Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Question We Cannot Ask


[Some might call this another rant. I call it a serious question we ALL should be asking.]


From an article about John McCain's entry into politics, in the New York Times:

"After five and a half years of listening to senators’ antiwar speeches over prison camp loudspeakers, Mr. McCain came home in 1973 contemptuous of America’s elected officials, convinced Congress had betrayed the country’s fighting men by hamstringing the war effort."

From innumerable McCain appearances:

I'll never surrender in Iraq... Obama wants to surrender... Democrats want to wave the white flag of surrender... If we leave, the terrorists win...

So let me ask a question that no one wants to ask: might five years of torture in a prison camp be expected to have an effect on one's (or some's) thinking about war? About challenging a war policy? Is it possible that one subjected to awful and inhuman and nearly unbearable conditions (for many, they were unbearable) could develop certain visceral reactions to the idea of war, positive or negative? To those who raise questions about a war? Might they affect the ability to distinguish between negotiating and collaborating? Could arguments be filtered through that personal horror in a way that makes one's reasoning different from one who never suffered in such a way? Faulty, even? Just theoretically: isn't it possible?

My experience in Vietnam compares to John McCain's as a bee-sting compares to a shark attack, but I have some memories, and things that trigger them. I hate the sound of a helicopter, of a fighter-jet taking off. (I live near an airport, and I hear both.) Sirens of a certain kind raise my pulse; distant explosions, as on the Forth of July, remind me of nights spent diving for cover. And no one beat me when these things happened; no one broke my arms. (Oh, I got a little broken in one rocket attack, but I healed fine.) I got up every morning and took a shower, ate a nice meal, went to the clinic and set up shop. In my room was a hotplate and a stereo. My wife sent me the fixings for chocolate pudding. Still, there are little things, and little reactions.

When John McCain equates talk of leaving Iraq to "surrender;" when he says those who question whether the war has done more harm than good are waving a white flag -- is it possible his judgment is clouded? Are those things that he survived (which many of us, myself included, probably wouldn't have had the grit to do) in any way affecting the thought process that connects skepticism to surrender? I'm just asking.

Given the stakes, and given the unprecedented situation of a presidential candidate who was a tortured prisoner for five years, in a war that split our nation asunder and which, in retrospect, accomplished nothing, isn't it an issue that ought to be considered? I don't have an answer. But I'd think, based on the fact that I'm a human and therefore have at least some knowledge of how humans behave, it is at least possible that this man's approach to war has been made, in part, irrational by what he went through. His is a voice to be listened to, a point of view worth knowing; but is it the one that ought to have the final say?

Believe it or not, this isn't the partisan me speaking; not the usual weekend ranter. It actually worries me, separate from my political opinions and views on the war. In these most cataclysmic of times, in the aftermath of questions not asked, I think this issue of which we dare not speak needs raising. Plenty of people believe, and are saying, that the time Barack Obama spent, as a young child, going to a Muslim-run but multi-denominational non-religious-based school makes him untrustworthy. What about being tortured for years, seething in a cell while anti-war propaganda played, and then being tortured again?

[The New York Times Magazine, in an article on McCain from May 18, quotes some fellow Vietnam Vet Senators from both sides of the aisle, all of whom have less jingoistic (and generally quite negative) views of the Iraq war: Kerry, Cleland, Hagel, Webb. Their take (and these are all guys who consider him a real friend) is slightly different from the question I raise. They imply that since he spent his time as a prisoner, he never faced the ambivalence of war that's seen by those on the ground, in combat, shooting and being shot at; they came to see it in shades of grey, as do most (I'd say) who've been in combat. McCain, they suggest, remained in a situation where right and wrong were entirely black and white. An interesting, and less dire, point of view compared to the question I raise. Either way, it takes a willingness not to give John McCain an automatic pass, just because of the horror of what he went through.]

25 comments:

Annie said...

I read McCain's autobiography, read the NYT Magazine story, have followed some of the reportage about what his Congressional colleagues and friends have had to say, and also note that he has a son in serving in Iraq (at least I think he's still on active duty there).

My impression is not dissimilar to yours. But I think he also has a lot of "family baggage" he's carrying around - graduating in the toilet of his Naval Academy class, his father and grandfather's Naval careers, his almost nonstop careering from aviation disaster to aviation disaster, the long, unimaginable years as a POW spent in isolation, being repeatedly tortured, his leaving his first wife and pretty much living a lifestyle provided by the income of his second wife, being thoroughly smeared by the Bush campaign - and by Bush, then adopting the Bush policy and messaging regarding Iraq, not being aware of basic information about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Russia and our economy, healthcare, income disparities, etc., etc.

So much about his shifting positions on policy and issues doesn't make sense, unless political expediency and winning at any and all costs is the bottom line for him. And if so, that negates any notion of his bringing competency and dispassionate and informed decision-making to the table.

I do think he has been irreparably damaged psychologically, and I think he should be greatly respected for his service to our country. I don't think that age should be a factor, per se, in his vetting, although ageism has been brought into play regarding his qualification. It would only be a factor in his overall ability to function, and there is no evidence which leads in the direction of significant incapacitation.

But I do not think he brings the required skills and competencies to the table for the office of president.

Cathy said...

Being an independent on the political front allows me to evaluate candidates differently than those who just follow a strict party line.

In 9 Presidential elections, since I have been of age to vote, I fear that for the first time, I may actually not cast one this time around.

I feel exactly as you do about McCain and sometimes I am ashamed of myself for these thoughts. He represents (military wise) everything I treasure and value. The man going to war, fighting for his country, giving the best of himself for a cause that even 40 years later we are still confused about.

I come from a military family and my heart breaks knowing how he suffered and what he went through during those years as a POW. I have great respect for John McCain as a man. This is how I feel about him personally. But politically, I cannot vote for him, as I feel his experiences will only work to hurt us as a country.

On the other hand, I won't vote for Clinton either. There are many reason, but, If nothing else, her recent remarks about Bobby Kennedy I found more than offensive. I was almost swayed to the Obama camp, but, I can't give him my vote. Sorry, but I just can't.

rlbates said...

I have wondered the same thing, but you two commentors have put things (as you have) much better than I ever could.

Dr. John Baldwin said...

As a VN vet who saw what combat does, I can only say nobody comes home "the same", and if locked up and beaten for five years, he definitely is different. McCain has always been the maverick, left out in the cold in 2000 and yet remained a true soldier. Whereas I do not agree with many of his policy ideas (amnesty, drivers' licences, McCain-Feingold, no on original tax cuts), I don't agree with many of the Democrat candidates either. It is a sad thing that in a nation of brilliance, our presidential aspirants have always been questionable. I'm trying to learn..but the choice between rhubarb and avocado ice cream doesn't look good.

Chris said...

This will be short as I am on my PDA.

Does anyone else wonder at just what happened to the McCain of 99-01? Although his views on foreign policy have deviated the least since then, his policy points on immigration, abortion, and deficit spending have done a 180. I was a politically active 17 year old when McCain lost to Bush in 2000. Over the last eight years I've witnessed McCain go from a man I admired to one lost to neoconservative and social conservative propaganda.

The 2000 McCain, who denounced Falwell, Sharpton, and other dyed in the wool lefties and righties as divisive and destructive, would have been tough to resist this election. o wait Obama is running on that message. John McCain's campaign is depending on the credibility and message he garnered 10yrs ago to get moderates to swing his way. If he wins I HOPE beyond all hopes that the younger McCain returns.

Bongi said...

i'm far removed, but, cathy, why can't you vote for obama? just can't isn't really a reason.

Cathy said...

Bonji, I didn't elaborate on those reasons because this was Dr. Schwab's post and it was about John McCain. I probably shouldn't have even mentioned Obama at all.

I am currently working on a post with my opinion of all the candidates, and my reason's as to why I can't vote for him.

Sid Schwab said...

cathy: feel free. Or, when you have your post up, leave a link here, too!

Health Train Express said...

John McCain has certainly made the most of his "challenges". It reveals how one does not have to be at the top of the class to suceed.
I agree, other than his "war stories" he is lacking in accomplishments. His accidents include multiple aircraft destruction, being captured, and miraculously surviving. Perhaps the most notable achievementwas his refusal to be released because his Dad was an Admiral actively involved in Pacific operations atthe time. Mr McCain did not have a choice. What he went through was undeniably very awful. I agree with you, Sid. His traumas and stresse are very significant, and we don't know what the additional stresses of a presidency would cause for his psyche. Presidents need be logical, rational and as unemotional as possible to make thoughtful decisions based upon facts and advisors. McCain is tenacious, yes...but would that make him a better president? Clinton?Obama?....Is this the best our country can produce??

AlisonH said...

My reaction to this post was, what I wouldn't do to see it on the front page of my newspaper if not Time or Newsweek. Thank you for writing it!

Nurse K said...

When John McCain equates talk of leaving Iraq to "surrender;" when he says those who question whether the war has done more harm than good are waving a white flag -- is it possible his judgment is clouded?

A conservative leader doesn't have to change his mind just because liberals are telling him he should, sorry. That's not how it works. It has nothing to do with clouded judgment.

If McCain feels that leaving now would be leaving before the job is done, then he would accurately be saying leaving now would be a surrender given his own opinions about the state of the war.

"Waving the white flag" has the connotation of being weak. Certainly, leaving simply because the war is unpopular with the far left would be a case of white-flag surrender, even moreso if you don't agree with the opinion of the far left.

Obviously, when fighting terrorism, there is always a new enemy replacing the old because terrorism is bred of a cultural defect in Middle Eastern society (namely that such behavior is not only okay but wanted by Allah), so there is probably only going to be degrees of "being done" with this war, never a complete and total resolution until the stars align and the Middle East is free due to its own wants of freedom.

Sid Schwab said...

Nurse K: you might have noticed that I made no argument about the war; only that it's reasonable to wonder if the person who might be in charge might have clouded judgement. There are all sorts of opinions on the war. We'd all want, I'd think, the person with the final say to be the one with the clearest head, no matter his (or her) position.

But as long as you raised it: the so-called "war on terror" took a huge and damaging wrong turn when it invaded Iraq. That is an argument of merit. Continuing it weakens us in obvious ways: that is something worth very serious consideration. Had we not invaded, we might now be seeing the end of al Queda and the Taliban in Afganistan. We'd have three trillion dollars to spend on better things. Our military would be strong. Rather than waving a white flag, finding a way out of Iraq would put us in a position better to fight the war on those who would terrorism as a tool to do us harm. Those are points that need weighing looking ahead. If the person with the scale already has his thumb on it because of prior horrors, the outcome might not be in our best interest. All I'm sayin.'

Nurse K said...

People ask me all the time how I can "take" being in the ER. Do I get depressed? Have I developed a secret drinking habit? Do I dread going in to work each day because I know I will be surrounded by illness and death?

While this is nothing compared to a POW, the coping mechanisms are the same even though outsiders can't believe it. In addition, military personnel are trained in how to deal with being captured. Finally, Vietnam was a looonnnngggg time ago. If McCain was crayzee from it, I think someone would have figured it out by now.

By the way, the fact that you even asked if McCain's stance on the war was an indication of clouded judgment shows your bias (not that your bias isn't clear already from previous posts). We will have to get out of Iraq eventually, but a premature departure will do more harm than good and everything will be for naught. I'd prefer to leave that decision up to the people in charge of said operation vs. liberal instigators and anti-war protesters.

Sid Schwab said...

Nurse K: once again you get it wrong: I'm not suggesting that any pro-war position is a sign of "clouded judgment." I raise whether HIS position is clouded by his horrific experience. To characterize as "surrender" any position that questions the war suggests a very hardened point of view. Nor is it the case, as you suggest, that the only voices which raise serious questions about the war are left-wing or "liberal instigators."

How one frames it says a lot. Why war should even be seen as liberal vs conservative speaks volumes. As Barack Obama said, it's not about being against all wars; it's about being against dumb wars. And yes, I think it's pretty undeniable that Iraq was a dumb war. Afganistan, wasn't. Had we kept at it until it was over, even better. Vietnam, in which I served, was a dumb war, although less dumb than this one. Vietnam didn't make things worse; it was based on a faulty premise, and accomplished nothing. But it didn't accomplish the opposite of its intent, the way Iraq has. (Vietnam, as you may know, was predicated on the domino theory, which didn't happen.) Iraq was predicated on, well, pick one. But it seems to have been based on fundamentally transforming the Middle East in our favor. The opposite, clearly, has happened. We need leaders who will look at both sides with clear heads (I happen to worry about the effects of withdrawal, as I've said. It's perhaps the worst thing of all about Bush's horrible decision: if we stay, we get weaker and weaker. If we leave, we will be responsible for a possible conflagration. That's at the top of the list of reasons why it was the worst mistake any president has ever made; and opinion, by the way, shared by many on all sides of the political spectrum.)

Finally: I've worked in Emergency Rooms, and I've been in war. To suggest what we do, as doctors and nurses, compares to the effects of five years of torture is, well, breathtaking.

Once again, given the sort of vitriol we see in our country on both sides of pretty much any argument, what we most need now is a president able to think wide and deep, to get advice from all sides and to know how to process it; one whose preconceptions about war, and surrender, and politics, and a million other things, won't prevent the ability to rise above the fray and help solve the nearly unsolveable problems we face. Neither of us, it appears, would be on the short list.

Nurse K said...

As I said, the ER thing was just an example of another thing that people who haven't done it don't understand as far as coping goes. Assuming McCain to be "clouded" because he was a POW is no different than the view of a layperson wondering why I'm not depressed. It's just an assumption on your part based on some idea of what the effects of XYZ should be. McCain seems to be getting along just fine! Having some idea that war heroes who suffered maltreatment should be assumed to be unfit for further service to the US is a bad precedent to set.

Even though I'm young, I'm familiar with the domino theory, thanks. It's not clear that Vietnam didn't keep other countries from becoming communist/arms of the Soviet Union. Like "oh sh*t, if we're rise up for The People, America will show up and kick our butts...no thanks." People tend to ignore the things that never were. If something never happens, people really don't think about why that thing never happened.

Sid Schwab said...

Except that we didn't kick their butts.... minor problem with the argument. But you're right; it's hard to argue about things that didn't happen. Pretty much a conversation stopper, actually. I guess for everything that DID happen, there must be, like, what, nine things that didn't. Or is it twelve?

Nurse K said...

Having just visited Germany, walking from one side of the Berlin wall to the other, it's interesting to postulate what WOULD have happened had either side decided to invade the other. My guess? WWIII. I mean, those guys were staring each other in the face constantly for 30 years and no one launched a bomb nor drove a tank through the thing. It's amazing really. Random.

Vietnam caused a lot of us to die and a lot of them to die too. I can get into the whole thing about how we were too wimpy and could have nuked 'em to just win the thing a la Nagasaki, but it's done and over with. If your country is in shambles, you could have "won" the war, but your country is still rubble. It's reasonable to assume that other groups didn't instigate a communist takeover due to the deterring effects of a long, drawn-out war with the US. Could the same be said about people/governments wishing to collaborate with al-Quaida/terrorists?

Anonymous said...

Nurse K., Please don't ask us how many of us would vote for you if you were running for President. Maybe being an ER nurse doesn't depress you, but I doubt you are physically tortured during many of your shifts. But how do you feel about your perception of drug addicts, or, people with fibromyalgia?

Being in charge of the Military and making those type decisions, could easily be biased by McCains experiences in the military, the same as your opinion of drug addicts and those with certain illnesses, you think don't exist, are relevant to the experiences you see as an ER nurse. Also, personal opinion only, but you seem (as your blog indicates) somewhat of the I hate patients attitude. Can we assume this is caused from your experiences with patients?

Nurse K said...

If I hated patients, I wouldn't keep going back to Crayzee Central. All I'm trying to do is show people what it's like in an ER. If you're disturbed by what goes on in a real ER, and that a nurse has opinions on some of the abuse that goes on, feel free to read something about puppy dogs, kitty cats, and ice cream. Newsflash: Nurses don't enjoy being cussed at, spit on, and used as drug-dealing intermediaries, yet we are not allowed to express our discontent in public for fear of being labeled "uncaring" as you have labeled me.

jb said...

Nurse K-
FWIW, I’m on your side. Anyone, including Sid (whom I respect greatly as a surgeon, but as an observer of geopolitical events is, well, a great surgeon) who decides that the Iraq war is “dumb,” based on a half decade of experience, is lacking in perspective. To say that the Vietnam War accomplished nothing is laughable- the domino theory was real, our failure to follow through politically what we won militarily resulted in countless deaths and loss of freedom for millions of people, and led to a justifiable belief on the part of America’s enemies that we were a paper tiger. With respect to Iraq, reading anything other than Newsweek or listening to anything other than NPR will reveal that the tide is turning, violence is down, and Al-Qaeda has very much worn out its welcome among a large number of Iraqis.

What you, I, Sid, and Senator McCain have in common is that we have all done things that the majority of Americans believe that they could never do. Sid and I made it through surgery training and decades of practice. I know that I have been told multiple times, “I could never do what you do.” You have people wondering how you tolerate a typical shift in the ER, As for Senator McCain, he made it through the Naval Academy, and then survived 5 years of torture, some of it voluntary so as not to break the faith of his comrades and country. That is what goes into my category of “stuff I could never do.” He did it. Sid thinks the experience did things to him that disqualify him from the Presidency. My observation is that just as you have reserves that allow you to go back to the ER every night, he had (far greater) reserves that allowed him to survive that particular hell and live the rest of his life in a most admirable way. We have had a couple of decades to determine whether his judgment is “clouded.” What has he done or said that is so far out of the mainstream of American experience to justify slandering him in this way? I strongly disagree with the degradation of the 1st Amendment that is McCain-Feingold, but- hey- a majority of the US Supreme Court agrees with him and not me. McCain does not favor rough treatment of terrorists (nothing that the US has done approaches the hell he went through), and I do, but he is certainly not out of the mainstream of American thought. To judge Senator McCain’s character by his actions over his public career is entirely rational, and is not giving him “a pass.”

Sid appears to believe that anyone who supports the US mission in Iraq is too “clouded” to be president. A little over 3 years ago, enough Americans supported the Iraq war to re-elect President Bush over another candidate who promised to end the war, yes, by surrender. Were they all “clouded?” Or do they suffer a loss of perspective? Even with strong Democratic majorities in Congress, the war opponents declare the war unwinnable and lost, yet lack the fortitude to put their careers on the line and do what they promised when running for office.

Sid should keep to surgical blogging. Annie, on the other hand, should be ashamed of herself. Having a family tradition of military service is to Annie “a lot of family baggage.” She criticizes him for being divorced. Can we disqualify all divorced people from Congress? Please? Senator McCain’s shifting positions disqualify him from public service? Compare him to Senator Obama. Please. She notes that he lives a lifestyle provided by his wife. Where in recent political history have we seen that? To state that Senator McCain, or anyone else has been “irreparably damaged psychologically” without benefit of mental health credentials and an opportunity to perform a complete evaluation is just another slander. Anyone who graduates from a service academy is smart enough and disciplined enough to be President, and it reflects poorly on Annie that she refers to a low class rank at the Naval Academy as a “toilet.”

Hang in there Nurse K. I’d love to work a shift in the ER with you one night.

Sid Schwab said...

jb: once again, slowly. I said it's a question worth asking about McCain. I don't have an answer. As to his record: well, even his friends say he has a very volatile temper and Republican senators have said they fear his volatility as a president. He graduated 898 in a class of 900 (thereabouts). (which, clearly, is what Annie meant by the "toilet" comment) (What is it about reactionaries that prevents them from reading what people actually say?) He crashed five airplanes (were he not the son and grandson of admirals, I doubt he'd have remained on flying status at all.)

As to my sticking to surgery; you're doing what I'm doing, in commenting. Aren't you?

As to the war: that violence is down, that al Queda in Iraq is heading back to the levels it had there before we invaded (which will take its entire disappearance, as I'm sure you know) doesn't mean the war has accomplished anything, any more than putting out a forest fire that you started would mean you "won" against it.

As to "clouded:" I have never said anyone who supports the war, per se, is too clouded to be president. Were the people who re-elected Bush clouded? Bamboozled, more correctly. Frightened by propaganda, deceived by political tactics. Now, by a huge majority, people say the war was a mistake. It just took some a little longer than others.

"Laughable?" We fought to prevent the dominos from falling. We lost, and they didn't fall. We fought Vietnam at the cost of 50,000 of our lives, millions of theirs. Now they are trading partners. Might they have been had we not fought them? It would appear so, since we did, and they still are. In fact, all the results that you mention would seem to support the idea that it accomplished nothing good. If you meant to disagree with me by saying it did accomplish things that were bad, well, I'll concede the point.

For whatever the real reasons we went to Iraq, it's hard to argue that anything good has resulted that wouldn't have resulted had we kept the diplomatic pressure and the inspections. After thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars, with Iran now in ascendency and the region more unstable than ever, with oil tripled in price, with our country crippled in debt, with our military -- according to its own generals -- on the brink of collapse, with terrorism increasing around the world, with our reputation besmirched, witnessing the spectacle of Bush begging the Saudis to please please pump more oil and to be laughed out of their country: with all of this it's hard to think that another way of responding to 9/11 wouldn't have us in better shape.

So here's what I think: I'll keep writing whatever I want. You can read it or not. You can disagree or not. But you can't argue that I should stick to surgery and still come here to read it. So don't. One or the other. Like the substance of your post, it's self-contradictory. Pick a stance and stick with it.

Paul said...

[silentsanta, NZ] <-- this is to distingush me from other Pauls.

Regarding your questioning of the torture/imprisonment affecting McCain's rationality and good judgement, I have two suggestions.

1. We haven't established that McCain had good judgment or rationality before his imprisonment, so it might be fruitless asking whether he traded in his good sense during his experience or not.

2. We can infer whether or not McCain is irrational now through looking at his comments and actions. If he has, he won't make a good president regardless of whether he was always that way or became so during an heroic sacrifice. (I do mean this in earnest, I have no desire to trivialise the awful experiences people like you and he went through).

3. I'm not in your country, but I hope you guys end up with a president that can do you proud this time.

Bob C. said...

As usual, I’m late to your blog and, therefore, to comment. It’s time to give up your socialist heritage. If you think socialism works, please review the history of Europe, over all of it’s geography, in the last 100 years. That may then stop you from indulging in the nonsense that McCain is somehow psychologically scarred. His experience in the North Vietnamese gulag is more likely to have toughened his mind and strengthened his commitment to freedom. Unlike Obama, who never having been tested, still floats around as an Alinsky disciple. You can disagree with McCain’s policy positions but to suggest he’s mentally crippled is a cheap canard.

Sid Schwab said...

bob: I don't suggest; I wonder. If he framed the debate in term other than "surrender," I'd wonder less. And I'd say "socialism" is a bit of a canard as well. Although I suppose "fascist" is no less an appropriate way to describe what we have now. Canards aside, the real question is whether the economic policies of the last eight years (and of the previous twelve, excluding the prior eight) have worked. With every Republican tax cut has come soaring debt; and that debt is crippling our ability to focus on our national needs, while giving China and Arabia control of our purse strings. More than anything, it's that that McCain stakes his plan on; in fact he wants further to lower taxes and claims he can make the difference by eliminating earmarks. Simple arithmetic shows how wrong that is. And he decries any regulation of business, despite the fact that the last two major economic fiascos were directly related to deregulating banks and savings and loans. Remember? So there's the essential differences: balance the budget and begin paying for our homeland needs, or not. Have some reasonable controls on certain businesses, or not. And, of course: decide whether the war has been a good thing for us or not. I'd call myself a realist, not a socialist. I'm in favor of competent government in those areas where it's needed. I agree it's hard to remember what that's like.

SeaSpray said...

Wow! Sorry I missed this. Interesting!