Has John McCain turned heroism into a copout? Crooksandliars.com is making the case that McCain, having wrestled the usual reticence of the old warrior into submission, is flogging his five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton for all they’re worth and using them to explain away his sins.

Reading this post reminded me of something remarkable McCain said in his August 16 Saddleback interview. The Reverend Rick Warren asked him, “As an American, what is worth dying for and what’s worth committing American lives for?”

Freedom and national security, McCain answered, beginning his rambling answer. “We can’t right every wrong, but we can do what America has done throughout our history, and that is be a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom for everyone in the world; as Ronald Reagan used to quote, a shining city on a hill. And so there are conflicts that we can’t settle. The most precious asset we have is American blood. And throughout our history, Americans have gone to all four corners of the world and shed that blood in defense of someone else’s freedom. No other nation on earth has ever done that. But we’ve also succeeded in other ways. We won the Cold War, as I mentioned earlier, without firing a shot, because of our ideology and that communism was wrong and evil.”

Without firing a shot? Limit the Cold War to the Warsaw Pact’s sudden collapse, and you can see what he means. But before that, the Cold War was almost half a century of bloody proxy wars and crushed uprisings, and in McCain’s piece of it alone, Vietnam, millions of American bullets were fired. Or does McCain think of the Vietnam war as something apart from the Cold War, as a war America fought simply to secure another people’s freedom? My own way of living with Vietnam is to consider it a well-intended miscalulation, a campaign lost in a war ultimately won — like Gallipoli — that possibly impressed Moscow as to the absurd lengths Americans would go to to contain Communism. If McCain is ready to fight another Vietnam because we’re a shining city on a hill, he needs to tell us.

UPDATE: Richard Roeper took up the subject of McCain and his years as a POW in the Sun-Times Tuesday and said this: “The man can play the POW card from now until his last breath, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. . . . One can find plenty of areas in which to criticize John McCain. His service to his country — and how that service will be utilized in his campaign — is not one of them.” Roeper should have written “are not two of them,” because he listed two very different things. If McCain uses his military service as a shield against the criticism Roeper says is his due, I have no idea why he can’t be faulted for it. He can be faulted for hiding, and he can be faulted — and is being faulted already — for making a serious political mistake.

In 1992, Admiral James Bond Stockdale ran for vice president as Ross Perot’s running mate. Stockdale was a POW two years longer than McCain, suffered worse at the hands of his captors, was much more of a leader in the stockades, and eventually received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in captivity. He was also a much more thoughtful person than McCain, or so I’m willing to surmise on the basis of one of the papers he wrote after his release, “Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. ” 

None of that spared him the drubbing he received for his performance in the vice-presidential debate, not that he said it should have. We ordinary folks cut our heroes just so much slack. What McCain is supposedly doing — and Roeper in his column pretty much concedes he’s doing it — reminds me of the old adage of patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. Patriotism makes a terrific refuge, which is why we find so many scoundrels hiding inside it, but once it’s breached there’s no where else to retreat to. You’re dead meat.