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The Courage to Stand While Trembling

McCain’s valor amid suffering made him a unique kind of hero—and gave him the moral authority to triumph in politics.

By his own admission, retired Navy Capt. and Sen. John Sidney McCain III was an “imperfect” warrior and public servant. He died on Saturday at 81 with the respect of many friends, and more than a few foes too, as well as unfinished battles in Washington that will now fall to his successors in the Senate.

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But it was his heroism in Vietnam—demonstrated during five torturous years of captivity in Hanoi—that most illustrated McCain’s unshakable commitment to country, and cemented his legacy too. McCain’s heroism wasn’t that of a warrior who slaughtered enemies or a great battle captain who commanded thousands. His was the quieter, more resolute valor of a prisoner, who stood while trembling against years of brutality. McCain’s extraordinary courage continues to command respect because it was the kind of individual bravery America can venerate even against the backdrop of an unpopular war. McCain’s personal heroism also stands out because of how it empowered McCain as a congressman and senator to do things others could not.

Parts of the McCain story were pre-ordained from birth. His father and grandfather were admirals, eventually the first father and son pair to achieve a four-star rank. McCain earned more than his share of demerits at the Naval Academy—foreshadowing both his maverick streak and his ability to endure punishment at the hands of his captors. McCain graduated into a career in naval aviation. It was (and is) a glamorous but dangerous field that requires physical bravery on a daily basis to launch and land multi-ton aircraft on a tiny floating runway. McCain lived hard and chafed at the Navy’s rules but excelled in this world where personal and physical courage mattered most.

U.S. Navy Lt. John McCain in 1964.

On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain flew his 23rd combat mission as a Navy pilot and his first that would take him into the intense anti-aircraft fire surrounding the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. After dropping bombs targeting a power plant, McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk was hit by a Russian-made missile that blew off its wing. McCain ejected, and the force of leaving the aircraft at that speed knocked him unconscious. He splashed down in a lake near Hanoi where a local mob had gathered as his parachute descended. Upon his landing, McCain was beaten severely, bayoneted in the groin and foot, before being transferred to North Vietnamese authorities and the prison where he would spend the next five and half years.

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McCain’s captors initially treated him well because of his father, then a senior admiral who took command of all U.S. forces in the Pacific in 1968. But when the North Vietnamese offered McCain an early release—ostensibly to undermine morale among other prisoners and to influence his father’s actions as a senior U.S. commander—McCain refused.

“I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society,” McCain wrote later of his decision. “I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country.”

The cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment worsened. After McCain spurned his captors’ offer, the prison commandant ordered guards to “break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out.” McCain stayed in Hanoi for more than four more years, much of it spent in solitary confinement, enduring more beatings and starvation. McCain seemingly survived by sheer willpower, as well as through the comradeship of other captives who passed messages through a clandestine system of tapping the prison walls.

The North Vietnamese eventually repatriated McCain in 1973, along with scores of other POWs who endured similar treatment. Video from those moments shows McCain much thinner (he dropped to 105 pounds in captivity) and hobbled by his wounds—yet defiant too. It was a mask of battle that he would wear for decades.

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Vietnam produced many heroes, but McCain’s suffering stood out as a particular kind of valor in a deeply divisive war. Within the military tribe, there was great admiration for skilled warriors like future Sen. Bob Kerrey or for great battle captains like Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. But as America wrestled with the violence done on its behalf in Vietnam, society came to venerate more those warriors whose courage was exemplified by their suffering and perseverance. McCain epitomized that type of heroism—all the more so because he volunteered to stay in Hanoi and endure more, out of loyalty to his country and fellow captives. His was a valor that even those opposed to the war could honor; McCain’s suffering is a parable for America’s during a long, costly, and polarizing war.

McCain’s heroism endowed him with the clout to do things politically that others could not. He courted the media and crossed the aisle and broke countless norms of politics because, well, what was anyone going to do to him in Washington that was worse than what he endured in Hanoi? When the time came to make peace with Vietnam and normalize diplomatic relations with America’s erstwhile enemies, McCain led those efforts too. And when post–9/11 America seemed to descend irreversibly down a slippery slope that led from enhanced interrogation to torture, McCain singularly led Congress to stop it, as something only someone with his moral authority could do.

In death, McCain leaves behind a story that will continue to inspire generations of service members, who will read his memoirs and wonder if they will have the courage to act as he did should their moment come. His heroism will also forever punctuate America’s memory of the Vietnam War, reminding us both of the horrors of war and the human potential to transcend them.

Read more on the death of John McCain.