission confirmed On was indeed McCain’s rescuer and, in a 1996 meeting in Hanoi, McCain embraced On (photo at right) and gave him a Senate seal as a souvenir.

From that brief encounter to his death at the age of 88, On never heard from the senator again, and three years after their meeting, McCain published an autobiography that makes no mention of On. It is a snub On took to his death. His widow, Bui Thi Lien, 71, said: “In his last years, my husband was very sad sometimes. He would say, ‘Mr McCain has forgotten me.’ “

Why am I not surprised? From what I have read about McCain, that is the kind of uncaring selfishness I would expect from him. For example, he stopped loving his first wife after she lost her looks in a car crash. While many other men would probably have reacted in the same way, that is not the stuff of which “heroes” are made.

John McCain has spent more than a quarter of a century in the Senate, and his record is available for voters to examine. I happen to disagree with most of his votes, but I am sure there are Americans who view the universe as he does. (I am a tree-hugging wuss of a liberal, and naturally regard McCain as a heartless hawk who would spend our tax money on bombs and missiles while millions of kids go hungry.)

If you like McCain’s flag waving jingoism and the prospect of endless war, if you want a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, if you agree with taking from the poor to give to the rich… why, McCain is your man.

But whatever you do, don’t vote for the guy because he is a “war hero.”