Who Was the Real John McCain?

August is rainy season in Panama and so perhaps, if he wasn’t out to sea, the Naval officer held an umbrella over his wife 82 years ago as they made their way into the Coco Solo hospital in the Canal Zone. You could conceivably ask her yourself, because she’s still kicking and reportedly feisty at 106.

I went to the Coco Solo emergency room a couple of times in the 1970s, but the nurses weren’t telling any John McCain stories there, and I never saw the maternity ward. If they told me the infant McCain snatched a cigar from his father and demanded a match, it might be the most astonishing story I’ve heard about him. But just barely.

I’m not sure what to believe about John Sidney McCain III.

He has the most ferocious detractors, who accuse him of informing on fellow captives in a North Vietnamese prison, and betraying critical military information that enabled the enemy to shoot down more U.S. aviators. His accusers range from obvious flakes to some people who appear pretty credible to me.

But he has credible die-hard defenders, too, who insist that he conducted himself honorably under the most extreme conditions. All we know for sure is that he went into harm’s way in his country’s service, was held in captivity for five years and came home in great pain, unable to comb his own hair. Like most Americans, I’m inclined to give a banged-up ex-POW the benefit of the doubt.

But McCain himself was not so generous toward POW/MIA activists, whom he ridiculed as “hoaxers” and “charlatans.” I have no firm opinion whether we left a significant number of soldiers and Marines behind in Vietnam. I don’t pretend to know. But if the government sent one of my loved ones off to war and he or she never came back, I think we would be entitled to the utmost transparency. At last count, there are 1,597 unexplained missing. The government is accountable for each citizen it sent into harm’s way.

That’s what Congress acknowledged in the Missing Service Personnel Act, including enforcement teeth against government employees who might withhold or conceal information from the families of the missing. You would think that a heroic ex-POW would want the truth to come out. Yet Sen. McCain was instrumental in gutting the criminal penalties just a year after they were enacted.

He did so by attaching an amendment to an unrelated military bill in a closed House-Senate conference committee. His amendment also relieved battlefield commanders of a legal burden to search for missing men, and promptly report the incidents up their chain of command. Why?

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and the senator said that without his amendment, the law “would accomplish nothing but create new jobs for lawyers, and turn military commanders into clerks.” He said the Pentagon would find it impossible to find staff willing to work with its files because of the potential for criminal liability.

But do we really want to hire government staff who are unwilling to be bound by the law? Is accountability for his troops really just a clerical nuisance for a battlefield commander?

The senator reportedly was hostile to transparency in the Vietnamese government, as well. U.S. files about the extent of POW collaboration and cooperation with the enemy remain airtight (classified), but the North Vietnamese kept records, too. Some were reportedly archived at a museum there.

Fellow U.S. delegates who visited Vietnam with Sen. McCain said he became visibly agitated on the subject, and warned their Vietnamese counterparts that Vietnam would never get diplomatic recognition if it released those records, which included his own.

Without trying to guess McCain’s motives, it’s obvious that he considered government service a personal domain in which he was free to move the chess pieces around without any particular accountability to the pawns.

He once ditched a plane and bailed out while returning to Norfolk after the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. He said the engine quit. He lost a plane in the water during training because, he said, that engine quit, too. When the Navy recovered the plane, the engine fired right up but the admiral’s son continued the course in a new plane.

The fact-checking websites have lined up to absolve McCain of responsibility for the catastrophic U.S.S. Forrestal fire in 1967 that killed 134 and injured 161 crew on the aircraft carrier. But it’s still controversial among fellow sailors who said he was notorious for “wet starts” that produced a flare to startle the pilots behind him on the flight deck. He was immediately transferred off the stricken ship after the disaster, to a public relations position in Saigon, far from embittered crewmates.

To his credit, he wanted to get back in the fight. He got assigned to another aircraft carrier off the coast of North Vietnam. McCain was not a fighter pilot. He flew bombers. Like the other bomber pilots, he was excited to learn about a significant new target, a thermal power plant in Hanoi. He lobbied to get assigned to the attack, scheduled for noon. He had an early lunch of pork chops and hoped to be back in the Officers’ Mess for more in a couple of hours.

But there would be no more pork chops for five and a half years. The maverick flew dumb that day, disregarding his training and getting himself shot down at inexcusably low altitude by anti-aircraft artillery. His biography and campaign literature later claimed he was shot out of the sky by a SAM missile, but Navy records and fellow bomber pilots agree that ordinary “triple-A” brought him down.

McCain was horribly injured during ejection from his aircraft, once again due to his disregard for Navy training. A younger, greener pilot was shot down in the same flak, ejected properly and was uninjured. He and McCain went to the same prison.

The cause of McCain’s injuries is controversial. His obvious impairment made him a sentimental hero. Most Americans believe his injuries resulted from torture by North Vietnamese interrogators.

Does it matter whether he caused his own injuries by sloth during ejection? Yes and no. I’m not sure how many of us could think clearly in a plane that’s just been shot out of the sky. Not me. He graduated from Naval Academy 894th out of a class of 899. I’m sure he was doing the best he could, at that point. He’s still a hero even if he made a series of poor decisions.

But it matters if he has lied to us or let his supporters lie to us in order to shame us into acquiescing in his politics, or discouraging us from exercising our best judgment. We’ll never really know whether the North Vietnamese tortured Lt. Cdr. McCain, partly because Sen. McCain used his political power to ensure that the relevant records are unavailable to us. On this subject and others, the senator strongly preferred that we just take his word for it.

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