Monday, July 20, 2015

Heroes: The Donald and McCain

Responding to somebody's assertion that John McCain is a "war hero," Donald Trump harrumphed  he did not think a soldier who got captured is a war hero. It's the guy who does not get captured and wins the war who's the hero Trump said. Trump, of course, never wore a uniform and was clubbing with beautiful women while McCain was spending his time at the Hanoi Hilton. Of course, Trump never claimed to be a war hero.

In a way, Trump has a point: that phrase "War Hero" is thrown around so promiscuously it has lost all meaning. Anyone who peeled potatoes during the war and never had a shot fired in anger at him is now a "war hero," because he wore the uniform.  In that sense, the tone deaf, politically incorrect Trump had a point.  We cheapen the meaning of "war hero" by applying it to  anyone who went through basic training. In McCain's case, he did considerably more than peel potatoes, but did his getting captured constitute heroism? The Japanese considered surrender and capture profoundly dishonorable. Americans consider survival as a POW honorable. Suffering for your country is considered "heroic." 

What is a "hero" anyway?  In my book, it's someone who does something exceptional, risky, effective and brave.  But the notion of a person being a hero
as opposed to being "heoric"   has always struck me as bogus.  Men may do heroic things, but to be a hero, one ought to be a paragon of virtue.

 Babe Ruth is referred to as being a "hero."  But he was also a rowdy, womanizing, boozing wild man. George Patton was a "hero" because he was daring and relentless and he pushed the Germans back across Europe. Of course, he was not the one getting shot at. Ol' "Guts and Glory" was sneered at by his own men who said, "Our guts, his glory."  And he was a racist and a reactionary. Very flawed men can do heroic things, but to be a "hero" implies a sort of thorough going virtuosity, as in, "You are my hero."

People are complex.

During the Vietnam war, many soldiers fought valiantly for a Lost Cause, whatever that cause may have been, but they served their country with their bodies not their minds. Anyone with a functioning brain in that era should have been capable of seeing we had no business fighting in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese posed no threat whatsoever to America and we were there only because Lyndon Johnson did not want to be the first President to lose a war and because Henry Kissinger liked the feeling of power and it allowed him to date supermodels and Richard Nixon was a cold warrior who could not get past that foul idea of "honor" initially, and he bombed Cambodia and did other ruthless, stupid and ineffective things, but he was at least smart enough to eventually know futility when he saw it

For my money, the people who did the most heroic things of the John McCain era were not the men who fought the Vietnamese but those who opposed the war.

William Fulbright was a United States Senator from Arkansas and he opposed the war early and often and he gave Lyndon Johnson fits.  Fulbright was a segregationist, and had signed the Southern Manifesto. He was a conservative from a conservative state and yet he opposed the war as an exercise in hubris.  He also opposed blind fealty to the state of Israel, when he thought it was against the interests of the United States. For these transgressions he was soundly defeated.  He took principled, unpopular and risky stands, for which he paid a price. He did heroic things. But he was flawed the way many Southerners of that era were flawed. 

Tom Hayden opposed the war in Vietnam and he visited my campus when I was an undergraduate. He laid out our options for us: 1/ Get drafted and kill babies. 2/ Flee to Canada.  3/ Go to jail.  He spent a lot of time in court, having been arrested for crossing state lines to do various unsavory things, like inciting a riot and draft resistance.

Daniel Berrigan, the renegade Catholic priest, broke into draft offices and poured blood over the files--this was before computers--and he spent years on the run from the law.  Those were heroic acts.  There may have been some self aggrandizement  wrapped up in this but he did some brave and righteous things. 

Most of my friends who went off to that war did so because it was the best bet among a lot of risky and bad options.  Although 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam, that was mostly over 5 years and most people who went there did not die. If you were lucky, you went over and came back in one piece. That now qualifies  you as a war hero, although in the 1960's and 1970's that qualified you as a baby killer. Later, you could talk about how you did it for patriotism, when, in fact, you did it because you were too afraid to risk jail, exile to Canada or Sweden and loss of the life you had come to know. 

Trump, of course, is a buffoon, but occasionally he says something that is the kind of thing you might say to your drinking buddies in the bar, rather sticking to the tripe that politicians cleave to because it resonates well with the focus group pablum most politicians stick to. In that sense, at least, Trump is refreshing.


  1. Mad Dog,
    It's been a fun summer treat to watch The Donald in his quest to unseat Rush Limbaugh as The Most Repulsive Man In America-he's really making a valiant attempt. As for his comment about McCain, I can't say I see much beyond stupidity in it. His remark about capture would seem a blow to every POW past and present not just McCain. All from the man who sat home during the war and played on Daddy's dime..

    I do, however, see your point and the distinction between veteran, heroics and hero. To a certain extent shouldn't we all at least be grateful to veterans for serving-for providing the required military preparedness-(yes we're over prepared but that's another topic) that the country needs. Their service, regardless of the reason why they joined, allows those of us who can't, or wouldn't want to have anything to do with the military, to be able to say home. But that level of gratitude is different than viewing them as heroes-a term, I agree, when applied to everyone who ever served, cheapens the appreciation we offer to those who truly showed courage on the battlefield. Heroics also seems a preferable term to hero. The latter suggests some type of super human, a person unlike the rest of us. But what is most incredible about people who perform heroic acts is that they are not superhuman or superheroes, just ordinary humans doing something extraordinary...

  2. Ms. Maud,
    Yes, ever since the "banality of evil" remark from a journalist at the Nuremberg trials, we have had that idea front and center, but there is also the ordinariness of the men and women who do heroic things.
    I suspect that comes from preparation--the battle of Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eaton. People can be trained and prepared and what comes out under challenge can astonish.
    I coached an age group swimming team one summer with a friend of mine and we worked on these kids for weeks and weeks and sometimes we wondered whether these kids actually wanted to swim or were just pushed into it by their parents. Finally, at the first meet, these quiet kids, who we thought were simply wimpy just exploded. They bettered their best times by such wide margins, we kept checking our stop watches. My friend looked at me, halfway through the meet and said, "Who ARE these kids?" I had no idea.
    Just another example of how you can fail to see the lava flowing below the surface, when it comes to people.

    Mad Dog