Are McCain's handlers playing the wrong card?

By David H. Hackworth
web posted February 7, 2000

John McCain is being hailed by the press as a "genuine war hero." But is he a war hero in the conventional sense like Audie Murphy and John Glenn?

Or is his "war hero" status the creation of a very slick publicity campaign that plays on flag, duty, honor and country?

For sure, McCain has the fruit-salad -- a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit for Valor, a Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars , two Commendation medals plus two Purple Hearts and a dozen service gongs.

On a purely medal count basis, he out-weighs Murphy and Glenn, who both for years repeatedly performed extraordinary deeds on the ground or in the air against an armed enemy.

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 (Vietnam-era) 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."

A Vietnam vet detractor says, "He received the nation's third highest award, the Silver Star, for treason. He provided aid and comfort to the enemy!"

The rest of his valor awards -- issued automatically every year while he was a POW -- read much like the Silver Star. More boilerplate often repeating the exact same words. An example: "By his heroic endeavors, exceptional skill, and devotion to duty, he reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces."

Yet McCain's conduct while a POW negates these glowing comments. The facts are that he signed a confession and declared himself a "black criminal who performed deeds of an air pirate." This statement and other interviews he gave to the Communist press were used as propaganda to fan the flames of the anti-war movement.

Accounts by McCain and other writers tell of the horror he endured: relentlessly beatings, torture, broken limbs. All inflicted during savage interrogations. Yet no other POW was a witness to these accounts.

A former POW says "No man witnessed another man during interrogations… We relied on each other to tell the truth when a man was returned to his cell."

The U.S. Navy says two eye-witnesses are required for any award of heroism. But for the valor awards McCain received, there are no eye-witnesses, less himself and his captors.

And they're not talking.

Our POWs in Vietnam were treated appallingly. The Viets would either break a POW or kill him. POWs provided info beyond name, rank and serial number or they didn't come back.

Based on these stalwart men's horrific experiences, the Code of Conduct has been changed. A POW says, "Now the training is to give them something… don't risk permanent damage to health, mind or body."

McCain refused an early release. An act of valor? Three former POWs told me he was ordered to turn it down by his U.S. POW commander and he "just followed orders."

McCain certainly doesn't appear to be a war hero by conventional standards, but rather a tough survivor whose handlers are overplaying the war hero card.

One of most decorated soldiers in American history, Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) is the author of the syndicated column Defending America.

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