The John McCain Story

John McCain was a navy flier in the Vietnam War. Crashing violently, his Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down near Hanoi in the Western Lake on his 23rd mission. Dazed and desperate, anxious and confused, McCain was unaware that he had fractioned his leg and both arms until some North Vietnamese began stripping him of his clothes. In his first person account, he retells the sequences of his story along with the conditions and treatments while being a Prisoner of War. Speaking passionately, McCain makes it is hard to believe that he experienced everything he did for five and a half years (this, I would like to add is also one of the “requirements” O’Brien explains in writing a true war story: it cannot be believed). Part of McCain’s main point is, “in the transition from the kind of life we lead in America to the filth and dirt and infection, it would be very difficult for a guy to live anyway. In fact, my treatment in the hospital almost killed me.” I find the last sentence very eye catching because even though he was taken to a hospital, it was not any more beneficial than if someone just stayed at home in the U.S. McCain’s experiences are beyond any of mine, so it makes it difficult to fully comprehend what he encountered.

I have always heard of the gruesome environment American prisoners endured abroad during times of war, but reading this primary source allowed me to directly understand their conditions. One presenter at the George Bush Library earlier this year noted that Americans tried to keep nicer conditions for their POW hoping that the favor would be returned to their men. Luckily for McCain, his father was a big admiral and this fact is what finally convinced the Vietnamese to take him to the hospital. Not many people had this advantage, however, and it is disgusting to think of the way they were treated.

McCain also references a time when a man had ejected himself from a plane and had broken his thigh. He went into shocked and died from the blood pool in his leg. Suddenly, McCain realizes he is in a similar position. The death of the man originally surprised McCain and when he realizes he is no different, McCain begins to panic. This paragraph is interesting because just as McCain felt sorry for the man’s death, we feel the same for the many deaths in war. However, McCain could never have predicted that he would have a similar experience. He probably did not fully understand what he man went through until he realized he was going through it too. Similarly to us, it is challenging to feel anything but sympathy for those in the war because we do not have the same experience.

This passage will help be visualize the characters in The Things They Carried. Now I have a better understanding of their experiences and conditions. Even if the characters were not in a prison, the fact that I enriched my mind of the same political stance that O’Brien had when he wrote the book, it allows me to have a better understanding of what O’Brien could have been thinking when he wrote it. This mindset, according to Foster, allows for the reader to have a deeper meaning of the literature they are reading.


2 thoughts on “The John McCain Story

  1. I agree with wholeheartedly that as normal civilians we have almost little to no perception of what combat veterans had to go through. The wounds, injuries, and life and death situations may seem concrete to us, but in reality they are quite foreign. Some of us may have broken bones, fractured bones, or pulled tendons and ligaments, but to experience that much blood and fear after a sudden injury is a shock you just can’t describe but only experience. The main inhibitor of us being able to see what they saw and feel what they felt is the shock value. We can’t experience the fear and desperation as McCain saw his blood flow out and his limbs paralyzed. We can’t comprehend completely the idea of someone just dropping dead in front of us due to a head shot which is what happened to Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried. As much as we try to read with their eyes and feel their emotions, we can only achieve so much empathy since we live “normal” lives as civilians. The Things They Carried goes at length to help us understand the pain and suffering veterans feel. Of course many may condemn them for killing people, but those experiences of killing and being shot at haunt them to this day. This is the reason why O’Brien opposes proxy wars and wars in general. He believes that unless a necessary evil presents itself war is amoral. And we can clearly see this in McCain’s experience. Despite being a pilot who killed others, the memories of war still probably haunt him. When we actually experience what those we felt sorry for experienced, we realize the true fear and shock of death and mortality.


  2. Pingback: Looking through other blogs | everywhereandnowhereneednottoknow

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