Monday, August 27, 2018

On McCain's Legacy

John McCain is dead. The fawning commentary--that he was a war hero, a patriot, a statesman--has already begun as I start to write this post, on the day of his death. I have no desire to dance on the man's grave, but when many obituaries will be falling over themselves to praise him, or at least portray him on his own terms, I think it's important to try to take a more sober look at his legacy, which is what I intend to do here. And while I'm in no mood to celebrate McCain's ugly death from aggressive brain cancer, that doesn't change the fact that he leaves behind a legacy that's, on the whole, nothing to laud.

John McCain (photo credit Dan Raustadt)
Let's start with his time in the military, which has gotten him almost unanimously praised as a hero. McCain volunteered to take part in that Vietnam War, an enormously destructive conflict that was waged to prop up US-backed regimes in South Vietnam and keep the country from unifying under a Communist government, as many people on both sides of the border wanted (and as ultimately happened). He served as a bomber pilot and took part in Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam that killed tens of thousands of civilians, aiming, among other things, to "[impair] North Vietnam’s capacity to continue as an industrially viable state." Accordingly, when he was shot down McCain was on his way to bomb a power plant in "a heavily populated part of Hanoi," to use his own words. McCain also notes that he had been disenchanted that his civilian commanders were so restrictive about what targets they would allow him and his fellow pilots to bomb.

After being shot down, McCain was held captive for years and tortured, going through suffering that no human being should have to endure. At one point he understandably broke and made a forced confession, which the North Vietnamese used in a propaganda broadcast, but he often refused to cooperate with his captors. I suppose perhaps if you view the Vietnam War as some noble struggle on behalf of the freedom of the Vietnamese people, all of this is heroic enough. I personally don't, and McCain's decision to fight in the Vietnam War and enthusiasm for bombing North Vietnam seem lamentable, not heroic, to me. Noam Chomsky addressed the point in 2008, when McCain was running for president:
Let’s imagine that, say, in Russia now someone is running for office who was a pilot in the invasion of Afghanistan and was shot down while he was bombing heavily populated urban areas in Kabul, civilian areas, and was then tortured by Reagan’s freedom fighters. We should sympathize with him for his fate at the hands of the people who tortured him. But would we call him a war hero and a specialist on national security? How does that make you a hero and a specialist on national security? On the other hand, that’s exactly what’s being done with McCain. His expertise in national security is precisely that. But you can’t raise that matter here, because the jingoism and the commitment to the nobility of our military efforts is so high across the spectrum that you can’t bring it up.
Decades after his imprisonment, as he ran for president in 2000, McCain said of his captors that "I hate the gooks," using an anti-Asian ethnic slur that's long been popular in the military as a way to dehumanize the natives of countries that are being targeted. When challenged on it he stated that "I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people" before backing down and apologizing in the face of strong, and warranted, criticism.

It is worth noting that McCain refused early release during his time as POW because he didn't want to be allowed to go home before the other POWs who had been there longer had the same opportunity
(and because he didn't want to give the North Vietnamese a PR coup). Noble, and certainly the strongest argument for McCain to be considered a hero. Would I do the same? Would you? I don't know. These are fair questions. But for me and many others, the reality of McCain's military career and the war he chose to be part of are far too complex for the words "war hero" to accurately convey.

While it hasn't earned him the same acclamation as his time in the military, McCain's political career has also been widely praised, even by those who disagree with him--he was a maverick, they say, a man who stood for principles over party. That's how he presented himself for sure--he was willing to speak when many other members of his party stayed silent or even openly disagreed with what he said. But as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and unfortunately McCain's actions often fell short of his high-flung rhetoric.

Let's take the issue of torture. Unlike many other Republicans, McCain decried waterboarding as torture and called for an end to its use. Admirable enough. But when push came to shove, he abandoned what he'd said and backed down from doing anything that would actually stop the CIA's use of torture, ultimately only supporting an amendment that said the military couldn't use interrogation techniques that weren't in the Army Field Manual. When a later bill was put forward that would have applied the same rules to the CIA, McCain voted against it and called on Bush to veto it. Further, he helped pass legislation that protected torturers from prosecution, despite his pronouncement that waterboarding was illegal. Years later he would urge the Senate to reject Gina Haspel for the position of CIA director given her involvement in the use of torture, but as Vox correctly notes, by then it was too little, too late.

This behavior is a pattern for him. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair note a similar example in a 1999 article for Counterpunch:
McCain drew enthusiastic plaudits...when he rose in the Senate chamber to denounce the[ ]insertion of $200 million worth of pork in the military construction portion of the defense authorisation bill. Eloquently, he spoke of the 11,200 service families on food stamps, the lack of modern weapons supplied to the military, the declining levels of readiness in the armed forces. Bravely, he laid the blame at the doors of his colleagues: “I could find only one commonality to these projects, and that is that 90 percent of them happened to be in the state or districts of members of the Appropriations Committees.” Sternly, in tones befitting a Cato or a Cicero, the senator urged his colleagues to ponder their sacred duty to uphold the defense of the Republic rather than frittering away the public purse on such frivolous expenditure: “We live in a[ ]very dangerous world. We will have some serious foreign policy crises. I am not sure we have the military that is capable of meeting some of these foreseeable threats, but I know that what we are doing with this $200 million will not do a single thing to improve our ability to meet that threat.” 
In the gallery, partisans of pork-free spending silently cheered while those who hoped to profit from portions of the $200 million gnashed their teeth in chagrin. Yet, such emotions were misplaced on either side. This was vintage McCain. Had he wished to follow words with deeds, he could have called for a roll-call on the items he had just denounced so fervently. That way the looters and gougers would have had to place their infamy on the record. But, no, McCain simply sat down and allowed the offending expenditure to be authorised in the anonymous babble of a voice vote (“All those in favor say Aye”). Had McCain really had the courage of his alleged convictions he could have filibustered the entire $250 billion authorisation bill, but, inevitably, no such bravery was in evidence. Instead, when the $250 billion finally came to a vote, he...voted for it.
And, despite his reputation for being independent-minded, McCain played the role of an accomplice in the Republican Party's shift toward barely disguised fascism. His choice of Sarah Palin helped pave the way for Donald Trump's presidency, and his campaign cranked out dishonest attacks on Obama--that he had been closely associated with "terrorist" Bill Ayers--that helped set a tone for the deranged cries of "socialism!" and "communism!" from Tea Party chuds in the years to follow. Even the milquetoast centrist "fact-checker" organization PolitiFact denounced the McCain campaign's allegation that Obama and Ayers "ran a radical education foundation together:"
This attack is false, but it's more than that – it's malicious. It unfairly tars not just Obama, but all the other prominent, well-respected Chicagoans who also volunteered their time to the foundation. They came from all walks of life and all political backgrounds, and there's ample evidence their mission was nothing more than improving ailing public schools in Chicago. Yet in the heat of a political campaign they have been accused of financing radicalism.
And lest we forget--it was over two years ago, which might as well be two hundred years given how politics has been recently--McCain endorsed Trump for president in May of 2016, after Trump had called Mexicans rapists, proposed banning Muslims from entering the US, said we should kill the entire families of terrorists, and, of course, made derogatory comments about John McCain himself. He only revoked his endorsement after the Access Hollywood tape came to light--once again, too little, too late.

Accordingly, despite (as always) having plenty to say in criticism of Donald Trump, McCain has done little to actually oppose him. He voted with him over 80% of the time, supporting his awful nominees such as Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, and Kirstjen Nielsen. He also voted to support the Senate version of the disastrous tax "reform" passed last year (he ultimately missed the vote on the final version of the bill due to his illness). Of Trump's early cabinet selections McCain remarked "I couldn't have picked a better team.

And I would be remiss not to mention McCain's role as one of the Senate's biggest warmongers, from joking about "that old Beach Boys song, 'Bomb Iran'" on the campaign trail during his 2008 run for president, to his call last year to send more troops to Afghanistan after over a decade and a half of war, to his years-long advocacy of major intervention in Syria, it's largely accurate to say he never met a war he didn't like. His admission in a recently released memoir that the Iraq War was "a mistake" after steadfastly defending it for years is--yet again--too little, too late.

Such is the legacy of John McCain. He had his moments, one might say, if one was feeling particularly generous--his support for campaign finance reform, his vote against the "skinny repeal" of the Affordable Care Act, his opposition to Gina Haspel's nomination. But on the whole he hardly showcased the degree of heroism and integrity he's been so widely credited with. After traveling with the McCain campaign in 2000, the writer David Foster Wallace remarked that "It feels impossible, in February 2000, to tell whether John McCain is a real leader or merely a very talented political salesman, an entrepreneur who’s seen a new market-niche and devised a way to fill it." Some eighteen and a half years later, the answer is somewhat less elusive.

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