General Giap and John McCain

My job in 1967 and 1968 was to guard the pilots who were flying 105 Thunderchiefs out of Thailand in missions parallel to McCain’s. McCain, five years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam, remembers:

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“After I came home from Vietnam in 1973, I read everything I could get my hands on about both the French and American wars there, starting with Bernard Fall's ‘Hell in a Very Small Place,’ his classic study of the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, where French colonial rule effectively ended and Giap's genius first became apparent to an astonished world.”

That is where McCain and I were different. I was called out of a card game in Providence, R.I., to serve when a draft notice appeared. After the war I took a job in a hotel laundry in Newport, R.I., where I drank at soldier bars at night and read Sartre and Malraux deeper into the night. It made a difference. I was able to move on, go to college, get a girlfriend, quit drinking. In 2004 I visited a veterans club with Gen. Wesley Clark, who was running for president. It was 10 a.m., and the room was filled with smoke and the men were still drinking. 

McCain has held on to that moment, same as Hillary Clinton, who was famous long before Bill, and featured as a representative '60s “counter culture” person in Life magazine. But McCain had become the counter culture, and the soldiers who served were despised as “baby killers” when they arrived home from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport at San Francisco. 

Maybe McCain’s statement will make a difference, and the admission will relieve the burden of history on the veterans. At Appomattox, peace came to the South because Robert E. Lee surrendered and said so and signed the document. It meant the war was over and the soldiers could now leave it behind. But they never do.

Because in war, the only thing that matters is that the spear hits the lion. The success of that moment will raise the soul or sink it. My experiences then became the core of my own future; I was endlessly moved by the persistence and spirit of the peasants and like them, became guided by Buddhism. When I returned from my experiences there, the first thing I felt the need to come to grips with this: We had lost the war, although everyone would pretend that we had not. I am delighted that McCain, the soldier’s archetypal representative of that age, has on behalf of the millions of others who served in that era done the same.