Cicero McCain in Vietnam
Monday, May 1 2000, 6:01 PM
John McCain has marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War with a statement that "the wrong guys won."
Indeed, they have. Only it's John McCain who is one of the wrong guys.
One of the most remarkable features of the recent presidental primary campaigns was that the war record of John McCain was considered as a major asset. The Arizona senator built his entire political career on his personal history as a pilot shot down over Vietnam and held prisoner, often under brutal conditions, for over five and a half years. Throughout his failed presidential candidacy McCain referred constantly to his war record as a qualification for high office, a theme that drew little if any critical comment.
The remarkableness of all this lies in that John McCain is an unrepentant participant in the mass murder of somewhere between two and a half to three million Vietnamese people. No one will ever know the true figure, just as we shall never know how many of those victims died beneath the bombs that McCain delivered. There is a legal term for the mass murder of a people: genocide. It applies here.
So an assistant genocidist ran a Cold Warrior's campaign for the presidency, a campaign whose organizing premises about recent US history validated a state-sanctioned murderer as an honorable and noble man. John McCain has been the emblem of Americans who want to believe that the Vietnam war was honorable and noble too. The victory that McCain represents is that of a self-deluding national faith over historical accuracy. A half-a-sixpack patriotism echoes in his parrot refrain of 'Duty, Honor, Country', a motto that is no more than an excuse for picking up the remnants of a failed French colonial war.
Vietnam defines McCain's persona as an American Cicero, a popular hero who represents military honor. Vietnam, according to McCain, was "the place where I learned much of what I know about honor." What was such honor? Once I asked a co-worker, a former Army lieutenant colonel, how he had gotten his Silver Star. He described how, when a large group of Vietnamese soldiers had been trapped in a pocket, he ordered a then-new fragmentation bomb loaded onto a helicopter in order to drop it directly on target. Then he set the helicopter down on the detonation point and mapped positions of the dead bodies on graph paper. It was the first field test of a fragmentation bomb. This was the stuff of military honor and American national disgrace. Today the United States is not sending that ex-colonel or anyone else with graph paper to map the incidence of birth abnormalities due to over a million tons of Agent Orange spread in toxic swathes. Instead, the US refuses any medical assistance and Vietnam begs for international health aid.
McCain's rhetorical focus on the undeniable tortures that he and his fellow prisoners endured in the 'Hanoi Hilton' serves historical denial; it individualizes brutality and gives this a Vietnamese rather than an American face. John McCain has become the David Irving of the Vietnam years, a denier of the foulest deeds. To our lasting misfortune and dishonor, McCain's lack of personal remorse, inability to recognize criminality of stunning magnitude, and unwillingness to compensate Vietnamese victims are widespread public attitudes.
Such political attitudes underwrite economic neo-imperialism in the form of transnational capital seeking the cheapest available labor. Nike's subcontractors employ 45,000 workers in Vietnam, and pay their workers an average $55 per month when a pair of athletic shoes costs $120 in the United States. By means of a global capital and labor hierarchy, together with trade agreements to enforce that hierarchy, the United States and its version of a 'free market' seek to bring about a peaceful commercial version of the submission that military force did not achieve. As before, when John McCain and company came bearing high explosive gifts, the Vietnamese again are being told that this Western invasion will advance their own best interests.
One of the most repetitious themes of American media reports from Vietnam has been how a 'let bygones be bygones' attitude prevails regarding the United States, and how the only real concern of the Vietnamese is how they can plunge headlong into Western consumer capitalism. It seems far easier for American journalists and their audiences to believe this than to conceive of a polite Vietnamese interviewee leaving unasked a silent, unanswerable question "How many of my uncles and aunts did your uncle — or you — kill?"
The Vietnamese government, about which otherwise it is nearly impossible to say anything favorable, rebuked McCain far too gently. Its foreign ministry first replied that "The Vietnamese nation's losses and suffering are wordless", and later took more specific aim at McCain as one of "those people who brought bombs and shells to sow death among our people and wreak havoc with a country [and who] now pass themselves off as having the right to criticize their victims-cum-saviors." That last phrase catches the matter neatly, for in his offensiveness McCain summarizes one human reaction to guilt: assail the victims in order to gain personal salvation, even a false heroism.
Speaking in front of the American Conservative Union last year, McCain said "Our country has a long and honorable history.....We were a good country before Vietnam and we are a good country after Vietnam." The repugnance towards the US role in Southeast Asia, which prevailed among the American public and forced an end to the Vietnam War, never penetrated much of the country. Rambo and Reagan fought to overturn the results of that public repugnance, with success sufficient to clear the way for McCain's militaristic ilk. By rehabilitating the concept of an heroic America that never erred and that did no wrong, the neo-imperial politics that John McCain represents are preparing for the next Vietnam.
Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.