John McCain in the Crucible
By JAMES B. STOCKDALE
CORONADO, Calif. -- I am not surprised by reports that
Senator John McCain's political enemies have been spreading
rumors that his famous temper is a sign of a broader
"instability" caused by his imprisonment in Vietnam.
In fact, a few weeks ago I received a call from an old
friend who is also close to the George W. Bush campaign
soliciting comments on Mr. McCain's "weaknesses." As
I told that caller, I think John McCain is solid as a rock.
And I consider it blasphemy to smudge the straight-arrow
prisoner-of-war record of a man who was near death when he
arrived at Hoa Loa prison 1967: both arms broken, left leg
broken, left shoulder broken by a civilian with a rifle butt.
He was eventually taken to the same rat-infested hospital
room I had occupied two years earlier, and, like me, he had
surgery on his leg. By then the Vietnamese had discovered that
his father was the ranking admiral in the Pacific Fleet, and
he received an offer that, as far as I know, was made to no
other American prisoner: immediate release, no strings
attached. He refused, thereby sentencing himself to four more
years in a cell.
There was a special cramped and hot privy-like structure in
that Hanoi prison reserved for whichever American was causing
the Vietnamese the most trouble. I was the first in the camp
to be locked up in it, and I gave it the name Calcutta.
There was only room for one person at a time in the cage,
and after a couple of months I was taken out and marched back
to a regular cell. As I limped along, I sneaked a peek at my
replacement: John McCain, hobbling along on his own bad leg.
As one of the few Americans who spent more than four years
in solitary confinement during that war, I know that pride and
self-respect lead to aggressiveness, and aggressiveness leads
to a deep sense of joy when one is under pressure. This is
hardly a character flaw.
The military psychiatrists who periodically examine former
prisoners of war have found that the more resistant a man was
to harsh treatment, the more emotionally stable he is likely
to become later in life.
The troublemakers who endured long stretches in solitary,
the men we called the tigers, are for the most part more in
tune with themselves now than are those who chose the easier
path of nonconfrontation, which made them
"deserving" of cell mates. The psychiatrists tell us
that many of those prisoners who chose a more docile existence
missed out on the joy of "getting even" after
release; some look back on their performances with regret.
The psychiatrists have it partly right, but the truth of
imprisonment is best learned from the writings of men who have
spent a lot of time in cells, like Dostoyevsky, Cervantes and
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The last described his feeling of
high-mindedness in his gulag writings:
"And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison
straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good
and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor
between political parties either -- but right through every
human heart -- and through all human hearts. . . .
And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment
and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: 'Bless
you, prison!' "
I understand that, and so does John McCain.
James B. Stockdale, a retired Navy Vice Admiral, was the
Reform Party vice-presidential candidate in 1992.
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