Heroism on the battlefield is the ultimate tribute man can pay to those whom he loves, and above all to his country. But such heroism is not limited to the actual fields where sword flashes against sword.
John McCain was a hero for his exploits in the sky above the battlefield as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, but perhaps he was the greater hero for his devotion to God and country in the gritty prison he and his fellows called, with mocking derision, “the Hanoi Hilton.”
When he was shot down and crash-landed his plane in a small lake in the heart of Hanoi in 1967, the crash broke bones in his arms and shoulders. If the pain was not quite unbearable, his captors made it so when he was taken to the Hanoi Hilton where the torture continued. When his North Vietnamese captors learned that he was the son and grandson of admirals from one of America’s most distinguished military families, they offered him his freedom, eager to make propaganda hay of their prey.
He agreed — but only if the other prisoners could leave with him. He spent the next five-and-a-half years as a model prisoner, “model” in the sense that he spent those months as a living, breathing rebuke to an evil enemy.
This was the courage and fortitude that he would show when he came home to begin a political career that led him first to the U.S. Senate from Arizona and finally to the Republican nomination for president of the United States. When he died this weekend at age 81 he was remembered as patriot of remarkable dedication, and praised by Republican and Democratic partisans alike.
He incurred the wrath of some of his fellow Republicans as the maverick who could make Republican and Democrat furious with his unpredictable votes in the Senate, occasionally joining the Democrats. It was his single vote that defeated the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare.
When he accepted his party’s nomination for president in 2008, he told the Republican convention that “we lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We came to power to change Washington, and Washington changed us.” Many Republicans were furious, but who could doubt it now?
He rebuked a supporter who called Barack Obama an “Arab,” telling her, “No, ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” (Left unsaid was that a man could be “a decent man” and an “Arab,” too.)
He relished holding fast to certain of his politically incorrect beliefs. He used what some delicate Democratic critics called a “racial slur” in referring to the prison guards who tortured American captives as “gooks.” “I hate the gooks,” he told an inquiring reporter. “I will hate them for as long as I live.” He also had led the way to restoring diplomatic relations with North Vietnam when it was not a popular thing to do.
He will be remembered as war hero, senator, presidential nominee and most of all, as a good and decent man of the kind now vanishing from public life. He once said of his bitter prison years as the time and place “where I fell in love with my country.” No man ever left a more eloquent epitaph. Requiescat in pace.
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