New York — Every presidential candidacy relies on a myth. Reagan was a great communicator; Clinton felt your pain. Both storylines were ridiculous. But rarely are the constructs used to market a party nominee as transparent or as fictional as those we’re being asked to swallow in 2008.
Still more laughable than the notion of Obama as the second coming of JFK is the founding myth of the McCain campaign: (a) he is a war hero, and (b) said heroism increases his credibility on national security issues. "A Vietnam hero and national security pro," The New York Times calls him in a typical media blandishment.
John McCain fought in Vietnam. There was nothing noble, much less heroic, about fighting in that war.
Some Americans may be suffering another of the periodic attacks of national amnesia that prevent us from honestly assessing our place in the world and its history, but others recall the truth about Vietnam: it was a disastrous, unjustifiable mess that anyone with an ounce of sense was against at the time.
Between one and two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were sent to their deaths by a succession of presidents and Congresses — fed to the flames of greed, hubris, and stupidity. The event used to justify starting the war — the Tonkin Gulf "incident" — never happened. The Vietnam War’s ideological foundation, the mantra cited to keep it going, was disproved after we lost. No Southeast Asian "dominos" fell to communism. To the contrary, the effect of the U.S. withdrawal was increased stability. When genocide broke out in neighboring Cambodia in the late 1970s, it was not the U.S., but a unified Vietnamese army — the evil communists — who stopped it.
Not even General Wesley Clark, shot four times in Vietnam, is allowed to question the McCain-as-war-hero narrative. "Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," he argued. The Obama campaign, which sells its surrogates down the river with alarming regularity, promptly hung the former NATO commander out to dry: "Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark."
Even in an article criticizing the media for repeatedly framing McCain as a war hero, the liberal website Media Matters concedes: "McCain is, after all, a war hero; everybody agrees about that."
I was 12 when the last U.S. occupation troops fled Saigon. I remember how I — and most Americans — felt at the time.
We were relieved.
By the end of Nixon’s first term most people had turned against the war. Gallup polls taken in 1971 found that about 70 percent of Americans thought sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. Some believed it was immoral; others considered it unwinnable.
Since then, the political center has shifted right. We’ve seen the Reagan Revolution, Clinton’s Democratic centrism, and Bush’s post-9/11 flirtation with neo-McCarthyite fascism. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Americans — including Republicans — still think we should never have fought the Vietnam War.
"After the war’s 1975 conclusion," Michael Tomasky wrote in The American Prospect in 2004, "Gallup has asked the question ("Did the U.S. make a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam?") five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. All five times…respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000."
Moreover, Tomasky continued, "vast majorities continue to call the war ‘unjust.’" Even in 2004, after 9/11, 62 percent considered the war unjust. Only 33 percent still thought it was morally justified.
Vietnam was an illegal, undeclared war of aggression. Can those who fought in that immoral war really be heroes? This question appeared settled after Reagan visited a cemetery for Nazi soldiers, including members of the SS, at Bitburg, West Germany in 1985. "Those young men," claimed Reagan, "are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."
Americans didn’t buy it. Reagan’s poll numbers, typically between 60 and 65 percent at the time, plunged to 41 percent after the visit. Those who fight for an evil cause receive no praise.
So why is the McCain-as-war-hero myth so hard to unravel? By most accounts, John McCain demonstrated courage as a P.O.W., most notably by refusing his captors’ offer of early release. But that doesn’t make him a hero.
Hell, McCain isn’t even a victim.
At a time when more than a fourth of all combat troops in Vietnam were forcibly drafted (the actual victims), McCain volunteered to drop napalm on "gooks" (his term, not mine). He could have waited to see if his number came up in the draft lottery. Like Bush, he could have used family connections to weasel out of it. Finally, he could have joined the 100,000 draft-eligible males — true heroes, to a man — who went to Canada rather than kill people in a war that was plainly wrong.
When McCain was shot down during his 23rd bombing sortie, he was happily shooting up a civilian neighborhood in the middle of a major city. Vietnamese locals beat him when they pulled him out of a local lake; yeah, that must have sucked. But I can’t help think of what would have happened to Mohammed Atta had he somehow wound up alive on a lower Manhattan street on 9/11. How long would he have lasted?
Maybe he would have made it. I don’t know. But I do know this: no one would ever have considered him a war hero.
Ted Rall is the author of the book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America’s next big foreign policy challenge.