On the afternoon of August 25, United States senator John McCain passed away at 81, an age that will never be reached by the victims of the many wars for which he tirelessly advocated throughout his entire political career.
The outpouring of condolences, praise and eulogies was overwhelming, emanating from across the mainstream American political and media spectrum. Indeed, the American mainstream — as well as a Canadian consensus, including foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, prime minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and even Green Party leader Elizabeth May — all solemnly nodded and agreed to honour McCain's "service."
This recent appreciation of McCain's "service," whether in the military as a Navy attack aircraft pilot during the Vietnam War, or as a politician, ignores the bulk of McCain's legacy. In both his military and political contexts, McCain's "service" is morally questionable.
As with all monumental figures of history, from Winston Churchill to Abraham Lincoln to Mother Teresa, there is truth to some of the descriptors being used to describe McCain.
One year after his capture, McCain did refuse to be released from prison, not wanting to leave his fellow prisoners behind. He went on to endure four more years of North Vietnamese captivity, during which he withstood torture and twice attempted suicide. It's evident why many compatriots consider him a hero of the Vietnam War. However, that conflict carries much baggage.
The Vietnam War is one of the most popular cases of failed and costly interventions of the 20th century. It's also an operations theatre where American forces committed war crimes.
Chemical weapons — 73 million litres — were used en masse. Civilian slaughtering was widespread, and millions of tons of bombs were indiscriminately dropped, hitting military and civilian infrastructure alike.
The very operation in which McCain participated, Operation Rolling Thunder, was responsible for, according to American estimates, more than 182,000 civilians casualties in North Vietnam. It's more than a fair assessment that as an American ground attack aircraft pilot in Vietnam, especially in Operation Rolling Thunder, the chances of McCain having committed war crimes are relatively high.
McCain's attitude towards American wars of aggression makes it explicitly clear that he learned nothing from his experiences in the Vietnam War
Even when given the benefit of the doubt regarding his actions in the war, as many people subscribe to the notion that soldiers "simply follow orders" and aren't morally responsible for the crimes they commit, McCain still lacked any virtue later in his career as a politician.
Those who defend him by sagely affirming that those in power are to blame for crimes committed in war would be disappointed to see the late McCain's record in the Senate, where he used his substantial power and platform to push for wars of aggression over multiple decades.
These include interventions in: Iraq, which resulted in 1 million deaths; Libya, where the power vacuum, extremist faction wars and slave markets still haven't subsided seven years later; and Yemen, where he opposed ending the brutal American-backed Saudi bombing campaign that, most recently, was responsible for the bombing of a school bus full of 40 children, and which has become what the UN deems the world's "worst humanitarian crisis." Add to this his thirsting for wars with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, North Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali and Ukraine.
McCain's attitude towards American wars of aggression makes it explicitly clear that he learned nothing from his experiences in the Vietnam War, nor from every war he advocated for since. One would think that after the second or third failed intervention, and hundreds of thousands of dead civilians later, McCain would have woken up from his delusion. Alas, McCain's legacy can legally and morally be assessed as being defined by warmongering and war crimes.
This having been established, why the narrow focus on his "service" as a member of the armed forces and as a lifelong politician? Why the glossing over of the bulk of his warmongering and quasi-genocidal legacy? Why the praise from Obama, Clinton and even Canada's entire mainstream political spectrum?
The first of the two potential answers is straightforward: some of those praising McCain genuinely agree with his stances, and are just as morally depraved vis-à-vis war, peace and civilian casualties.
The second explanation, more nuanced and difficult to pinpoint, lies in the ordinary North American politician's inherent fear of being disliked, of standing out or of being pinned as "uncivil." Most subscribe too fervently to the notion of civil politics, "reaching across the aisle," and the sanctity of service to one's country. They will never dare to criticize McCain's long service without fearing an attack on their own. "I'll respect your service if you respect mine. We're all just trying to better our country, right?"
Wrong, I'd argue. Not all service is inherently respectable, and does not by definition merit praise or hagiographies such as those McCain has received.
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Neutrality toward, or detachment from, what one perceives to be wrong is intellectually lethargic and unproductive. It's imperative to morally and ethically grapple with what was done through the individual's service, instead of automatically giving it applause. Anything less is either seriously lazy, or malicious, and is most definitely disrespectful to the millions of dead around the world left behind by McCain's legacy.
Those lives have to matter as we collectively and tearfully mourn one of their killers.
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