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.
Here's 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, McCain's 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, McCain's 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 trauma's 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 another's 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 McCain's 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
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Albion Monitor October
16, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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