The Personal Qualities that Made John McCain an American Hero
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By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary.com and InCyberDefense.com. Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Military, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.
John McCain is a hero. Let’s get that out of the way up front.
McCain came from a long military dynasty; his father and grandfather were both four-star admirals in the Navy. In the Vietnam War, McCain flew a Skyhawk dive bomber on numerous successful sorties.
After the war, McCain spent 35 years serving the American people, first as a Congressman for Arizona’s 1st district and later as a U.S. Senator. But none of those things are what makes John McCain a hero.
John McCain Refused Early Release from Vietnam Prison until Other POWs Released First
In October of 1967, McCain was shot down while performing a sortie over Hanoi. The ejection from his Skyhawk broke both of his arms and one leg. He landed, unconscious, in Trúc Bạch Lake, and the weight of his equipment pulled him underwater. As McCain regained consciousness, he attempted to inflate his life vest but found that he couldn’t move his broken arms.
After a few seconds of struggle, he was able to inflate his life vest with his teeth. Several Vietnamese pulled him ashore and began beating and kicking him while stripping off his clothes. McCain would later be taken to Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs.
Less than a year into his imprisonment, McCain’s father was named Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) by President Lyndon Johnson. The North Vietnamese offered to release McCain early because of his father’s position.
McCain refused an early release until American POWs who were captured before him were released first. This single voluntary act is what makes John McCain a hero in the eyes of both those he served with and most Americans today.
McCain Also Had Many Vocal Detractors
Of course, like all public figures, McCain had his detractors who were critical of his life and politics. In our extremely divided nation, there are several factions vying for political supremacy. I would argue that among the far left, the moderate left, the independents, the moderate right and the Trump right, all but one group honors John McCain’s legacy.
The one underlying commonality of all the negative commenters is they are part of the Trump base.
This is understandable. John McCain had opposed a Trump presidency as far back as 2015. In July 2015, when McCain told Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker that a Trump speech given in Phoenix earlier that week was “very hurtful to me…Because what he did was he fired up the crazies.”
Trump famously responded by telling the audience at a Christian conservative forum that “[McCain’s] not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
After Trump won the election, McCain voted against the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare and continued to publicly criticize the Trump White House. President Trump’s and Senator McCain’s very public feud would make McCain forever persona non grata among the Trumpian right.
Setting the Record Straight
Claims that McCain was an obstructionist because of the failed Obamacare repeal are misplaced. The irony is that although McCain gets sole credit for being the deciding vote that blocked the repeal, it was two Republican women legislators who deserve the credit.
Both Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted to block the repeal. Their argument? Defunding Planned Parenthood would be harmful to women everywhere.
Claims that McCain was a “songbird” who betrayed his country under the duress of torture while in captivity in Hanoi are also false. In fact, Fox News analyst and contributor retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney was fired from Fox for making the following statement in May: “The fact is, is John McCain — [torture] worked on John. That’s why they call him Songbird John.”
Claims that McCain should be disparaged because he was a pampered son (and grandson) of an admiral don’t add up either. The very fact that he turned down early release as a POW because of his family connections shows that at no time did he seek special treatment while he served in the U.S. Navy.
Loyalty to the American People
To be fair, John McCain was no saint. He once stated that we should occupy Iraq for 100 years. But with his death, we owe him the honor of reflecting on a lifetime of service to the nation and his frequent attempts to do what’s in the best interest of the nation over political loyalty.
McCain even once considered running for President with a Democrat, former Connecticut Senator Joe Leiberman, and he often considered leaving the Republican Party and declaring himself an Independent. In the 2004 election, McCain contemplated running as John Kerry’s Vice President in the 2004 election. Ultimately, McCain backed away and endorsed the incumbent George W. Bush.
But the episode illustrates that McCain was indeed a maverick, as his nickname suggests.
Today, in a nation where battle lines have been drawn and party loyalty is everything, John McCain’s loyalty was to his fellow Americans. His death leaves a massive hole in the tapestry of bipartisanship. Future politicians would do well to study this hero’s life, so that we may move away from the extremes that currently govern our national conversation.
As his final statement attests, McCain knew that no matter what, our Republic would endure:
“But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we’ll get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
Fair winds, Senator, and following seas.