More than a few conservatives and Republicans, by no means necessarily the same people, denounced Donald’s Trump’s imprudent remarks about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent more than five years as a POW in Vietnam.
Said Trump, “he’s a war hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK.” This insulted all POWs, although Trump likely didn’t mean it the way it sounded.
He backed off a little, as he should have. But as imprudent politically as his remarks were, Trump let the cat of the bag about McCain, whose war hero status is something of a force-field. Though he is not completely immune from criticism, the war-hero title provides no little protection. McCain may be the one thing about Vietnam that liberals like, considering their considerable effort to undermine the American war effort. He’s a “maverick” — meaning liberal — Republican. They jumped on Trump, too.
Anyway, it’s worth reading two pieces about McCain that are contrary to the conventional wisdom about his war exploits.
The first deals with his time as a prisoner and whether he was a collaborator. When I was writing about missing POWs in the early 1990s, the rumors about McCain ran wild, particularly among relatives seeking answers about their missing loved ones. Maybe they were just angry and frustrated with McCain, but they couldn’t understand why he opposed their efforts to get the truth. During his presidential campaign in 2008, his detractors spoke candidly about him. They flatly called him a collaborator.
That regardless, the families had good reason for their disdain. Sydney Schanberg, author of The Life and Death of Dith Pran, the basis for The Killing Fields, explained McCain’s role in deep-sixing the truth about POWs. That’s the second article worth reading.
In a piece for The Nation and republished by The American Conservative, Schanberg detailed McCain’s intransigence on the matter when he served on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The chairman was John Kerry.
Here is Schanberg on the committee’s final report:
The Executive Summary, which comprised the first 43 pages, was essentially a whitewash, saying that only “a small number” of POWs could have been left behind in 1973 and that there was little likelihood that any prisoners could still be alive. The Washington press corps, judging from its coverage, seems to have read only this air-brushed summary, which had been closely controlled.
But the rest of the 1,221-page Report on POW/MIAs was quite different. Sprinkled throughout are pieces of hard evidence that directly contradict the summary’s conclusions. This documentation established that a significant number of prisoners were left behind — and that top government officials knew this from the start. These candid findings were inserted by committee staffers who had unearthed the evidence and were determined not to allow the truth to be sugar-coated.
If the Washington press corps did actually read the body of the report and then failed to report its contents, that would be a scandal of its own. The press would then have knowingly ignored the steady stream of findings in the body of the report that refuted the summary and indicated that the number of abandoned men was not small but considerable. The report gave no figures but estimates from various branches of the intelligence community ranged up to 600. The lowest estimate was 150.
But McCain was more than intransigent. He was a vicious attack dog who mistreated anyone who asked questions he didn’t like, claiming they impugned his patriotism. How bad was he? He was so nasty to Dolores Alfond, who founded the National Alliance of Families, and whose brother, Victor Apodaca, was a missing aviator, that she cried during a hearing.
Many stories have been written about McCain’s explosive temper, so volcanic that colleagues are loath to speak openly about it. One veteran congressman who has observed him over the years asked for confidentiality and made this brief comment: “This is a man not at peace with himself.”
He was certainly far from calm on the Senate POW committee. He browbeat expert witnesses who came with information about unreturned POWs. Family members who have personally faced McCain and pressed him to end the secrecy also have been treated to his legendary temper. He has screamed at them, insulted them, brought women to tears. Mostly his responses to them have been versions of: How dare you question my patriotism? In 1996, he roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a mother in a wheelchair. …
On Nov. 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, the sister of missing airman Capt. Victor Apodaca and chair of the National Alliance of Families, an organization of relatives of POW/MIAs, testified at one of the Senate committee’s public hearings. She asked for information about data the government had gathered from electronic devices used in a classified program known as PAVE SPIKE.
The devices were motion sensors, dropped by air, designed to pick up enemy troop movements. Shaped on one end like a spike with an electronic pod and antenna on top, they were designed to stick in the ground as they fell. Air Force planes would drop them along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other supply routes. The devices, though primarily sensors, also had rescue capabilities. Someone on the ground—a downed airman or a prisoner on a labor gang —could manually enter data into the sensor. All data were regularly collected electronically by U.S. planes flying overhead. Alfond stated, without any challenge or contradiction by the committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or people had manually entered into the sensors—as U.S. pilots had been trained to do—no less than 20 authenticator numbers that corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of 20 U.S. POWs who were lost in Laos. Alfond added, according to the transcript, “This PAVE SPIKE intelligence is seamless, but the committee has not discussed it or released what it knows about PAVE SPIKE.”
McCain attended that committee hearing specifically to confront Alfond because of her criticism of the panel’s work. He bellowed and berated her for quite a while. His face turning anger-pink, he accused her of “denigrating” his “patriotism.” The bullying had its effect — she began to cry.
After a pause Alfond recovered and tried to respond to his scorching tirade, but McCain simply turned away and stormed out of the room. The PAVE SPIKE file has never been declassified. We still don’t know anything about those 20 POWs.
Whether McCain’s fuming rages — he raised his hand as if to strike the woman in the wheelchair, witnesses said — are a result of the war and his captivity, or the personality of a narcissistic egomaniac, I am not given to know. That’s for headshrinkers to decide.
I do know I saw this man in action. I remember my friend Dolores’ tears.
Donald Trump’s remarks were imprudent, and they didn’t do much for his cause. Indeed, he may not have known why what he said would strike a nerve, or why he might be right.
But he raised questions about McCain that need to be answered.