The photograph, taken in 1967, is of McCain being pulled from Truc Bach Lake in Vietnam after his plane was hit by a missile, the start of his 5 1/2 years as a POW. What I find so interesting, and so helpful, in this story is that McCain didn’t act perfectly in this situation, and he admits that he didn’t. It would be foolish of him, and of us who read about him, to condemn him because he didn’t meet an impossibly ideal standard.
His lowest moment of captivity came in the second year, after he had turned down the chance to be released early:
In August 1968, a program of severe torture began on McCain. He was subjected to rope bindings and repeated beatings every two hours, at the same time as he was suffering from dysentery. Further injuries led to the beginning of a suicide attempt, stopped by guards. Eventually, McCain made an anti-American propaganda “confession.” He has always felt that his statement was dishonorable, but as he later wrote, “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.” Many American POWs were tortured and maltreated in order to extract “confessions” and propaganda statements; virtually all of them eventually yielded something to their captors. McCain subsequently received two to three beatings weekly because of his continued refusal to sign additional statements. (Wikipedia, thoroughly footnoted from reliable sources)
Did you catch that? He tried to commit suicide. He reached “his breaking point” and made some sort of “confession.” But then he refused “to sign additional statements.” It’s almost as if his failure to hold out completely strengthened his resolve and made him realize, ‘Hey, I can’t do this. I’m sliding down the slippery slope. I have to stop now.’ And he did, gutting it out until his release in 1973.
Well, a lot has happened in McCain’s life, and in the life of our country, since then. I realized as I wrote this post that there are two fascinating books that should be included in my book recommendations, one about the 2008 election in which McCain ran for President (Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin) and the other about another famous POW, Louie Zamperini (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand). Both books concern themselves with character, an always-perennial fascination.