On Truc Bach Lake near Hanoi, Vietnam, there is a monument that has become a shrine. People come there to leave flowers, burn incense and pray for peace. Ironically, it honors a man who was once their enemy. Of course, it marks the place where John McCain, shot down in October 1967, landed in his parachute. Floating to the ground, he was set upon, beaten and bayoneted. Imprisoned, tortured and isolated, he never should have survived but survive he did until released in 1973.
John McCain and his fellow POWs came home heroes — symbols of honor, courage and commitment. Retiring from the Navy, pilot McCain took off again, lifting like a political phoenix out of the desert of Arizona, rising ever higher into the national eye as a reform Republican in the almost forgotten conservative-liberal tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. Elected to the Senate five times, he was the friend of defense and veterans, and the foe of “pork” and presidents. An ardent advocate of the Senate as a co-equal branch, his seat is assured in its pantheon of the greats.
He ran for president twice, making his long and valiant journey from the “Hanoi Hilton” to the threshold of the Oval Office. In accepting his party’s nomination in 2008, he said:
“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.”
John McCain was not only a true American hero; he was a hero’s son and a hero’s grandson. His grandfather, Adm. John S. Sr., an aviator and decorated carrier commander, stood on the battleship Missouri as Japan surrendered. His father, Adm. John S. Jr., was an intrepid submariner in the same war and later commanded all American forces in the Western Pacific, including Vietnam.
When the word came that their boy had probably been killed, the admiral and Mrs. Roberta McCain went to a dinner party as if nothing had happened. With the McCains, like so many military families, it’s always “come back with your shield or on it.” All they said publicly was they “were praying for him.”
Such a man with such a story, like a jet onto a pitching carrier deck, he could have landed that desk on Pennsylvania Avenue. How could he lose to a freshman senator of no particular distinction or accomplishment? But John McCain made mistakes and his young opponent was a charismatic campaigner flying effortlessly on the wings of a very different American story. Barack Obama threw John McCain out of sync. Timing is everything, and his timing remained ever so slightly off, and so Mr. McCain crashed.
This remains difficult to accept. Among many of my fellow Vietnam veterans, there was a hope that one of our own would be honored with the presidency. It would have been the salute of a national imprimatur. Then along came James Webb, another hero, a decorated and wounded Vietnam Marine, secretary of the Navy, U.S. senator and gifted writer. He was the last of our brotherhood to have a shot, but the fact he could have won didn’t matter to the media/cultural power structure or his party. Neither granted him genuine legitimacy.
As a Marine Vietnam Veteran friend of mine, wounded and decorated, hero of Khe Sanh, put it so eloquently in a message to his comrades:
“He [McCain] was almost the single surviving veteran of the Vietnam War that the media recognizes with some approval. He is gone now and the rest of us will become almost invisible. For me this is sad because as we know there were tens of thousands of acts of courage over there never reported, not just by oversight, but by political design. As there are no more public heroes of Vietnam, I hold each of you more dearly. God bless John McCain.”
Today Vietnam is very welcoming to returning veterans. Why? First, strange as it may seem, the Vietnamese like Americans. Second, there is a mysterious bond forged from shared suffering and sacrifice ameliorated by time, even among former foes. Then, there is the implicit recognition of that war’s tragic complexity and a desire for reconciliation — among the Vietnamese as well as ourselves. Finally, there is the rising importance of our de facto alliance against China, Vietnam’s traditional enemy and now ours.
Few understood these things better than John McCain. Making multiple trips back to Vietnam, no one worked harder for improved relations than he did. Indeed, diplomatic recognition was largely his achievement, perhaps his most enduring. That’s why there was that message of condolence from the Vietnamese to his family. It and the recent visit of the USS Carl Vinson to Da Nang were the mutual signals that an end of the war had come at last.
The blood of more than 50,000 dead Americans is soaked indelibly into the soil of Vietnam. There will always be a piece of America there in those rice paddies, villages and jungles. For this reason our history and our fate are forever linked. Let John McCain’s shrine at Truc Bach Lake be a symbol of that and the future of the Vietnamese and American people together.
• Phillip H. McMath, a trial lawyer in Little Rock and Vietnam veteran, is the author most recently of “The Broken Vase.”
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