Recalling the John McCain We Knew

Recalling the John McCain We Knew

A victim of torture and a stalwart against it.

Mr. McCain rarely spoke in detail of his torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors between 1967 and 1973, but his experience informed his dogged public battle to keep the United States from embracing similar interrogation methods, even when others in his party went in a different direction. When national security hawks without his experience protested that Al Qaeda was unrestrained in their brutality, Mr. McCain would reply: “It’s not about who they are. It’s about who we are.”

In 2005, Mr. McCain spoke at the funeral of William P. Lawrence, a retired vice admiral who, like the senator, had been held by the North Vietnamese for six years. At the pulpit of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he gathered 23 other men who had been prisoners of war in Vietnam and declared: “All of us share the bond that was formed many years ago and far away. We had the immense privilege of serving in the company of heroes.”

When Mr. McCain ejected from his disabled jet, was injured on landing and then beaten, he was dragged to a small cell already occupied by another American, George E. Day, who thought Mr. McCain might not survive a day. “He was horribly injured,” Mr. Day recounted in 2005. “He had a fractured right arm, his left arm was out of the socket, his right knee was fractured, and they’d bayoneted his left leg. The Vietnamese were trying to get him to make some antiwar statements, and he’d refused.”

Mr. McCain resisted his captors’ threats and bribes, including an offer of early release, sometimes with grim wit; once, when they demanded the names of members of his squadron, he listed the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line. After days of torture, Mr. McCain finally signed a confession to being a “black criminal” and “air pirate,” deliberately lacing his statement with grammatical errors and communist jargon to show it was coerced. His cellmate for the last two years, Jack Fellowes, explained that such minimal accommodations were necessary for survival. “John McCain bent a little — we all bent a little — but he never broke,” he said.

The experience led to Mr. McCain’s fight for passage, in late 2005, of what was called the McCain Amendment, banning the inhumane treatment of prisoners. It was his response to the revelation that the C.I.A., with the approval of President George W. Bush, had used on Al Qaeda prisoners a range of brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding, that the United States had long considered torture.

“He saw the blood lust that those who tortured him displayed,” Robert Timberg, a Naval Academy graduate, Vietnam veteran and McCain biographer, said at the time. “The idea that a torturer could have an American face is difficult for him to handle.”

— Scott Shane

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