Vietnam Now, Vietnam Tomorrow, Vietnam Forever
John McCain’s Demons
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, May 18, 2006
There were moments during his speech to the Republican National Convention on Aug. 30, 2004, when John McCain sounded possessed. His demons weren’t the Democrats; they never have been—“I’m fortunate to call many of them my friends,” he assured us—but a fixation of a slightly greater order of magnitude: the itch for payback dating back to his POW days at the Hanoi Hilton. It happened moments into his speech when he first referred to the war on terror: “Only the most deluded of us could doubt the necessity of this war. Like all wars, this one will have its ups and downs. But we must fight. We must.” The cadence as he delivered it in those three words, we must fight, had an undertone I can only describe as a Nabokovian obsession, and an obsession no less lust-ridden, no less perverse, than the cadenced play of Lolita’s name on Humbert Humbert’s tongue at the opening of the novel: “My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Or in McCain’s case, Tet.
His war has never ended. His loss, embedded in America’s, has never abandoned him. It has encrusted itself in him like his bitter and by now regressively infantile fondness for the word gook. The repeat of the words we must (two of eight times he used the word must) had nothing of the rational about it. The words were for McCain an echo of his tendency not only to repeat fighting words, metaphorically and literally, but to revel in the repetition. At the convention what came through, besides the hostility of his heart’s biometrics, was his compulsive need for a fight, and the kind of fight that made two things clear: First, Democrats were not up to the task—not to fight the war on terror, but to fight Republicans, so they were not worthy of McCain’s contempt. He proved to be right. Second, al-Qaeda could not possibly be the worthy enemy he was looking for. Rationally, logically, in anybody’s heart of hearts, it’s always been clear that no matter how spectacular, no matter how chancily deadly and fanatical and vile al-Qaeda’s ragtag kamikazes could be, they’ve never been more potent than the degree to which the United States has made them so by treating them like a latter-day Fourth Reich. It’s kept al-Qaeda going. It’s legitimized it in millions of Muslim eyes who’d otherwise have dozed off long ago. Nevertheless it’s been a war of appearances on al-Qaeda’s side, of convenience on Bush’s side. As a true enemy, al-Qaeda doesn’t rate. McCain knows it. His appeal at the Republican National Convention was for a war of much greater magnitude, the kind of war the Soviets bailed on when they quit playing in 1989, just when McCain was warming up Barry Goldwater’s old seat in the Senate: a perpetual war for perpetual peace (to quote Vidal) founded on the eternal ideology of fear. Bush was proving somewhat capable at fighting it, but you could see that he had it all in him to fail, being a natural-born failure—as he almost did by 2004. He squeaked by, not least because of the sort of help McCain, ever the sell-out, provided. What McCain was showing us that evening at the convention was his passion for war above and beyond any tangible enemy. He spoke of war as an end in itself, as a way to be. He spoke the word fight ten times, the word war or its derivatives twenty times. It was a declaration, not a speech.
And it was a reiteration. Why, anyone familiar with McCain might have wondered while hearing those we-must-fight words, would that posture sound so familiar? Because just as all of Western literature has been rewriting Homer for the last few thousand years, McCain has been regurgitating McCain for the last thirty without the advantage of an occasional variation, en enriching variety, a guilt-ridden, Jewish-lit-like plot twist here and there. He’s been all about conflating his inner fight with the need to take the fight outside himself, to have us all fight his unfinished war for him. His entire genome is in the US News & World Report article he wrote on coming out of the Hanoi Hilton in the May 14, 1973 issue. It is there that his desire for the word gook is laid on what’s left of his sleeve. Explicable back then, it became merely pathetic three decades later. It is there that his affection for military codes is revealed to be far more intense than any affection he had, or would have, for civilian codes, for civilian law: “All through this period,” he writes of the early 1970s, “the ‘gooks’ were bombarding us with antiwar quotes from people in high places back in Washington. This was the most effective propaganda they had to use against us—speeches and statements by men who were generally respected in the United States. They used Senator Fullbright a great deal, and Senator Brooke. Ted Kennedy was quoted again and again, as was Averell Harriman. Clark Clifford was another favorite, right after he had been Secretary of Defense under President Johnson. When Ramsey Clark came over they thought that was a great coup for their cause. The big furor over release of the Pentagon papers was a tremendous boost for Hanoi. It was advanced as proof of the ‘black imperialist schemes’ that they had been talking about all those years.”
You wonder first why “propaganda” in his jailers’ hands could be so potent as North Vietnamese propaganda, rather than as bracing proof, to use against his tormentors, of what democracies are about—dissent and diversities of political opinions and ideologies, which the Vietnamese could never dream of. Not in McCain’s world view, which is as orthodox, as dogmatic, as any old Party Plenum. In his eyes, the Fulbrights and Kennedys and Harrimans were propaganda fodder for the Vietnamese because they were, between McCain’s lines, treasonous for speaking the way they did. He speaks admiringly of the Christmas bombings on Hanoi “that was the thing that ended the war”) and the incursions into Cambodia, and along the way throws this executioner’s sentence: “I have heard there was one B-52 pilot who refused to fly the mission during the Christmas bombing. You always run into that kind.” That kind. He can’t bring himself to call the pilot a gook, though the understanding is clear. He’s a lower kind.
But here’s the payoff, the money shot of the primacy of the martial and unquestionable in McCain’s world order: “Once you become a prisoner of war, then you do not have the right to dissent, because what you do will be harming your country. You are no longer speaking as an individual, you are speaking as a member of the armed forces of the United States, and you owe loyalty to the Commander in Chief, not to your own conscience. Some of my fellow prisoners sang a different tune, but they were a very small minority. I ask myself if they should be prosecuted, and I don’t find that easy to answer. It might destroy the very fine image the great majority of us have brought back from that hellhole. Remember, a handful of turncoats after the Korean made a great majority of Americans think that most of the POWs in conflict were traitors. If these men are tried, it should not be because they took an antiwar stance, but because they collaborated with the Vietnamese to an extent, and that was harmful to the other American POW’s. And there is this to consider: America will have other wars to fight until the Communists give up their doctrine of violent overthrow of our way of life. These men should bear some censure so that in future wars there won’t be a precedent for conduct that hurts this country.” The emphasis is mine, but barely: The words were, if not a prophetic introduction, than a begging one for those that followed at the Republican National Convention speech: “So it is, whether we wished it or not, that we have come to the test of our generation, to our rendezvous with destiny. And much is expected of us. We are engaged in a hard struggle against a cruel and determined adversary. Our enemies have made clear the danger they pose to our security and to the very essence of our culture—liberty.” It’s not that McCain has been waiting to say those words; he’s been saying them all along, making the actual enemy secondary to his craving for an enemy, including the one he’ll find at home for lack of a worthier one abroad. In Bush’s hands, the USA Patriot Act is child’s play compared to what McCain would make of it.
An example? Sydney Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting out of Phnom Penh in 1975, dug up McCain’s clamp down in the early 1990s on government documents relating to prisoner of war and missing in action issues during the Vietnam War despite a unanimous vote in the House to open the archives. Reporters never ask McCain about that coup when they cover his more recent campaigns. As Schanberg summarized it last year, “ literally thousands of P.O.W. documents that could have been declassified long ago and provided to the families of the missing and the public have been legislated into secrecy. John McCain was a major player in this lockdown. A couple of examples will give you an idea of McCain's role. In 1991, he authored what has always been called the ‘McCain Bill.’ Simply put, it created a tight bureaucratic maze from which few P.O.W. documents can possibly emerge. And in 1996, McCain succeeded in amending—and gutting—the Missing Service Personnel Act, removing all its enforcement teeth. The original act contained criminal penalties for anyone, such as a government official, civilian or military, who destroys or covers up or withholds from P.O.W. families any information about a missing soldier. McCain just erased this part of the law. He said the penalties would have a chilling effect on the Pentagon's ability to recruit personnel for its P.O.W.-M.I.A. office.”
This is the man we call a “maverick,” and the potential successor to Bush. Speaking of whom: McCain’s lusty repetitions produced telling parallels. “President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration,” he said at the Republican convention, an almost word-for-word crib from one of his 1973 paragraph’s thesis statement: “I admire President Nixon’s courage. There may be criticism of him in certain areas—Watergate, for example. But he had to take the most unpopular decisions that I imagine-the mining, the blockade, the bombing. I know it was very, very difficult for him to do that, but that was the thing that ended the war. I think the reason he understood this is that he has a long background in dealing with these people. […] Force is what they understand. And that’s why it is difficult for me to understand now, when everybody knows bombing finally got a cease-fire agreement, why people are still criticizing his foreign policy-for example, the bombing in Cambodia.” These people again: you see, they needn’t be named or identified. Identifying them is irrelevant. It’s enough that these people exist. Better leave them unidentified. Trust McCain to exorcise the world of its demons for you, even though it’s rather clear who’s possessed. As his convention speech’s ending had it, “Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Do not flinch. Stand up. Stand up with our President and fight. We’re Americans. We’re Americans, and we’ll never surrender. They will.” Whoever they are. McCain only hopes they don’t do so before he gets a crack at them. Then again, he’s set up American enmity in his mind in such a way as reserve himself the role of predator come what may. So it goes with obsessive types to whom perversion is just another day at the office.