Everyone knows he spent 5-1/2 years in North Vietnamese prisons, where he was denied adequate medical treatment for the serious injuries he experienced when he ejected from a stricken A-4 Skyhawk Navy jet on his 23rd combat mission, repeatedly tortured, and kept in isolation – to the point where he later made what he called “feeble attempts” at suicide.
His posture and limited arm movements 47 years later are reminders of the mistreatment, in particular being trussed up in ropes tight enough to dislocate shoulders.
But in a 1,600-word statement on the floor of the Senate Tuesday, Senator McCain did allude to his unique familiarity with torture:
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” he said. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”
In McCain’s case, he revealed in his 1999 family memoir “Faith of My Fathers” (both his father and his grandfather had been US Navy admirals), he was forced to sign a confession of "war crimes." Although many prisoners of war under torture had the same experience, and although he refused an offer of early release, McCain still sees this as a personal failing.
“Most of all,” he continued in his statement this week, “I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) of South Carolina, McCain’s Senate sidekick on military and intelligence matters, takes a similar position.
“As a military lawyer for more than 30 years, I believe we can and must fight this war within our values,” Senator Graham said in a statement. “I supported the investigation of the CIA as the problems of interrogation policies were obvious to me. I do not condone torture and continue to believe abusive detention and interrogation techniques used in the past were counterproductive. I'm very happy the techniques in question are no longer utilized.”
Vietnam runs deep for McCain, as it does for most veterans of that war. For him, it’s beyond partisan politics, sometimes in opposition to fellow conservatives’ positions.
When then-Sen. John Kerry (D) ran for president in 2004, some of his political opponents questioned his service and decorations earned as a young lieutenant commanding a US Navy patrol vessel in Vietnam known as a “swift boat.” McCain – although he headed George W. Bush’s reelection effort in Arizona that year – defended his Senate friend against the attack ads he called “dishonest and dishonorable.”
For years, McCain pushed against US use of what is euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation,” which this week’s Senate report revealed included "force-feeding" through a prisoner’s rectum.
McCain sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of captured combatants, whether they wear a nation’s uniform or not.
As he notes in his statement this week, he successfully offered amendments to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which, among other things, prevented the attempt to weaken the Geneva Conventions, and broadened definitions in the War Crimes Act to make the future use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques punishable as war crimes.
In 2009, President Obama banned the use of torture.
It would be understandable if McCain's own experience over the years between his capture in 1967 and his release in 1973 left him bitter about his tormentors.
But, he says, “this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.”
“It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be,” McCain says. “It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world…. Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”
Monitor staff writer Brad Knickerbocker was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam. Sen. John McCain was one of his flight instructors.