McCain at Thirty-Seven

I’m reading John McCain’s account of his time as a POW in Vietnam.

I happened to be flipping through a book I own about reporting Vietnam, and there it was.

He was just out of the POW prison. Not a politician and not worried about his words or appearing perfect. For example, he used the word “gook” when referring to the North Vietnamese. I’m not blaming him for this at all. That’s what soldiers did, and (since he felt he had to explain what the term meant, and he clearly said it was for the NORTH Vietnamese) it probably didn’t carry the clear racist implications it does today.

He writes well. He has an understated style, which is probably military.

Surprisingly, he describes a lot of his time there as being “not too bad.” We can assume that every second was terrible, of course, but at least he went through long periods of time without being physically tortured every day. And then he went through other periods where he was tortured often.

By his account, he did sign a “confession” under torture. He didn’t seem very shaken up by that, which I hope means that he realized that he did the right thing under the circumstances.

He also defied his torturers in a number of ways, including refusing preferential treatment, when he thought it would be used as propaganda. (The North Vietnamese wanted to say that an Admiral’s son thought he was better than regular soldiers.)

He prayed a lot. Not for the war to end, or to be set free, but for personal strength and guidance.

I can’t help respecting thirty-seven year old John McCain. Not because he suffered, but because he suffered more than he had to in order to protect his country’s reputation. And not because he wrote about it, but because he wrote with dignity and clarity.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with how I feel about the seventy-two year old presidential candidate. I’d never vote for a man based on his experiences in a POW camp, of course. That would be extremely stupid, even if it were last year rather than four decades ago. But I do understand the temptation to be stupid in that way.

2 Responses to McCain at Thirty-Seven

  1. Kevin October 30, 2008 at 1:01 pm #

    As a benefit of some of my political activities, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with a fellow named Orson Swindle ( a couple of months ago. Hearing his first person account of the time he spent in captivity, the time he spent with McCain, and some of the things they went through together was heartbreaking, but also kind of amazing. Like McCain, Swindle also signed a “confession” during his captivity, and from his telling I got the sense that it’s something that both of them struggled with, but ultimately came to peace with after their release.

    Besides the tales of torture and loneliness (in Swindle’s case, he had young children at home during the 6+ years he was in captivity), something I found interesting was system they worked out between them for communicating. Apparently they weren’t allowed to see or speak to each other, but they were in adjacent cells, so they used a Polybius square cypher to conduct coded conversations back and forth, and became fluent in it. I was unaware of this code, but it’s quite old ( and has been used by many different folks to communicate in this way, including Solzhenitsyn. I thought it was an incredibly useful thing to know about!

  2. weeklyrob October 30, 2008 at 3:28 pm #

    McCain talks a bit about a code as well. He specifically says that the need to communicate was extremely strong.

    Men would risk beatings every day in order to communicate with each other. Not least was the need to “talk” with senior officers about what to do in a given situation.

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