"624787." In his first national campaign ad for president, John McCain is shown reciting his rank and serial number as he lies in a Vietnamese hospital bed as a prisoner of war. The ad describes him as "a real hero."
Let's be clear; Senator McCain is running for president as a war hero who plans to win the campaign based on character and honor. On the surface, it seems churlish to critique the idea of a war hero. And criticizing a tribute to courageous and self-sacrificing soldiers would be disrespectful.
But inextricably tied to the idea of the war hero for president is a discussion that goes beyond individual soldiers or prisoners of war, such as McCain, to the wars they fight and what their role in the war says about their moral merits as national leaders. This turns out to be surprisingly problematic.
We need to distinguish the war hero from the war. Fixed ideas about war heroes get into what we call "morality wars," crucial struggles about which values should prevail, who should be admired and for what qualities.
When we call McCain a war hero, we engage in moral discourse about the Vietnam War and now Iraq. We also give McCain – currently the country's most celebrated war hero – the ultimate political weapon: power by virtue of heroism and the ability to discredit opponents as weak or unpatriotic.
The public has treated McCain's record in Vietnam and his status as a war hero as something unchangeable. But placing his sacrifice beyond the pale of criticism also implicitly places the cause he served beyond the pale, and that hushes important dialogue.
McCain's heroism stems entirely from Vietnam. McCain was brave in captivity, but he and his fellow pilots dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all those dropped in World War II, leading to the conclusion that "we had to destroy Vietnam in order to save it." But he did not acknowledge the war itself as immoral. Had he engaged in such "straight talk" about the war itself, or if we had a more enlightened concept of heroism, he might not be getting so close to becoming the next president.
This language of war heroism is used unfairly to confuse unjust wars and their architects with the honor of brave soldiers. By promoting the idea that Vietnam was an honorable war and denigrating antiwar Democrats as too weak to "stay the course," Richard Nixon won the election in 1968. He then kept the war going for another five futile years, sustained by that myth.
Playing the war hero card has long been a political strategy to elect Republicans; legitimize imperial wars; and portray Democrats and peace activists as weak, cowardly, or traitorous. John Kerry, also a courageous soldier, was swift-boated as a traitor because he became a peace activist in Vietnam.
Republicans even did the same to Daniel Ellsberg, a real hero of the Vietnam era. Ellsberg was a war planner who turned against the war and in 1971, at great personal risk, released to The New York Times the "Pentagon Papers," the military's internal and damning history of the war. But as there are no peace heroes, only war heroes in the American moral discourse, President Nixon tried to indict him and many still brand him as a traitor.
Ten out of 11 presidents after the Civil War were Republicans, the majority of whom were generals who ran as war heroes. In the 20th century, Republicans continued to serve up war-hero candidates like Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, a strategy that has worked for tens of decades. And now we have John McCain.
If the Democrats are to win elections in the 21st century, the key is to finally engage in straight talk about war and war heroes.
First, they must renounce the morality of militarism.
Second, they must be clear that the architects of unjust wars are not honorable or heroic but immoral moralists, those who wage evil in the name of good.
Third, they must create a new language of heroism. Brave soldiers in just and unjust wars may be heroes, if we refer purely to personal courage and sacrifice in battle. But it is critical that we recognize that those who oppose dishonorable wars are also heroes. Surely, their courage should also qualify as a character virtue for the highest office in the land.
The peace hero – even more than the war hero – should be the ultimate moral force in the world we now inhabit.
• Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are coauthors of "Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good."