Monday, August 18, 2008

Whose truth was McCain telling with his "cross in the dirt" tale?

I thought McCain's tale of Christmas in the POW camp, and the guard who loosed his bonds and drew a cross in the dirt sounded eerily familiar when I heard it the first time, but since the guy has been a celebrity since the moment he deplaned after his release from captivity, I didn't think too much about it.

I'm glad someone else did, tho.

The reason it sounded familiar is because I have read a book or two in my day, and one of them was The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

The essential Teagan Goddard links to a diary at Daily Kos that casts significant doubts on whether McCain is telling the truth, or an apocryphal tale.

Here is the passage from the book:

Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.

On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.

Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.

As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.

Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

And here is the video of McCain recounting the tale at Saddleback Church Saturday night:

Now I have no way of knowing whether the experience happened to both men. It is certainly possible, and perhaps there is truth to McCain's tale. I wasn't there, thankfully.

But I do have internet access, and the technological chops to use a newfangled thingy called "teh google" and I did find an early narrative of his time in captivity - conveniently posted to the U.S. News website today - that fails to mention that incident even though it goes on for seventeen pages.

Other questions have been raised about McCain and his time in captivity, too. His most credible critic was the late Colonel David Hackworth, a highly decorated officer who served in both Korea and Vietnam. In Korea, he earned three Silver Stars, and in Vietnam, he earned seven more.

Hackworth questioned the "war hero" meme that has been pushed by the Useful Village Idiots for thirty freakin' years. What, exactly was heroic in McCain's service bio? In 2000, during McCain's primary bid, he wrote:

McCain's valor awards are based on what happened in 1967, when during his 23d mission over Vietnam, he was shot down, seriously injured, captured and then spent 5 1/2 brutal years as a POW.

In an attempt to find out exactly what the man did to earn these many hero awards, I asked his Senate office three times to provide copies of the narratives for each medal. I'm still waiting.

I next went to the Pentagon. Within a week, I received a recap of his medals and many of the narratives that give the details of what he did.

None of the awards, less the DFC, were for heroism over the battlefield where he spent no more than 20 hours. Two Naval officers described the awards as "boilerplate" and "part of an SOP medal package given to repatriated (Vietnamera) POWs."

McCain's Silver Star narrative for the period 27 October 1967 the day after he was shot down to 8 December 1968 reads: "His captors… subjected him to extreme mental and physical cruelties in an attempt to obtain military information and false confessions for propaganda purposes. Through his resistance to those brutalities, he contributed significantly towards the eventual abandonment…" of such harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese.

Yet in McCain's own words just four days after being captured, he admits he violated the U.S. Code of Conduct by telling his captors "O.K, I'll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital."

I read that, and my mind immediately went to the passage from one of McCain's books where he recounts talking to his father, a second-generation Admiral, about his time in captivity. McCain wrote that his father said "Well Son, you did the best you could."

Ouch. That might sound about right to the civilian world; but brats everywhere know the sting of those words, and we all added the part that comes next..."But it wasn't good enough."