Upon the sad occasion of the death of Senator John McCain, I would like to re-examine the controversy provoked by this notorious comment by President Trump: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” There is little doubt that it ranks among the most unpopular, unsettling, and offensive things the president has ever said, which is saying something. On the other hand, I submit that the president, in his inartful way, was trying to articulate a thought that is worth examining seriously: given a choice, he would rather celebrate than mourn.
9/11 was a tragedy, and while first-responders and others acted heroically, we mostly associate the event with the tragedy, not the heroism. We mourn 9/11, we don’t celebrate it. The same is true of the school shootings. Memorial Day is a day for recollection and mourning of deaths, of tragedy, of the cost of war, and it is not a day of celebration, even though many of the deaths were heroic. On the other hand, Independence Day, despite the casualties we endured in achieving independence as a nation, is the opposite, it is a day for recollection and celebration of heroism and triumph, of the magnificence of the founding of our country, and it is a fun day. Everyone, and not just the president, recognizes the need for mourning but prefers the joy of celebration.
As should we all. Yet judging from the proliferation of events that are legally designated as occasions for lowering the American flag to half-staff, not to mention the number of gas stations, big box stores, and homes that choose to lower their own flags on additional occasions, one gets the impression that this country enjoys wallowing in sorrow, even prefers it over taking some risks and acting aggressively to achieve a solution worthy of celebration. (Sorry, Chicago, but as one who lived there for decades, I do not consider additional gun control laws to be aggressive or even useful.) Mourning is no substitute for solutions.
A hero is one who saves others; a victim is one who was not saved. We celebrate our heroes; we mourn victims. Senator McCain was a hero: his voluntarily joining the military and requesting active service in Viet Nam were heroic, and his behaving admirably in that terrible war was heroic. As to whether he was heroic in refusing to accept release by the enemy unless his fellow-captives were released, there are conflicting views; there is no consensus on whether his resistance helped and inspired his comrades. Being subjected to torture was gruesome and unimaginably painful, but his surviving the torture was not necessarily heroic, even though it was a demonstration of an extraordinary level of courage and self-discipline. Apparently McCain felt the same way, as he eventually broke under the torture and later stated that he considered his behavior completely unheroic. For more on this see the James Carroll piece in the decidedly un-conservative New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-true-nature-of-john-mccains-heroism .
Senator McCain was, by all accounts, a fine man, a patriotic man, a man of great honor. He was born with the military version of a silver spoon in his mouth, born as the scion of a family that included two four-star naval officers, but he made it through the rigors of Annapolis and earned his commission. His lowly class rank suggests a distinctly un-heroic use of his gifts; indeed, there are reports that his poor rank owed much to his proclivity for the kind of sexuality for which the president has become infamous. But overall, his military record was excellent.
As a politician, McCain was highly successful. Though his mother described him as a “scamp,” he preferred the more flattering “maverick,” and many of his conservative critics would side with his mother. On policy issues, he was many Democrats’ favorite Republican, a status that would have made him a more-important figure in an earlier era (e.g., the Tip O’Neill era), when the policy-differences between the parties were less stark; there appeared to be little daylight between McCain’s policy preferences and, say, JFK’s. But he had no business experience and apparently never mastered either Friedman-Hayek-Buckley or Alinsky-Krugman-Sanders; the senator was not built for the 2000s. Sadly for Senator McCain, for all his efforts at political compromise during the years after 9/11, he came across as quixotic, weak on policy, and more of a gadfly or deal-breaker (a “scamp”) than a deal-maker. His vote against Obamacare reform appeared petty, based more on revenge than on policy. His attempt to court the “Deplorables,” his selection of Sarah Palin to be his VP, was an awkward blunder. Once the Right had taken up free markets, small government, and cuts in taxes and regulation, it had little further use for the McCains of the world (e.g., the Bush family, Flake, Kasich). In the end, his mark was made as a naval officer and POW, not as a politician.
The president, like many others, wishes we did not have to lose our gallant military in faraway places – just as he no doubt wishes we could be done with school shootings and shootings on Chicago’s streets. He, like the rest of us, would rather have more victories to celebrate and fewer losses to mourn. But Memorial Day is enormously important, and John McCain was a courageous and heroic man, and President Trump should not have spoken as he did.