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McCain's Stuck Narrative

New America Media, Commentary, Randy Fertel Posted: Oct 16, 2008

Editors note: John McCain bills himself as a war hero. He invokes his suffering in prison as a key thread to his narrative. But NAM contributing writer, Randy Fertel, says that trauma does not automatically build character, and recovering from it needs a deeper understanding of ones own suffering. Fertel is adjunct professor of Liberal Studies at New School for Social Research, and a contributor to NPR and Huffington Post.

In his summation of the last presidential debate, John McCain asked us once again to trust him because of the years of military service given by him and generations of his family. Once again he invoked a key thread in his campaign narrative the cruel imprisonment and torture he suffered has prepared him to lead us.

Thats where I get stuck. I do not question that trauma can build character. Trauma perhaps helped build the empathy that made Franklin Roosevelt into a giant on crippled legs. But trauma does not automatically build character. Sometimes, it simply causes a repetition of the same mental loop in McCains case characterizing the world and all those in it as good and bad. Friend or foe. Hero or villain. No shadows. No shades of gray.

Trauma is the sudden intrusion of the extraordinary into our lives, extraordinary because life has not prepared us for it. Psychologists tell us that recovery from trauma requires the hard work of coming to understand how this extraordinary occurrence could have happened. John McCain was not prepared to understand how a country he had come to save from communism could treat him so badly, from the moment he crash-landed from his bombing mission and was bludgeoned by his captors, through five years of misery at their angry hands. In 2000, while campaigning for Republican presidential nomination, he admitted: I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live. He later apologized.

The only explanation was the worldview that he carried to the war: Vietnam was a nation filled with evil communists whose rule must be ended at all costs. He didnt understand the terror he himself would have been in Vietnamese lives.

There is, however, another sense McCain could have made of his trauma.

I was at the Hoa Lo prison, the Hanoi Hilton, in December of 1995 when it was being torn down. I noticed some debris lying behind the construction fence and it was too tempting a souvenir to pass up. I purloined a roof tile. Red. French in design. And marked: ACIER MARSEILLAIS Marseille factory. The tile had been made in the French seaport.

The prison was built by France in colonial days 1886-1889 to house 400 political prisoners. By 1954, when the French lost a 10-year colonial war, it was jammed with 2000 Viet Minh, the predecessor of the Vietnamese communist party.

Heres my point. Those who imprisoned John McCain, communists or not, saw themselves as heroes in a long struggle against colonial invaders. In their minds, it began when the Trung sisters defeated the Chinese in 49 A.D. That struggle continued for almost 2000 years with many defeats and intermittent victories. The French took over in the early 19th century. The Vietnamese who tortured the imperialist dog, John McCain, mercilessly had learned the art at the knee of their French colonial masters, as Algerian Arabs would in the same decade.

From their point of view, McCains torturers had good reason to label him an imperialist. After World War II, the French employed American troop ships loaned by president Truman to ferry French soldiers to Vietnam to take back their colonial possession. Once landed, the French even released Japanese prisoners, brutal occupiers of Vietnam during the war, to fight at their sides to put down the Ho Chi Minh-led Viet Minh.

Admittedly, McCains experiences in Vietnam did change his worldview and for the better. His opposition to torture as a U.S. policy stems directly from his own experience. And, he was in the forefront of normalizing relations with Vietnam.

But how much of his traumas deeper meaning managed to penetrate his narrative?

Iraq is another nation whose colonial history America chose to ignore in the run-up to the war and during the occupation. The sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia that John McCain embarrassingly denied is in part an inheritance of colonialism. The Sunnis were a small minority that had benefited from British rule. But stuck in the narrative by which he understood his Vietnam trauma, it is not surprising that McCain should have led the charge as early as 1998 in the call for regime change in Iraq. He speaks on winning and of victory in a country where the majority perceive the Americans as occupiers and invaders.

Given his apparent inability to see anything but what is framed by the narrative he brought to the party, John McCain seems unable to entertain anothers point of view. He boasts that he will reach across the aisle, but such a gesture requires that we consider that the other side might after all be right.

Trauma can build character. But sometimes trauma stunts character. Like it did McCains reach.

Randy Fertel is the co-founder of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling, which celebrate the legacy of Ron Ridenhour who blew the whistle on My Lai in the Vietnam War, then became a George Polk award-winning investigative journalist. The first Ridenhour Prizes in 2003 went to Ambassador Joseph Wilson and Daniel Ellsberg. See ridenhour.org.

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