John McCain Was Never My Hero
John McCain Was Never My Hero
by Que-Lam Huynh
Maybe it’s because I’ve been surrounded by terrifying reminders of war and death all my life as a Viet refugee. Maybe it’s all the losses I’ve experienced in my life, one in particular that has irrevocably changed me as a person. Whatever the reason, I avoid thinking, talking, or writing about death.
But after John McCain’s death, I felt oddly compelled to write about him. No matter how much I tried to turn away from this event, it kept coming back to me day after day. This man and his career as a naval pilot and then politician, and all the things and people he killed during his lifetime, won’t let me alone.
I spent my formative years in Arizona, where he was a U.S. Senator from the moment I arrived from Viet Nam until his passing last month. My mom was a social worker at a refugee resettlement agency in Phoenix, so I was surrounded by Viet and other Southeast Asian refugees. Most of these people neither knew nor cared about American politicians like McCain. Instead, they worried about getting a steady job, learning English, finding an apartment, sending their children to school, remitting money to their families in Viet Nam, and other humble refugee concerns. Prisoner of war, hero or not, none of us ever talked about McCain. We had our own physical and emotional wounds to nurse and new lives to build.
But through school and American news media, I knew about John McCain. He was legendary in Arizona politics and always heralded as a hero, someone who withstood tremendous and prolonged torture in a military prison in Ha Noi, who came out of it with deep physical wounds but with his moral character intact.
If that is true, I have to question McCain’s moral character.
This is a man whose plane was shot down on his 23rd (!!!) mission to drop bombs on Ha Noi, a city full of not just “enemy combatants” but also with people, young and old, men and women. People who had nothing to do with the war the American government was waging against Russia and China, with Viet Nam and its people stuck in the middle like disposable, insignificant pawns in a deadly chess game. People who were civilians trying to stay alive while war raged on around them.
After being shot down, he was a prisoner of war for 5.5 years, 2 of which he spent in solitary confinement. As the journalist and media critic Normal Solomon eloquently recently said on Democracy Now:
“It’s really natural to have a lot of empathy for someone who suffered through brain cancer, admiration for people who withstood great hardships with pride and determination. However, what we’ve seen is really what could be called the phenomenon of obit-omit—obituaries that are flagrantly in conflict with the real historical record.”
It is the real McCain historical record that makes me question his moral character.
As a U.S. Senator for 31 years, he did and said many things that I found morally reprehensible (such as his role in the Savings and Loans Crisis that cost U.S. taxpayers at least $160.1 billion; his many subsequent votes against banking and financial regulations; the numerous votes against any and all healthcare reform until that famous “thumbs down” vote in July 2017 to save the Affordable Care Act; and his extreme views on sex education and access to reproductive healthcare for women, just to name a few), but none more so than his hawkish stance on U.S. military involvement around the globe, all toward the benefit of the defense industry and to his mutual benefit as a politician.
Almost immediately after coming back as a POW from Viet Nam in 1973, he vigorously supported President Nixon and carpet bombing of Cambodia by U.S. forces. Bombing was most heavily focused in the Southeastern parts of the country, with some parts of the map showing almost complete coverage by carpet bombs (including the capital city Phnom Penh). While the casualties of this operation will never be known, some place estimates from ¼ million to more than 1 million Cambodian deaths. Many attribute the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Cambodian genocide to American expansion of the Viet Nam War into Cambodia, and in particular, to these carpet bombing operations.
He was a vocal proponent of invading Iraq in 2003. Throughout his presidential bid in 2008 and thereafter, he asserted that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. In 2007, the “war hero” also voted against requiring a minimum period between deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. It was not until this 2018 book that he accepted his part of the blame for this ongoing military and humanitarian disaster.
He was so flippant about the costs of waging war, he once made serious threats about bombing Iran using Beach Boys song lyrics.
To the benefit of the defense industry, he was friendly with Muammar Gaddafi, promising Libya lethal and non-lethal military equipment from the U.S. in the late 2000s. Some of these weapons that McCain helped Gaddafi to secure undoubtedly contributed to the war crimes that Gaddafi waged against the Libyan people starting in 2011, the same war crimes that made McCain call for U.S. ground troops to be deployed and for absolute removal of Gaddafi.
Like so many other politicians, he also supported U.S. military involvement in places like Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks. This rush to go to war has enveloped the U.S. military in a quagmire that is now in its 17th year. But McCain wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “war is a miserable business. Let's get on with it.”
It is precisely this callous attitude about war that perplexes me and makes me question his moral character.
McCain obviously suffered the physical and mental consequences of war, so why would he speak of it as a “business”? Business, as in one’s profession or the practice of making a living by engaging in some sort of commercial activity? Business, as in a state of affairs or a series of events? To deliberately equate the horrors of war with business, in any sense of the word, is to minimize the value of human life.
Interestingly, this aspect (and really, most other negatives) of McCain’s record has often been glossed over or completely left out by the media and in the tributes pouring in after his death. As I read statements on social media bemoaning the loss of a “national hero” from friends and family (many of whom are people of color and indigenous folks, queer, women, and/or part of some other marginalized social group that McCain often targeted as a Senator), I could not help but think that our affection for militarism has blinded us to the realities of McCain’s life and work.
We humans love to make the best soldiers (read: most efficient killers) and warmongers into heroes. Think of all the blockbuster movies and award-winning TV shows featuring war and conflict, for instance, or how we collectively felt more secure when President Bush assured us that he would go after the perpetrators of 9/11, or when President Obama presided over the raid that killed Bin Laden. Heroism is inextricably linked to warfare in our cultural products and in our psyches. As a result, we put people like McCain on a pedestal while disparaging conscientious objectors and war protestors.
But for me, there is nothing heroic about engaging in war. It is more heroic to resist war. It is even more heroic, maybe even most heroic, to survive it when you were treated no better than pawns in a political chess game.
Yet upon his return, Americans romanticized McCain’s war record – on the backs of hundreds of thousands of Viet casualties – and propelled him into the national spotlight, leading to more than 3 decades of his outsize influence on every conversation about defense spending and national security. Our affection for McCain the “war hero” and his impressive military lineage, in part, has allowed us to justify American militarism around the globe. When a POW whose wounds are still visible tells you that we must engage in ground combat somewhere, must he not be justified? Must his stance on this not be thoroughly considered and thoughtful? Does it not pain him to send young men and women to war, as they may meet the same fate he did or even worse?
No, we told ourselves. John McCain did not come to support [insert name of war here] without careful deliberation. And thus, supporting a war or military operation that McCain supported came to be the moral and courageous thing to do.
Yet, McCain showed us time and again that, despite the heroism and moral superiority we attributed to him, he waged wars, in person and by votes, as if they did not cost human lives. Despite his parting words to the American people, McCain did not believe in our common humanity: someone who believed in humanity would not have begun his career by engaging in 23 bombing missions and then go on to vote for war again and again as a member of the U.S. Congress.
Indeed, John McCain was a maverick, but not the kind that Americans love. He was a moral maverick with a cavalier attitude about human life and loss. His record shows it clearly, and we can’t let him go down in history as a hero.
Que-Lam Huynh resettled with her single mother to the U.S. at age 11 and eventually found a place that felt like “home” in Los Angeles, CA. She currently is a professor of social psychology at California State University, Northridge. Her academic work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Psychological Assessment, and Asian American Journal of Psychology. She finds hope and inspiration in teaching and mentoring students, and she strives to be a worthy parent to her amazing children.
 As I got older and gained more exposure to American perspectives on Viet Nam, I would often ask Viet family members about the war. There was never an easy or short answer. My mom the USAID employee, my maternal grandmother the staunch nationalist, my step-father the ARVN naval officer, they all expressed complex and often self-contradicting opinions about it. But one thing was clear to me through these many conversations: we all marveled at, feared, and resented the American empire. It was never about John McCain or any single politician or event. It was always about our helplessness against empire.