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What does it mean to call McCain a 'war hero' candidate?

McCain is running as one, but those who oppose dishonorable wars are also heroes.

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"624787." In his first national campaign ad for president, John McCain is shown reciting his rank and serial number as he lies in a Vietnamese hospital bed as a prisoner of war. The ad describes him as "a real hero."

Let's be clear; Senator McCain is running for president as a war hero who plans to win the campaign based on character and honor. On the surface, it seems churlish to critique the idea of a war hero. And criticizing a tribute to courageous and self-sacrificing soldiers would be disrespectful.

But inextricably tied to the idea of the war hero for president is a discussion that goes beyond individual soldiers or prisoners of war, such as McCain, to the wars they fight and what their role in the war says about their moral merits as national leaders. This turns out to be surprisingly problematic.

We need to distinguish the war hero from the war. Fixed ideas about war heroes get into what we call "morality wars," crucial struggles about which values should prevail, who should be admired and for what qualities.

When we call McCain a war hero, we engage in moral discourse about the Vietnam War and now Iraq. We also give McCain – currently the country's most celebrated war hero – the ultimate political weapon: power by virtue of heroism and the ability to discredit opponents as weak or unpatriotic.

The public has treated McCain's record in Vietnam and his status as a war hero as something unchangeable. But placing his sacrifice beyond the pale of criticism also implicitly places the cause he served beyond the pale, and that hushes important dialogue.


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