Wes Clark and John McCain

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by Stephen Young, 7/4/08 • Thank you Wesley Clark.

You have done the nation a great service by pointing out that which is not easily spoken of – just what are we to make of a soldier’s suffering as a prisoner of war when he seeks the Presidency of the Republic.

John McCain was not the only one to suffer at the hands of the Vietnamese Communists during the Vietnam War. Many others still carry scars and wounds from their service in war.

Bob Dole was traumatically wounded in World War II, with an arm crippled for life, and he ran for president without making a big deal of it.

Suffering, wounds, crippled and less functional bodies, even death, are the known and expected cost of military service regardless of rank or serial number.

John McCain suffered at the hands of some nasty people. He refused an offer from his captors to be released, which was noble and heroic but was not the stuff of command judgment.

Wesley Clark got it right in my opinion; he was respectful of John McCain’s suffering, of his personal courage in not seeking early release, of his fortitude under pain and yet he still raised a vital question as to the implications of this experience for McCain’s ability to be a president superior to Barack Obama.

My insight into McCain’s learning and growth from his captivity comes from two days of house arrest by the Vietnamese Communist Police in 1993 for promoting political reconciliation between the Communists and the Nationalists and between Hanoi and the United States.

My case was nothing compared to the brutality inflicted on McCain and his bearing up for years without having any rational basis for hope of timely release or rescue. But I learned one thing – the grip of fear. Fear that comes when you have no control over your destiny and there is no mercy in sight.

For my so-called crimes against the Vietnamese Communist Party and its state apparatus, I was told that I could be kept in Vietnam as their guest for “a very long time.” Then the United States had no embassy in Vietnam and I had no one to turn to for help. That was an unhappy prospect and for all I knew my captors would stick to their word.

You shrink down to your core for hope and resolve and that can be very small under such circumstances.

But experiencing such fear is not always inspiring, ennobling, constructively energizing. For many a man – especially for the tough guys among us – that fear breaks us down and un-nerves us. We are never the same thereafter; something importantly vital has been taken from our being and so we become flotsam without direction or strategic mastery of our surroundings.

Being held captive is not the best education for tough-minded leadership after release. There is post-traumatic stress to be reckoned with. The ghosts of that past can hover in the corners of our lives for years on end.

And if you break, if your captors get to you and break your will and pride, well, there comes a bigger price to pay for that personal defeat.

How has John McCain taken his subjugation in the Hanoi Hilton? He did provide his captors with a statement early on in his imprisonment. What has come from all that?

When you volunteer to run for President, most everything about your character and your judgment become fair play for question and comment. What has honed your judgment and has nourished the better angels of your nature is very much within our concern as voters.