McCain betrays POW/MIAs

Conservative Republicans explain why Sen. McCain
obstructs POW/MIA investigations

The only explanation McCain has ever offered for his leadership on legislation that seals POW information is that he believes the release of such information would only stir up fresh grief for the families of those who were never accounted for in Vietnam. Of the scores of POW families I've met over the years, only a few have said they want the books closed without knowing what happened to their men. All the rest say that not knowing is exactly what grieves them.

It's not clear whether the taped confession McCain gave to his captors to avoid further torture has played a role in his postwar behavior. That confession was played endlessly over the prison loudspeaker system at Hoa Lo--to try to break down other prisoners--and was broadcast over Hanoi's state radio. Reportedly, he confessed to being a war criminal who had bombed a school and other civilian targets. The Pentagon has copies of the confessions but will not release them. Also, no outsider I know of has ever seen a nonredacted copy of McCain's debriefing when he returned from captivity, which is classified but can be made public by McCain.

In his bestselling 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, McCain says he felt bad throughout his captivity because he knew he was being treated more leniently than his fellow POWs, owing to his propaganda value (his high-ranking father, Rear Adm. John S. McCain II, was then the commander of US forces in the Pacific). Also in this memoir, McCain expresses guilt at having broken under torture and given the confession. "I felt faithless and couldn't control my despair," he writes, revealing that he made two "feeble" attempts at suicide. Tellingly, he says he lived in "dread" that his father would find out about the confession. "I still wince," he writes, "when I recall wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace."

McCain still didn't know the answer when his father died in 1981. He got his answer eighteen years later. In his 1999 memoir, the senator writes, "I only recently learned that the tape...had been broadcast outside the prison and had come to the attention of my father."

Does this hint at explanations for McCain's efforts to bury information about prisoners or other disturbing pieces of the Vietnam War? Does he suppress POW information because its surfacing rekindles his feelings of shame? On this subject, all I have are questions. But even without answers to what may be hidden in the recesses of someone's mind, one thing about the POW story is clear: if American prisoners were dishonored by being written off and left to die, that's something the American public ought to know about.

Sydney H. Schanberg

Sydney H. Schanberg, a journalist for nearly 50 years, has written extensively on foreign affairs--particularly Asia--and on domestic issues such as ethics, racial problems, government secrecy, corporate excesses and the weaknesses of the national media.

Most of his journalism career has been spent on newspapers but his award-winning work has also appeared widely in other publications and media. The 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, which won several Academy Awards, was based on his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran - a memoir of his experiences covering the war in Cambodia for the New York Times and of his relationship with his Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran.

For his accounts of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Schanberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting "at great risk." He is also the recipient of many other awards - including two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism.
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