Make America Fake Again – The White Washing of McCain’s Legacy

Over the last week, the late senator John McCain has been presented to the world as a hero, a statesman and a man who always put his country before his party. He has been described as a man with honor and a set of values that are absent in today’s politics. He has been put on a pedestal as if this is the politician that all other American politicians should aspire to, as if this is the man that shows the greatest side of America, as if this is who we want our government to be. The problem with this presentation of the McCain legacy is it does not reflect the reality of his record. What we have witnessed in the last week has been a complete whitewash of not only John McCain’s 40-year record, but of America’s over that time period as well.

Let’s take a dive into the reality of the late Senator's record.

Vietnam War

The center piece of the John McCain legacy is his service in Vietnam and time as a POW. In October of 1967, John McCain’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam where he was captured, imprisoned and tortured for five and a half years. During his time as a POW, McCain, due to his father being a high-ranking admiral in the navy, had a chance to be released early. Instead, McCain made the decision to stay until all of the other captured officers were released in the order they were taken. McCain’s fortitude to be able to stand up for his comrades in the face of incredible torture was inarguably impressive and honorable. However, this one story, which has dignified John McCain as an unquestionable hero in America, is but one tiny story in the broader context of America’s war in Vietnam.

McCain’s suffering as a POW and his commendable honor in that environment is the perfect example of the prism through which America views the Vietnam war. The war is viewed through the eyes of American soldiers, of which 58,000 never came home. A terrible tragedy, but what of the Vietnamese? A country who had never threatened the United States.

During the Vietnam War, the American military dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all sides had dropped during World War II. Besides dropping conventional munitions, more than 7 million tons of Agent Orange, one of the deadliest substances known worldwide, was dropped on more than 3,000 villages populated with civilians. The United States military made no distinction between civilian and military targets. U.S. military ground forces routinely committed atrocities as they marched into villages, lined up civilians and slaughtered them. A large part of the U.S. bombing campaigns had no real traditional military goals. The goal of the bombing campaigns was to humiliate the North Vietnamese and to inflict the maximum amount of terror. John McCain flew 23 of those missions before he was shot down and captured.

At the conclusion and as a result of America’s unprovoked war of aggression, 2 million Vietnamese civilians were murdered. Viewing the war through this prism, as opposed to through the eyes of American soldiers, makes the declaration of ‘heroes’ in the midst of an aggressive war with countless atrocities committed a bit more complicated.

The narrow celebration of McCain’s heroism is an attempt to white wash what he, as an American soldier, was doing there in the first place. In America, a country that loves the black and white lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, America was without a doubt the 'bad guy'. When taken in the broad context of America’s invasion of Vietnam, John McCain did not suffer unjustly. The treatment by his captors was way better than what the civilians on the other side of those bombs received. When we celebrate McCain’s war record, we are also celebrating the America policies that gave us the Pulitzer prize winning photograph titled ‘Napalm Girl’. The bombing and wholesale slaughtering of Vietnamese civilians was not collateral damage. It was intentional strategy. This country has never reckoned with the atrocities that were committed in Vietnam. When McCain was shot down, he was directly involved in the bombing campaign ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, an operation that directly killed 50,000 civilians. The torture that John McCain was forced to endure
Napalm Girl
should not be a celebration of heroism. It should be a source of shame and reminder of where we put our soldiers, what they did to a population that never threatened us and how they suffered for nothing.

While John McCain is not to blame for America's involvement, as he too was a victim of this war, he never expressed any regret for taking part in these atrocities and he never expressed any anger at his government for sending him to south east Asia. During his 2007 presidential run, McCain responded to question from a reporter about Vietnam, “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

John McCain has allowed his story to be used to completely eradicate the actual history of what we did as a country in Vietnam and its why we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Military Intervention

Perhaps because he was thousands of feet above in the air and not in direct confrontation in Vietnam, McCain’s lust for more war never wavered. McCain was arguably the most militaristic senator in a body filled with militaristic senators. Whether it was Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Georgia, Yemen, Kosovo or Libya the McCain policy was for maximum conflict and maximum aggression. His dedication and advocacy for the perpetuation of never ending war was unmatched.

McCain was a strong advocate for the disastrous and unprovoked aggressive invasion of Iraq. Even after it had become nearly inarguable that the war had been a catastrophe, McCain still did not have any regrets and insisted on more troops and more war in the middle east. By 2007, his thirst for Mideast war should have been quenched, but it had not. He began declaring “Iran is the real problem” and infamously sang the words “Bomb Iran’ to a well-known Beach Boys song.

McCain died supporting the arms sales to the Saudi dictatorship who is actively committing atrocities in Yemen and just last month used an American bomb to blow up a school bus carrying 50 children. While John McCain is being eulogized as the embodiment of decency and human rights, his political legacy has left a wake of bloody imperial mayhem all over the world.

The “Maverick”

Another part of the John McCain legacy was the myth of the ‘Maverick’. The ‘Maverick’ was a man who bucked his party on issues that mattered to him. He was a man of principle. A man who reached across the aisle and put his country over his party. He was also a man who never existed. The ‘Maverick was another myth which denied the reality of John McCain’s record.

When John McCain bucked his party, it wasn’t over issues or principles that mattered to him. It was typically an act of spite against people who he had felt wronged him. When he voted against George W. Bush’s tax cuts it was a response to Bush’s treatment of him during the 2000 primary. When he voted against the latest Obamacare repeal, he meant it as a ‘middle finger’ to Trump and the outpouring celebration in the aftermath of the “Maverick’s” vote completely ignored the fact that McCain voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act on several different occasions. McCain’s ACA repeal vote was not act based on principle, but an act committed out of spite.

McCain’s signature campaign finance reform bill, the McCain Feingold Act, which aimed at counteracting the invasion of big money in U.S. elections was praiseworthy, but the bill was destroyed by a group of right wing Supreme Court Justices who he voted to put on the bench. McCain’s 2002 campaign finance reform act was also a clever way to cleanse his personal brand after being involved in one of the biggest political corruption scandals in American history, the Keating Five.

In the 1980’s, McCain, who had been trying to put the pieces together to make his first presidential run, cozied up to the banker financier Charles Keating, a man who’s crimes bankrupted tens of thousands of Americans and cost U.S. taxpayers billion of dollars. During the time of his financial crimes, Keating made $1.3 million in political contributions to five Senators, including John McCain, to help him resist regulators that might uncover his crimes. Keating became a close personal friend of John McCain. Besides making over $112,000 in political contributions to McCain, Keating threw fundraisers, cut in McCain’s wife along with his father-in-law in business deals and took McCain and his family on several trips and vacations at Keating’s expense. All of this fell apart when Keating’s fraud was finally revealed. The fallout destroyed McCain’s presidential aspirations for decades and eventually led to his campaign finance reform bill.

Rebuke to Trump

Over the last two years, McCain has been recast as a symbolic rebuke to Trump. He has been recast as a Republican statesman from another more honorable period. A statesman whose ‘values’ have been lost and are missing from the modern political discourse. This idea is all fantasy. John McCain was one of Donald Trump’s most reliable votes in congress as McCain voted for almost every single piece of Donald Trump’s agenda. The idea that McCain represented something different is simply unfounded. Furthermore, McCain has been a part of the same Republican machine that has winked at a white nationalist base for decades. He was active part of a party that paved the path for Donald Trump and the far-right racists to take over.

As a response to Trump’s divisive 2016 campaign, during which he made dismissive comments about McCain’s war record, Trump was not invited to the funeral as per McCain’s final wishes. Instead, McCain invited George W. Bush to attend and speak at his funeral. The same George W. Bush who, while competing in the 2000 GOP presidential primary, engaged in a dog whistling whisper campaign through the usage of shady robo-calls to imply that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. This is also the same George W. Bush who didn’t just make one nasty comment about a decorated Vietnam veteran's record, but dedicated his entire 2012 presidential campaign to attacking and destroying the Vietnam War record of his opponent (remember Swift Boat?). The tacit approval of George W. Bush’s dirty tactics and the faux outrage of Donald Trump’s is irreconcilable. John McCain and George W. Bush can never rebuke Trump because they are responsible for creating him.

Donald Trump didn’t invent the dirty tactics of presidential campaigning to which the political and media class are so recently disgusted by. He learned them from his predecessors. He learned from John McCain’s hand-picked vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. A person who didn’t read books or newspapers. A person who embraced far fetched conspiracy theories and everything the general mainstream media finds crazy about right wing politics. John McCain brought that crazy train to the national stage.

When Donald Trump wants to deny reality, he calls it “fake news”. When George W. Bush was confronted with irrefutable facts he tossed aside truth and labeled it as “fuzzy math”. In 2016, Donald Trump declared “Build that wall”. In his 2012 Senatorial primary, John McCain shouted “complete the damn fence! For decades, John McCain and George W. Bush catered to the same electorate that approves of Donald Trump at a rate higher than 90%. Donald Trump did not cast a magical spell over the Republican Party. It is the same Republican Party John McCain debased himself to win over by by playing to the Joe Arpaio base of the Arizona Republican Party when the fate of his Senate seat was in jeopardy.

Our Toxic Culture

The memorializing of John McCain as a selfless hero dedicated to public service is all part of the same toxic culture and alternate reality that led to Donald Trump’s rise to power. It is an embrace of the same type of deluded reality that the far right MAGA coalition lives in. The mainstream media and liberal base cannot both be appalled by Donald Trump’s lying and empathically embrace an alternate reality where John McCain is a hero dedicated to human rights.

The honoring of McCain isn’t just about the man. It is about America’s actions during his tenure. It is a revisionist historical account that characterizes America’s quests as honorable and noble. The celebration of a mythical McCain is an attempt to rebuke Trump, not because he is so much different than his predecessors, but because he has ousted the old power structure that has governed Washington for decades. It’s about a media structure who wants to create a hero to Trump’s villain. This attempt to deny history, to deny reality is dangerous for America and the world. America can never reckon or learn the lessons it needs to learn from Iraq and Vietnam if we cannot talk about the architects of these atrocities with the appropriate language. If we are going to live in a fact-based reality, we must embrace facts and reality even if it makes us uncomfortable. John McCain should be judged, not on his public media reputation and persona, but on his actions, his policies and the votes he cast. We must come to terms with John McCain’s terrible record. Denying this truth is the perpetuation of a world where people like Donald Trump are able to take advantage, deny truths and create their own alternate realities.

McCain may have been a good friend, a good husband, a good father and a good man to the people who were within close proximity to him, but the rest of the world, living in the wake of his legacy, are living in a world that has been made a far worse place as a result of him and his actions.


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