Judge's View: Patriotism beyond reproach
Several years ago, my wife spent a few days in the hospital. To pass the time when she was sleeping, I read the book “The Nightingale’s Song,” by Robert Timberg.
The book tracks five graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy through their Vietnam service, and ultimately to the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s. One of those profiled was the late U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Most of us have heard the basic story about Sen. McCain’s time as a prisoner of war. Timberg’s book paints that picture in far greater detail, and it is almost breathtaking to read. The moment that stands out for me is when the North Vietnamese offered McCain an early release, ostensibly as a show of mercy, but also as a powerful piece of propaganda because McCain’s father was an influential admiral at the time.
McCain had sustained significant injuries during the ejection from his crippled plane, some of which were exacerbated by inadequate medical care and aggravated further by torture at the hands of his captors. He had suffered from an extended bout of dysentery, which dropped his weight to barely one hundred pounds.
He also knew that if he refused the offer, his treatment would only worsen. Some of his fellow prisoners told him to take the offer, that his physical condition was so bad, he was unlikely to live much longer in captivity. But McCain also believed he had a duty to his fellow prisoners.
During my time in the Navy, I received regular training on the military’s standards of conduct, which govern how captured service members are supposed to behave. My officer class even had the privilege of hearing from one of Sen. McCain’s fellow prisoners of war as part of that training. You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom, and I know we were all wondering the same thing: If we were ever faced with that sort of test of our character, how would we respond?
Fortunately, I finished my Navy career without having to find out the answer to that question. But we know what John McCain did: He refused to break faith with his fellow prisoners. He accepted his fate, and continued to resist to the best of his ability. He put the ideals of his country before his personal self-interest.
How many of us could have done what he did in that situation?
Sen. McCain’s recent death brought out the best and the worst of our country. I watched a parade of individuals, including two ex-presidents of competing parties, pay tribute to the man and call for a unified commitment to his ideals.
But I also saw internet trolls call him a traitor because they didn’t like some of his politics, and others perpetuate long-discredited falsehoods about his military service. One media outlet had to cut off comments on articles about the senator’s death because of the vitriol.
We clearly live in a country with deep divisions, but, regardless of politics or even his personal failings, Sen. McCain’s patriotism and heroism should be beyond reproach. I only hope we can keep trying to be the nation he never stopped believing we could be.
Judge Dale Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Hermantown with their four children.