The mainstream media are finally challenging Senator John McCain's practice of constantly injecting his time as a prisoner of war into every non-related question he answers, and I'm thankful for that slowly emerging trend. There is, however, another mainstream media reporting habit that is much more insidious, and which I have not seen challenged anywhere. It is the continual mis-characterization of John McCain as a war hero.
Calling McCain a war hero gives him powerful political and emotional appeal he does not truly deserve, and it erroneously reinforces public belief that "I WAS A POW" is a valid answer to every difficult question he faces on the issues.
May we all, citizens, Democratic spokespeople, and especially journalists, please stop referring to John McCain as a war hero? He does not meet the commonly understood definition. He is an honored veteran, and he suffered terribly as a prisoner of war, but he wasn't and isn't a war hero. There's an important difference between war hero and prisoner of war that McCain, the Republicans, and the mainstream media have completely glossed over, much to McCain's benefit politically.
Since the beginning of Senator McCain's Presidential campaign, every time one commentator on any news panel refers to his time as a POW, another panelist (often a Democratic spokesperson) calls him a war hero. This happens any time McCain is discussed, and it irks me no end becase I know the difference, and so should the moderators of our public discourse.
Unfortunately, many news people, and even Democratic spokespeople, say war hero simply to differentiate themselves. They say war hero in these situations not because they believe McCain is a war hero, but because it's a bit of conventional wisdom that the media and many people subscribe to, and by saying it, they won't have to say "POW" like the other discussant(s). Even more unfortunately, this careless habit has brought us to the place where, when people hear "POW," they also subliminally hear "war hero."
The media's tendency to mis-use, and then over use, catch-phrases is always dangerous, but it is especially dangerous in this case. The words war hero are magic words, not to be trifled with. They are such powerful words that they must be used correctly, and sparingly, or bad things will happen. They cast a halo of glory over anyone to whom they are attributed.
As a matter of fairness and balance, any person the media calls a war hero ought to be a war hero. Otherwise, war hero will lose all the special meaning it historically holds.
War hero has in the past, and should be, properly reserved for those who, in a blinding instant of pure courage and love of fellow and country, undertook desperate risks without hesitating despite the likelihood they would die doing so. War heroes are Congressional Medal of Honor, Silver Star, and Medal of Valor award winners. They are men like WWI's Sergeant Alvin York, or WWII's Audy Murphy. Men who, careless of their own safety, charged into a hail of bullets and shrapnel to take a key enemy position or to save their comrades-in-arms from death. That's a war hero.
High ranking military leaders occasionally attain "heroic" status through their brilliance in the defense of freedom. Men like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Allied western invasion that led to victory over Germany. But this is a symbolic heroism, not the real blood and guts thing. That's why, although he was showered with medals and awards by a grateful America after WWII, and even elected President, Eisenhower never got the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As a war hero, John McCain doesn't measure up!
I certainly honor Senator McCain's loyalty to America during his incarceration in Hanoi, and have sympathy for the horrors he endured. However, in the context of history, which is where the concept of heroism lives and breathes, he was really just another guy fighting for America who was captured during an attack. One of the many thousands of American servicemen captured during Viet Nam.
He endured his torture because he didn't die, and so his only choice was honor or dishonor. Being from a old military family, he could not bear dishonor, so he chose honor. He deserves every American's respect for that honorable and difficult choice. But, deserving respect for upholding the oath of allegiance he swore as an officer, even under such awful circumstances, is not the same thing as being a war hero.
The Great Generation, those we now honor and remember with gratitude, was comprised of men (Mainly, sorry ladies.) who endured despite the horrors of war and the death of good friends. Sometimes they were captured, imprisoned, and even tortured. They fought beside their comrades and served their country for the safety and freedom of us all, without question or expectation of reward.
In my experiences with veterans, those who suffered most in war don't want to remember their war experiences or talk about them. My Uncle John was one of those. I know that, as a Navy Seabee, he fought in the island hopping Pacific campaign against the Japanese. But, I know nothing about his experiences. He wouldn't talk about them. After a number of attempts over the years, I stopped asking. All I know for sure is that my sister, Kathie, asked him about his war experiences once, about twenty years ago. He told her, "I have nightmares enough. There's no reason you should have them, too."
My uncle, and most of these men, never claimed heroism or considered themselves heroes. They were just good people who endured what had to be endured to insure our freedom - and survived because the alternative was death. I don't think John McCain should be allowed to claim a heroism beyond theirs just because he endured, too.
Feel free to honor Senator McCain's military service and loyalty to America. I do. But, war hero? No.
Sunday, September 7, 2008