Is John McCain a War Hero?

The senator's five years as a prisoner of war have been widely viewed as heroic. But as he prepares a White House bid, a small group of detractors is determined to expose him as a wartime traitor

"How many are willing to come up against John's nastiness?" she asks. "He is a scumbag. He is a piece of garbage. And he's vicious and he's nasty and he knows no bounds. So how many people want to subject themselves to John Sidney McCain's mouth?"

None. Even Ted Guy and Swede Larson have nothing negative to say about McCain's behavior--only that they don't have firsthand proof he was tortured. They do complain about McCain's politics since the war.

And as for McCain's alleged collaboration with the Communists, Larson says, "I don't think he told them anything they didn't already know."

A typical POW response, this to an e-mail Patty Hopper sent to Terry Uyeyama, an Air Force pilot shot down in May 1968:

Sorry, but I have nothing on McCain, while in prison. Otherwise, I would have gladly given you something several years ago. As I said in previous posting, I was never in the same camp, nor did I ever hear anything derogatory about him over there. If there was any serious breach of conduct, believe me, it probably would have become common knowledge before we all came home. . . .

The other typical POW response is pro-McCain. Larry Chesley, a former Republican state legislator from Mesa, who served in the Air Force and was a POW for seven years, says, "John McCain was considered one of the model prisoners of war by all of us that were there. The people who bad-mouth him are people who have never been with him in prison. Have you found one of us who ever served with him, who have said this about him?"

No. Most are more like Orson Swindle.

Swindle and McCain have remained close over the years. McCain was instrumental in getting Swindle his current job, as a Federal Communications Commission member. The two don't always agree on POW/MIA politics, Swindle says, but he considers McCain a hero, and doesn't think people like Earl and Patty Hopper--who were not POWs--can pass judgment.

"Some who were not there, I guess, would say, 'You guys are very intolerant of those people.' But unless you've been there in our shoes, it's probably very difficult to comprehend the code we were trying to uphold under very difficult circumstances. And our Code of Conduct is very clear about what we can and what we should and should not do. That's not to say that we didn't fail. God knows, we all were defeated by the physical and mental torture, and we gave the Communists things we all wish we had not."

If McCain is a traitor, Swindle says, then he's a traitor, too, because he--like many--signed war-crime confessions.

"People who weren't there have no grounds whatsoever to criticize any one of us for yielding under that kind of pressure and pain. They weren't there. And I don't know what their standard is, where they get their calling from, when we who were there, having gone through it, never judge harshly those who went through the ordeal. 'Cause we know. They don't know.

"John McCain is an authentic hero of this country. He is a helluva patriot. And he's quite a bright guy and he'll make a helluva president."

New Times: "One more question for you, Senator. Do you consider yourself a hero?"

John McCain: "Of course not. Of course not. I have never, ever--I've stoutly maintained that I was privileged to serve in the company of heroes, but never, never have I described myself as having done anything heroic."

John McCain's humility won't stop his presidential campaign from painting a heroic portrait. His staff members have happily pushed their boss's war record for years, with great success. A news database search revealed that in the past year alone, the words "McCain" and "hero" appear in the same story or broadcast 631 times. The words "McCain" and "traitor," only 22 times.

"You know, it's part of his bio," says his chief of staff, Mark Salter. "I'm not going to pretend it hasn't been an enormous advantage to a politician to have a bio like that. And you never have to reference it. It's just there. It's just there. You go to an audience and they know it and it's there. And you know what? So what? . . . He earned the distinction. And if there's an advantage to it, well, what's wrong with it? There should be an advantage to it. Some people have done that for the country. Other people haven't."

To that end, McCain's own memoir of the war is due out in September. Salter, who worked on it himself, says half will be devoted to the military careers of McCain's father and grandfather; the other half to McCain's own war experience.

Salter promises the book will showcase a humble McCain.

"When I worked on this book with him, he just kept saying, 'Other guys had it a lot worse. I think they took it easier on me because of who my dad was. . . . When they tied me in ropes, they'd roll my sleeve up to give it a little padding between the rope and my bicep, you know, little things I noticed. The only really hard time I had was when I didn't go home, and then it only lasted a week, and sometimes I felt braver, I felt I could get away with more.'"

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