You’d have to be living on another planet not to know that John McCain, six-term senator from Arizona, died of brain cancer over the weekend. Since then, the 24-hour news cycle has been filled with gauzy, breathless, and teary remembrances of a man who is being hailed as a “war hero,” a “maverick,” an “icon,” a man of “integrity,” a “lion of the Senate” who “crossed the aisle” to work with both Democrats and Republicans. In an era of paralyzing partisanship, the “larger-than-life” McCain is viewed, by many, as “the last of a dying breed.” (In a striking instance of historical serendipity, Senator McCain died nine years to the day after the death by the same disease of my late senator, Ted Kennedy.) These are perilous times, of course, and people often search desperately for heroes when hope is under siege. But John McCain is not the hero we should be looking for.
Upon hearing the news of his passing, I went to post something on Facebook, as this age of social media seems to require of us, regardless of whether we have anything at all to say or whether anyone at all is waiting for us to say it. I wrote several things, then deleted them all, and was left with just this: “I’m not sure what to say, frankly. Lots of competing thoughts and emotions about this news. Just this for now: rest in peace, Senator.” As lackluster as my post was, I meant every word. I wasn’t sure what to say. I do have competing thoughts and emotions. And I do hope the senator rests in peace. I don’t take any of that back. But there is obviously much more to say.
John McCain deserves a substantive reckoning, beyond the endlessly hagiographic (and even nasty kneejerk) reactions on record since his death. It is an undeniable fact that McCain has been one of the most dominant and consequential figures in modern US politics. No doubt this is why his congressional colleagues have decided that he will be the 32nd person in the nation’s history to lie in state at the US Capitol before his funeral in Washington, DC, and burial at Annapolis next weekend. I can scarcely remember a time in the last 30 years—from the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s to his two presidential bids, in 2000 and 2008—when he wasn’t a major player on the national stage. He was certainly a devoted public servant, in his own way of defining service to a nation he clearly loved (that, too, is hard to deny). And I take that seriously, as someone who also tries to be of service to society, albeit in a very different way. As a human-rights advocate, I honor the courage and tenacity he displayed as a tortured prisoner of war, even as I will never honor the war in which he flew bombing missions as a naval aviator. I admire his personal and political opposition to the Bush-Cheney regime’s indefensible use of torture tactics in the so-called “War on Terror,” even as I will never abide or excuse his vocal support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his ongoing advocacy for the so-called “surge” and liberal use of drones during the Obama presidency. Even as I understand why some of my friends and family members and students have, like McCain, chosen to serve in the military, I will never accept the term “war hero”—war being one of our chronic national addictions, and “hero” being one of the most overused words in our vocabulary. I say this as the grandson of two men who fought in US-led wars in the middle of the last century, as the brother and husband of two men whose fathers also fought in Vietnam, and as the friend of men and women who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have seen firsthand how wars can ruin people, physically and psychologically, and how this has pernicious ripple effects across generations. There is nothing “heroic” about war, especially wars led by the United States, even the so-called “great” ones. (I have written about these matters before, here and here, in these very pages.) These are just some of the reasons why I’m a pacifist.