There’s always been something suspicious . . . something very feminine, as well . . . about conservatives’ gushing worship of the U.S. military and anyone who’s “served.” Should we really be grateful to the U.S. military for anything? Do we really owe our “freedom” to those Americans who murdered countless Vietnamese, Serbians, and Iraqis for justifications that few can now recall?
About the most positive emotion I can summon for U.S. soldiers is that I feel sorry for them, sorry for the fact that they’ve wasted their lives and that so many remain deluded about the true nature of the American military and the state whose interests it advances.
Donald Trump’s recent comments about John McCain and the nature of war heroism were thus revelatory, and in ways that haven’t been appreciated during the media firestorm of the past few days.
Trump is “divisive” in that he forces his opponents and rivals to take sides. In this case, he demonstrated that the other GOP candidates are interchangeable cowards and conformists. As an added bonus, he associated them all with an unpopular failed presidential candidate and immigration enthusiast.
More important, Trump’s comments also raised the specter of whether there’s much truth to McCain’s famous “captivity narrative” at all.
Ron Unz’s has been on this trail for years. Unz is a difficult man to pin down on the Left/Right, Friend/Enemy spectrum. What’s indisputable is that he has a great analytic capacity and is willing to go where most of his contemporaries fear to tread, such as when he questioned the “meritocratic” nature of Jewish admissions in the Ivy League. And he has certainly invited controversy through his long-standing effort to get at the truth about the McCain story.
Much as Unz does, I should admit my own biases up front: I hate John McCain, for his policies, his personality, his worldview, and more. So in this sense, I want his war story to be a fraud.
That said, there’s always been something about McCain’s Vietnam tales that rang hallow. I’m reminded of McCain’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, when he briefly discussed the Vietnam period and famously said, “They broke me”:
A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I'd been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I'd been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.
When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn't know how I could face my fellow prisoners.
There’s a kind of ellipsis between these two paragraphs, as if McCain were purposely leaving out key elements of the story. Why was McCain “ashamed” after being brutalized by his captors? Why did he have difficulty facing his fellow prisoners, unless he did something that was, indeed, shameful?
We might speculate that this evocative section from the speech was a kind of preemptive deflection of potential criticisms of his Vietnam mythology. If the 2008 race had been close, Obama and his allies might have been willing to “go there” and attack McCain’s greatest strength; they could have played recordings of the propaganda broadcasts involving McCain that were made during the war and brought up the likelihood that McCain traded information for preferential to the North Vietnamese. McCain had a pre-planned response—“They broke me.”
Whatever the case, with John McCain, we should definitely stop “printing the legend” and start searching for the facts.
By Ron Unz
Although in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I turned sharply against McCain due to his support for an extremely bellicose foreign policy, I never had any reason to question his background or his integrity, and my strong opposition to his 2008 presidential run was entirely on policy grounds: I feared his notoriously hot temper might easily get us into additional disastrous wars.
Everything suddenly changed in June 2008 when I read a long article by an unfamiliar writer on the leftist Counterpunch website. Shocking claims were made that McCain may never have been tortured and that he instead spent his wartime captivity collaborating with his captors and broadcasting Communist propaganda, a possibility that seemed almost incomprehensible to me given all the thousands of contrary articles that I had absorbed over the decades from the mainstream media. How could this one article on a small website be the truth about McCain’s war record and everything else be total falsehood? The evidence was hardly overwhelming, with the piece being thinly sourced and written in a meandering fashion by an obscure author, but the claims were so astonishing that I made some effort to investigate the matter, though without any real success.
However, those new doubts about McCain were still in my mind a few months later when I stumbled upon Sidney Schanberg’s massively documented exposeabout McCain’s role in the POW/MIA cover up, a vastly greater scandal. This time I was presented with a mountain of hard evidence gathered by one of America’s greatest wartime journalists, a Pulitzer Prize winning former top editor at The New York Times. In the years since then, other leading journalists have praised Schanberg’s remarkable research, now giving his conclusions the combined backing of four New York Times Pulitzer Prizes, while two former Republican Congressmen who had served on the Intelligence Committee have also strongly corroborated his account.
In 1993 the front page of the New York Times broke the story that a Politburo transcript found in the Kremlin archives fully confirmed the existence of the additional POWs, and when interviewed on the PBS Newshour former National Security Advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted that the document was very likely correct and that hundreds of America’s Vietnam POWs had indeed been left behind. In my opinion, the reality of Schanberg’s POW story is now about as solidly established as anything can be that has not yet received an official blessing from the American mainstream media. And the total dishonesty of that media regarding both the POW story and McCain’s leading role in the later cover up soon made me very suspicious of all those other claims regarding John McCain’s supposedly heroic war record. Our American Pravda is simply not to be trusted on any “touchy” topics.
I have no personal knowledge of the Vietnam War myself nor do I possess expertise in that area of history. But after encountering Schanberg’s expose in 2008, I soon got in touch with someone having exactly those strengths, a Vietnam veteran who later became a professor at one of our military service academies. At first, he was quite cagey regarding the questions I raised, but once he had read through Schanberg’s lengthy article, he felt he could respond more freely and he largely confirmed the claims, partly based on certain information he personally possessed. He said he found it astonishing that in these days of the Internet the POW scandal had not attracted vastly more attention, and couldn’t understand why the media was so uniformly unwilling to touch the topic.
He also had some very interesting things to say about John McCain’s wartime record. According to him, it was hardly a secret in veterans’ circles that McCain had spent much of the war producing Communist propaganda broadcasts since these had regularly been played in the prisoner camps as a means of breaking the spirits of those American POWs who resisted collaboration. Indeed, he and some of his friends had speculated about who currently possessed copies of McCain’s damning audio and video tapes and wondered whether they might come out during the course of the presidential campaign. Over the years, other Vietnam veterans have publicly leveled similar charges, and Schanberg had speculated that McCain’s leading role in the POW cover up might have been connected with the pressure he faced due to his notorious wartime broadcasts.
In late September 2008 another fascinating story appeared in my morning New York Times. An intrepid reporter decided to visit Vietnam and see what McCain’s former jailers thought of the possibility that their onetime captive might soon reach the White House, that the man they had spent years brutally torturing could become the next president of the United States. To the journalist’s apparent amazement, the former jailers seemed enthusiastic about the prospects of a McCain victory, saying that they hoped he would win since they had become such good friends during the war and had worked so closely together; if they lived in America, they would certainly all vote for him. When asked about McCain’s claims of “cruel and sadistic” torture, the head of the guard unit dismissed those stories as being just the sort of total nonsense that politicians, whether in America or in Vietnam, must often spout in order to win popularity. A BBC correspondent reported the same statements.
Let us consider the implications of this story. Throughout his entire life John McCain has been notable for having a very violent temper and also for holding deep grudges. How plausible does it seem that the men who allegedly spent years torturing him would be so eager to see him reach a position of supreme world power?
But what about the famous photo, showing McCain still on crutches even months after his release from captivity? In early September 2008, someone discovered archival footage from a Swedish news crew which had filmed the return of the POWs, and uploaded it to YouTube. We see a healthy-looking John McCain walking off the plane from Vietnam, having a noticeable limp but certainly without any need of crutches. After returning home he had eventually entered Bethesda Naval Hospital for corrective surgery on some of his wartime injuries, and that recent American surgery was what explained his crutches in the photo with Nixon.
It is certainly acknowledged that considerable numbers of American POWs were indeed tortured in Vietnam, but it is far from clear that McCain was ever one of them. As the original Counterpunch article pointed out, throughout almost the entire war McCain was held at a special section for the best-behaving prisoners, which was where he allegedly produced his Communist propaganda broadcasts and perhaps became such good friends with his guards as they later claimed. Top-ranking former POWs held at the same prison, such as Colonels Ted Guy and Gordon “Swede” Larson, have gone on the record saying they are very skeptical regarding McCain’s claims of torture.
I have taken the trouble to read through John McCain’s earliest claims of his harsh imprisonment, a highly detailed 12,000 word first person account published under his name in U.S. News & World Report in May 1973, just a few weeks after his release from imprisonment. The editorial introduction notes the “almost total recall” seemingly demonstrated by the young pilot just out of captivity, and portions of the story strike me as doubtful, perhaps drawn from the long history of popular imprisonment fiction stretching back to Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. Would a young navy pilot so easily develop and remember a “tap code” to extensively communicate with others across thick prison walls? And McCain describes himself as having a “philosophical bent,” spending his years of solitary confinement reviewing in his head all the many history books he had read, trying to make sense of human history, a degree of intellectualizing never apparent in his life either before or after.
One factual detail, routinely emphasized by his supporters, is his repeated claim that except for signing a single written statement very early in his captivity and also answering some questions by a visiting French newsman, he had staunchly refused any hint of collaboration with his captors, despite torture, solitary confinement, endless threats and beatings, and offers of rewards. Perhaps. But that original Counterpuncharticle provided the link to the purported text of one of McCain’s pro-Hanoi propaganda broadcasts as summarized in a 1969 UPI wire service story, and I have confirmed its authenticity by locating the resulting article that ran in Stars & Stripes at the same time. So if crucial portions of McCain’s account of his imprisonment are seemingly revealed to be self-serving fiction, how much of the rest can we believe? If his pro-Communist propaganda broadcasts were so notable that they even reached the news pages of one of America’s leading military publications, it seems quite plausible that they were as numerous, substantial, and frequent as his critics allege
When I later discussed these troubling matters with an eminent political scientist who has something of a military background, he emphasized that McCain’s history can only be understood in the context of his father, a top-ranking admiral who then served as commander of all American forces in the Pacific Theater, including our troops in Vietnam. Indeed, the alleged headline of the UPI wire story had been “PW [Prisoner of War] Songbird Is Pilot Son of Admiral,” highlighting that connection. Obviously, for reasons both of family loyalty and personal standing it would have been imperative for John McCain’s father and namesake to hush up the terrible scandal of having had his son serve as a leading collaborator and Communist propagandist during the war and his exalted rank gave him the power to do so. Furthermore, just a few years earlier the elder McCain had himself performed an extremely valuable service for America’s political elites, organizing the official board of inquiry that whitewashed the potentially devastating “Liberty Incident,” with its hundreds of dead and wounded American servicemen, so he certainly had some powerful political chits he could call in.
Placed in this context, John McCain’s tales of torture make perfect sense. If he had indeed spent almost the entire war eagerly broadcasting Communist propaganda in exchange for favored treatment, there would have been stories about this circulating in private, and fears that these tales might eventually reach the newspaper headlines, perhaps backed by the hard evidence of audio and video tapes. An effective strategy for preempting this danger would be to concoct lurid tales of personal suffering and then promote them in the media, quickly establishing McCain as the highest profile victim of torture among America’s returned POWs, an effort rendered credible by the fact that many American POWs had indeed suffered torture.
Once the public had fully accepted McCain as our foremost Vietnam war-hero and torture-victim, any later release of his propaganda tapes would be dismissed as merely proving that even the bravest of men had their breaking point. Given that McCain’s father was one of America’s highest-ranking military officers and both the Nixon Administration and the media had soon elevated McCain to a national symbol of American heroism, there would have been enormous pressure on the other returning POWs, many of them dazed and injured after long captivity, not to undercut such an important patriotic narrative. Similarly, when McCain ran for Congress and the Senate a decade or so later, stories of his torture became a central theme of his campaigns and once again constituted a powerful defense against any possible rumors of his alleged “disloyalty.”
And so the legend grew over the decades until it completely swallowed the man, and he became America’s greatest patriot and war hero, with almost no one even being aware of the Communist propaganda broadcasts that had motivated the story in the first place. I have sometimes noticed this same historical pattern in which fictional accounts originally invented to excuse or mitigate some enormous crime may eventually expand over time until they totally dominate the narrative while the original crime itself is nearly forgotten. The central theme of McCain’s presidential campaign was his unmatched patriotism and when he went down to defeat at the hands of Barack Obama, the widespread verdict was that even the greatest of war-heroes may still lose an election.
I must reemphasize that I am not an expert on the Vietnam War and my cursory investigation is nothing like the sort of exhaustive research that would be necessary to establish a firm conclusion on this troubling case. I have merely tried to provide a plausible account of McCain’s war record and highlight some of the important pieces of evidence that a more thorough researcher should consider. Unlike the documentation of the POW cover up accumulated by Schanberg and others, which I regard as overwhelmingly conclusive, I think the best that may be said about my reconstruction of McCain’s wartime history is that it seems more likely correct than not. However, I should mention that when I discussed some of these items with Schanberg in 2010 and suggested that John McCain had been the Tokyo Rose of the Vietnam War, he considered it a very apt description.