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

"Once a person becomes as committed to a cause as some of these individuals, it becomes difficult to let go, and the lines between activism, crusade and obsession--and perhaps even paranoia--become increasingly blurred."

Is John McCain a hero or a traitor?

What a question.

In post-Monica politics, there aren't many taboos. Enter the presidential sweepstakes, and it's open season on every detail of your life. Everything except the hero status of a man who endured a broken leg, two broken arms and five and a half years in North Vietnamese prison camps.

Even McCain foes who carp about his youthful philandering, his grandstanding, his political flip-flopping, his membership in the Keating Five, his wife's drug addiction, don't question his war heroism.

So the Earl Hoppers of the world are dismissed as crazies, wackos, extremists--and perhaps it's a deserved label. Then again, to paraphrase another Arizona senator: Extremism in defense of a lost loved one is no vice. Who couldn't imagine themselves single-mindedly demanding the truth about a vanished son or husband?

McCain says he understands. "Those people who are family members, at least I have--I hope I feel--sympathy and some understanding for their zealotry on this issue," McCain tells New Times. "If I had a brother or a son who was in this situation, then clearly I think I would feel very strongly about it."

Not every POW/MIA activist despises John McCain, and among those who do, there are gradations of disgust.

Many activists don't like the way McCain has behaved since he was freed. They abhor his support for the normalization of relations with Vietnam, his apparent lack of respect for them and their cause. They say he has unfairly attacked those he says prey on the family members by selling them false hopes in the form of faked pictures of their loved ones, even though in some cases McCain has been proved right. And most of all, the activists feel McCain has used his POW status to spring up the political ranks, with his eye on the presidential prize.

But a few have let their ire take them even farther. A handful of POW/MIA activists are critical of McCain's behavior during the war. They believe that John McCain did not return from Vietnam a hero. They say his own clumsiness caused his limbs to be broken as he ejected from his plummeting warplane. They claim McCain was never tortured in prison. They accuse him of collaborating with not only the North Vietnamese but with Communists in the Soviet Union and Cuba. They quote unnamed sources who say McCain had a wife and children in Vietnam.

Some even claim he was broken and brainwashed by the Communists and then returned to the U.S. to amass political power and carry out the Reds' wishes. Why else, they ask, would McCain support normalization? Why else would he have embraced onetime North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin during hearings into POW/MIA issues? (They circulate a photo of that traitorous act as evidence.) Why else would the North Vietnamese have erected a monument at the lake in Hanoi where he was shot down in 1967?

All these claims disintegrate upon close inspection--they cannot be proved or disproved--with one tenuous exception: two former POWs who say they were senior officers at a camp where McCain claims to have been tortured tell New Times they knew of no such torture during that time at that camp. McCain has denied that he ever reported to these men.

Short of crossing the Pacific to interview McCain's captors, there is no way to be certain of what he endured. McCain says that much of his time was spent in solitary confinement. He did communicate through his cell walls, by tapping messages to other prisoners, but only McCain knows exactly what happened.

Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, says the senator has decided to ignore his POW/MIA detractors and their charges.

"Nobody believes these idiots. They're a bunch of jerks. Forget them," Salter says.

But as McCain's political star rises, so do the voices of his naysayers. Someone really must try to answer the question.

Is John McCain a hero or a traitor?

To say that Earl and Patty Hopper devote all of their waking hours to the POW/MIA issue would be just short of an overstatement. They travel the country in an RV, visiting other POW/MIA-niks, attending conferences, badgering government officials for more information about Earl Jr.

Earl Hopper Jr.'s Phantom II disappeared January 10, 1968, near the North Vietnam/Laos border. Over the years, Earl Sr. has had some tantalizing clues as to his son's fate, but nothing conclusive.

Hopper, 77, perseveres. He was a founding member of the National League of Families, a group created in the late Sixties that agitated to bring POWs home. When President Nixon announced that all live POWs had been returned to the U.S., Earl Hopper Sr. and other relatives of unaccounted-for servicemen refused to believe him. They have kept the issue alive all these years, though their efforts have been nearly fruitless. Since 1973, only one live POW has returned to the U.S.--perhaps. A Marine private named Bobby Garwood came home in 1978, claiming he was a POW. His story is widely disputed; many believe he was a defector.

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