Donald Trump’s flair for rhetoric provides the occasion for thinking about democracy, citizenship, military service, and patriotism. Speaking before a group of Iowa evangelicals in his quest for the presidency, Trump said of John McCain, an unquestioned American icon best known for his imprisonment (five years in Hoa Lo Prison) during the Vietnam War: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump’s Republican opponents were quick to denounce him. One even called on him to withdraw from the nomination contest, insisting that his comments about McCain rendered him unfit to be commander-in-chief. America’s mainstream media hastened to broadcast Trump’s comments (he is, after all, good copy and a source of ratings), but they also presented a lineup of harsh critics who came to McCain’s rescue. No one spoke out for Trump—except Trump, of course.
On the liberal left, critics of Trump pointed out the hypocrisy of Republican presidential candidates rushing to McCain’s defense on behalf of not just McCain but all veterans. After all, the GOP has done precious little for veterans, whether funding VA hospitals, sending them to war (Iraq) with subpar military equipment, or failing to come to the aid of Senator John Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign against George Bush when W’s right-wing henchmen denigrated his Vietnam service. (The latter was particularly appalling given Bush’s considerable efforts to avoid Vietnam). This kind of implicitly patriotic response, however, assumes McCain’s heroic status and leaves Trump isolated. Simply put, America must come to John McCain’s defense. His perpetual heroization works to deny, obscure, and preempt difficult historical and political questions America’s democracy would prefer not to face.
Thus, no major American media outlet paused to ask: Is Trump right? Is John McCain a war hero or not? If so, why is he a hero? If not, what is he exactly? Trump, it should be noted, both denies and affirms McCain’s heroic identity. If he is a hero, is it not because of his imprisonment, because he is the figure of American resistance and determination, which, in turn, represent the possibility of American victory in an otherwise humiliating military and political defeat? If this is the case, is McCain not more tellingly narrated not as a hero but as a victim, or the victim of victims? Assuming that McCain is a victim of the Vietnamese, who bears responsibility? Is Vietnam alone to blame? Or is the United States implicated, too? If so, it can be asked, what did (and does) American democracy do to citizens such as John McCain that enables them to fight aggressive foreign wars that entail the mass killing of civilians? What does participation in such wars do not only to the democracy they allegedly serve but the soldiers involved? Does it render them unable or unfit, in a variety of ways, to participate in the democratic life of the nation upon return? Is the nation less democratic because of them?
To answer such questions, it may not be necessary to define the term hero and see if it applies to McCain. Rather, it might be more apt to consider the war in which McCain fought and ponder the kind of service he provided. This is a formidable task in America—hence the hysterical reaction to Trump. Since the Reagan era, the United States has witnessed a long and steady campaign to rehabilitate the Vietnam War, what the Vietnamese call the American War. Reagan insisted the war was not only legitimate but noble, part of a broader crusade to rid the world of communism. Rewriting the war has not been confined to the political right. On the left, Oliver Stone tried to portray the war as alien to America, the product of a far-reaching coup d’état and conspiracy. The war should never have been fought. And since those responsible for it did not truly represent America, the war did not represent America either. It’s as if the country did not actually fight the war. Stone thereby saved America’s honor and reputation at the price of condemning the war. America must wash its hands of something so dirty.
What does this mean for McCain? Can a soldier be a hero in what most of the world considered an imperial, illegitimate, illegal war of genocidal proportions? That is, given the nature of the American War in Vietnam, with millions of Vietnamese casualties, what separates someone like John McCain, who rained bombs on urban centers and civilian populations, including Hanoi, where he was shot down, and William Calley, who was court martialed and sent to prison for the massacre perpetrated at My Lai? One might argue that Calley targeted and murdered innocent civilians and that McCain targeted and bombed legitimate military or military-related targets. Any civilian deaths were incidental, so-called collateral damage. Yet, if pilots such as McCain fly mission after mission knowing that doing so will kill civilians mission after mission, the difference between McCain and Calley starts to fade, even disappear. Both kinds of “military actions,” resulting in countless civilian deaths, were the norm in Vietnam. Neither Calley nor McCain was exceptional. The country that sent them to war put them in a situation where they would have to slaughter civilians. Where’s the heroism? Isn’t Trump right?
This suggests that we need to ask what a democracy can rightly expect from its citizens. John McCain attended the United States Naval Academy, a career track for a professional soldier. It is professional soldiers such as McCain, however, that make wars like Vietnam possible in the first place. Democracies may need citizens to serve in their militaries to provide national security, but this very provision can also endanger the democracy supposedly being protected. The Nixon regime did much to subvert American democracy at home in order to prosecute the Vietnam War abroad. Think of Nixon and McCain as co-conspirators. Hundreds of thousands of American citizens protested the war, trying to stop it in its deadly tracks. They risked life and limb to force its conclusion but are not considered heroes. Why not? If John McCain had refused, at any point in his career, to fight in the Vietnam War, he might have made himself a hero, too.
In contemporary America, the military is referred to as an all-volunteer force. Economic incentives to join abound. Additional rewards are conjured to maintain it. It has effectively become a mercenary element divorced from much, even most of the country it ostensibly serves. As in McCain’s era, this force, unlike a military of citizen-soldiers, enables America to fight imperial wars in places like Iraq without fear that the war will return home to America’s streets as the body bags arrive and accumulate. Once again, those who are (supposedly) serving the democracy they love also endanger it. They also endanger themselves—as the staggering suicide rates of Iraqi veterans indicate. Nevertheless, the soldiers to whom George W. Bush lied when steering America into Iraq overwhelmingly voted for his election in 2004 rather than the candidate who once actually served his country in wartime and questioned it.
Still, it can be argued that America owes John McCain even if he isn’t a hero. If anything, he is owed an apology for fighting in a war that brought death, dishonor, and democratic dissolution to the United States and untold devastation to Vietnam. What form might the apology take? Perhaps the Vietnamese can offer their former enemy some assistance. They certainly do not consider McCain a war hero. When he landed in Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi, local residents first rescued him from the water. He was then attacked by some of those who had survived his deadly assaults. This required a second rescue. To those who attacked him, he was the wanton killer of their family, friends, loved ones, and fellow citizens. There is a memorial that “recognizes” him in Hanoi near the lake where he fell. It shows him in an abject position with arms raised in apparent surrender. It also (deliberately) misspells his name. Imagine if this memorial (or a replica) were relocated to the Vietnam Memorial complex on the Mall in Washington, D.C. A civic gift from a former enemy, it would complement Maya Lin’s Wall, which recognizes American dead, by reminding us of what American soldiers who fought in the war actually did, the price they paid for it, and how those we were supposedly saving view us and our efforts. It would thus serve as a rebuke and warning to the willful innocence of Frederick Hart’s The Three Servicemen, which belies the violence that America unleashed on a foreign land without cause or purpose. The McCain Memorial would constitute a democratic addition to a largely unthinking patriotic space at the symbolic core of American democracy. It might even enable us to think that those who opposed the war, even refused to serve in it, were the true American heroes. They wanted to make sure that people like John McCain would not die in vain—or worse.