VIOLATING THE CODE by tim Dickenson in Rolling Stone
Ensconced in Apple’s villa in Saigon, McCain and the Times reporter forged a relationship that would prove critical to the ambitious pilot’s career in the years ahead. Apple effectively became the charter member of McCain’s media “base,” an elite corps of admiring reporters who helped create his reputation for “straight talk.”
Sipping scotch and reflecting on the fire aboard the Forrestal, McCain sounded like the peaceniks he would pillory after his return from Hanoi. “Now that I’ve seen what the bombs and napalm did to the people on our ship,” he told Apple, “I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” Here, it seemed, was a frank-talking warrior, one willing to speak out against the military establishment in the name of truth.
But McCain’s misgivings about the righteousness of the fight quickly took a back seat to his ambitions. Within days, eager to get his combat career back on track, he put in for a transfer to the carrier USS Oriskany. Two months after the Forrestal fire — following a holiday on the French Riviera — McCain reported for duty in the Gulf of Tonkin.
McCain performed adequately on the Oriskany. On October 25th, 1967, he bombed a pair of Soviet MiGs parked on an airfield outside Hanoi. His record was now even. Enemy planes destroyed by McCain: two. American planes destroyed by McCain: two.
The next day, McCain embarked on his fateful 23rd mission, a bombing raid on a power plant in downtown Hanoi. McCain had cajoled his way onto the strike force — there were medals up for grabs. The plant had recently been rebuilt after a previous bombing run that had earned two of the lead pilots Navy Crosses, one of the force’s top honors.
It was a dangerous mission — taking the planes into the teeth of North Vietnam’s fiercest anti-aircraft defenses. As the planes entered Hanoi airspace, they were instantly enveloped in dark clouds of flak and surface-to-air missiles. Still cocky from the previous day’s kills, McCain took the biggest gamble of his life. As he dived in on the target in his A-4, his surface-to-air missile warning system sounded: A SAM had a lock on him. “I knew I should roll out and fly evasive maneuvers,” McCain writes. “The A-4 is a small, fast” aircraft that “can outmaneuver a tracking SAM.”
But McCain didn’t “jink.” Instead, he stayed on target and let fly his bombs — just as the SAM blew his wing off.
To watch the Republican National Convention and listen to Fred Thompson’s account of John McCain’s internment in Vietnam, you would think that McCain never gave his captors anything beyond his name, rank, service number and, under duress, the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line. His time in Hanoi, we’re to understand, steeled the man — transforming him from a fighter jock who put himself first into a patriot who would henceforth selflessly serve the public good.
Page 5 of 10 There is no question that McCain suffered hideously in North Vietnam. His ejection over a lake in downtown Hanoi broke his knee and both his arms. During his capture, he was bayoneted in the ankle and the groin, and had his shoulder smashed by a rifle butt. His tormentors dragged McCain’s broken body to a cell and seemed content to let him expire from his injuries. For the next two years, there were few days that he was not in agony.
But the subsequent tale of McCain’s mistreatment — and the transformation it is alleged to have produced — are both deeply flawed. The Code of Conduct that governed POWs was incredibly rigid; few soldiers lived up to its dictate that they “give no information . . . which might be harmful to my comrades.” Under the code, POWs are bound to give only their name, rank, date of birth and service number — and to make no “statements disloyal to my country.”
Soon after McCain hit the ground in Hanoi, the code went out the window. “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital,” he later admitted pleading with his captors. McCain now insists the offer was a bluff, designed to fool the enemy into giving him medical treatment. In fact, his wounds were attended to only after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a Navy admiral. What has never been disclosed is the manner in which they found out: McCain told them. According to Dramesi, one of the few POWs who remained silent under years of torture, McCain tried to justify his behavior while they were still prisoners. “I had to tell them,” he insisted to Dramesi, “or I would have died in bed.”
Dramesi says he has no desire to dishonor McCain’s service, but he believes that celebrating the downed pilot’s behavior as heroic — “he wasn’t exceptional one way or the other” — has a corrosive effect on military discipline. “This business of my country before my life?” Dramesi says. “Well, he had that opportunity and failed miserably. If it really were country first, John McCain would probably be walking around without one or two arms or legs — or he’d be dead.”
Once the Vietnamese realized they had captured the man they called the “crown prince,” they had every motivation to keep McCain alive. His value as a propaganda tool and bargaining chip was far greater than any military intelligence he could provide, and McCain knew it. “It was hard not to see how pleased the Vietnamese were to have captured an admiral’s son,” he writes, “and I knew that my father’s identity was directly related to my survival.” But during the course of his medical treatment, McCain followed through on his offer of military information. Only two weeks after his capture, the North Vietnamese press issued a report — picked up by The New York Times — in which McCain was quoted as saying that the war was “moving to the advantage of North Vietnam and the United States appears to be isolated.” He also provided the name of his ship, the number of raids he had flown, his squadron number and the target of his final raid.