On October 26, 1967, McCain was shot down over North Vietnam while conducting a bombing mission in his carrier based A4E Skyhawk. He fractured both arms and a leg upon landing and nearly drowned in a lake.
He was retrieved by a group of North Vietnamese who refused to treat his injuries, savagely beating and bayonetting him. His captors only gave him treatment when they discovered that he was the son of an admiral.
Indeed, they used that fact to attempt a propaganda ploy by offering to release him. McCain refused, preferring to be released when his fellow POWs were released.
The North Vietnamese subjected McCain to a five and a half-year period of torture and starvation that came close to killing him but did break him in the end, forcing him to confess to war crimes. McCain endures the lingering effects of his injuries and the psychological trauma to this day.
Not everyone regards McCain as a war hero, despite these facts. A left-leaning magazine called Counterpunch (2) revived one of the more toxic memes from the Vietnam War by calling him a war criminal and accusing him of being callous about civilian deaths that occurred during bombing missions.
More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin (3) called McCain a war criminal, accusing him of being involved in the torture killing of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi (4) when he fell from power. Putin’s accusation was a little bit curious considering his well-deserved reputation for having his political opponents killed Mafia style.
Involvement in MIA
A more serious assault on McCain’s character concerns his involvement in the MIA issue. President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War, freeing American POWs, including McCain.
However, rumors persisted that, in his haste to put the war that had divided the nation behind him, Nixon had allowed North Vietnam to hold onto a number of American prisoners who were listed as MIA, or Missing in Action.
Like most conspiracy theories, the MIA story has a slight thread connecting it with fact. Nixon was duplicitous by nature, so it was not a long leap to the idea that he might have committed such an atrocity. The idea was that Hanoi was keeping these men to trade in exchange for reparations, something Nixon was disinclined to grant.
Rumors persisted of Americans being forced to perform slave labor in Vietnam, as well as being compelled to service captured American military equipment. The matter even entered popular culture in the 1980s, with Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and even Gene Hackman playing commandos who return to Southeast Asia to rescue Americans left there to languish for years after the Vietnam War concluded.
Just as with the Kennedy assassination, the MIA rumors became the subject of a congressional investigation in the early 1990s, in the form of a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The committee was chaired by Sen. John Kerry and McCain was a prominent member.
To make a long story short, the committee found no basis in the stories of Americana left behind in Vietnam. Of course, this conclusion was met by accusations of a cover-up, aided and abetted by McCain, as the American Conservative (5) maintained.
Sydney Schanberg (6), the journalist whose exploits in Cambodian were the subject of the hit film “The Killing Fields,” noted that McCain had fought to keep confidential Pentagon files on the POW/MIA matter closed to public view.
He speculates that those files not only contain undisclosed facts surrounding the POW/MIA issue, but also details about McCain’s forced confession that the senator would find personally shameful.
On the other hand, Joe Schlatter (7), a retired colonel who is both a Vietnam veteran and was heavily involved in the POW/MIA issue during the 1980s and 1990s, maintains that there is nothing to cover up.
So, the question arises, do the stories that suggest that Americans were held in Southeast Asia have any basis in reality? To believe that would be to believe that the American government managed to hide the truth for over four decades. If McCain was involved in covering the matter up, it would constitute an unpardonable stain on his honor that could never be washed away.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Wikipedia: McCain Prisoner of War
(4) TSW: Tripoli Witnesses Report Libyan Kidnappings and Executions
(5) The American Conservative
(7) MIA Facts