Prisoners-of-war, politics, and character

>> Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sydney Schanberg is a little bit of a legend--his fieldwork in Cambodia during the civil war there was part of the basis for the Roland Joffé film The Killing Fields (in which Schanberg was played by Sam Waterston). He's an award winning journalist, and the kind of rare reporter who matches the archetype or fantasy of a field journalist: the rugged survivor who is found either being shot at or threatened at gunpoint when he isn't holed up in a local hotel slamming out hard-punching dispatches on a battered manual typewriter. Okay, so Schanberg probably hasn't been out there getting shot at in a long while, but you get the idea--if you were born after, say, 1965 and you ever fantasized about being a journalist, you probably fantasized about being either Bob Woodward or Sydney Schanberg, even if you didn't know Schanberg by name.

So his word carries a little bit of weight with me and it probably should with you, too. I'm just putting that out there up front, trying to establish his credentials, because his September 18 article on The Nation Institute's website is a little sickening if it's accurate, and it's hard to imagine Sydney Schanberg getting it that wrong.

The article is titled "McCain and the POW Cover-up," and the title, though lurid and conspiratorial, pretty much sums it up. There is, probably, more than enough blame to be passed around--Senator McCain is a focus of this story because he (a) happens to be running for President Of The United States (what, you hadn't heard about this?) and (b) because his campaign has made a great deal of fuss over Senator McCain's experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War as an indicator of the Senator's character and therefore (one assumes) his character (oh, sure--you hadn't heard any of that, either?).

But let's get something else out there and up front: the pattern of conduct Mr. Schanberg describes mostly occurred while Senator McCain served on a Senate committee headed by Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and himself a former Presidential candidate. I have absolutely no problem condemning Senator Kerry for any failures of the committee he chaired--if any reader would like to go down the well-trodden path of "but what about what he did?!" you're welcome to walk it alone, and try not to be disappointed when I don't bother standing up for Senator Kerry. Along those same lines, Schanberg describes some ignoble conduct on the part of Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger at the Paris Peace Accords in 1973; some focus on this Republican President and his lackey are necessary because they did, after all, conduct the negotiations with the North Vietnamese and President Nixon did tell the American public all the POWs were coming home. Nonetheless, Schanberg writes:

[Senator McCain] has actually been following the lead of every White House since Richard Nixon's and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief and national security advisor, not to mention Dick Cheney, who was George H. W. Bush's defense secretary. Their biggest accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in Washington.

...which inevitably impugns two Presidential Democrats, Carter and Clinton and a press that is somehow popularly perceived as "liberal." Should any readers wish to say "Well, what about Clinton?" I will heartily join--I'm not particularly a fan of President Clinton's, though it's likely for the exact opposite reasons held by any conservative readers (President Clinton promised the left a great deal and delivered rather little, while managing to embarrass himself and by extension us even though, in retrospect, he hadn't been one of us since the 1970s if he ever was). And please, by all means, go slam the press--this blog will still be here when you're done.

(I have no idea how "But he/she did it too!" became such a powerful political distraction. Apparently a lot of people--mostly, I'm afraid, Republican-types, but also quite a few Democrats and even some liberals--were raised badly. My parents, for all their faults, taught my sister and myself that blaming the other sibling went exactly nowhere by way of a defense against allegations of misconduct. When I tried that, I was reminded that I was older and supposedly knew better, and when my sister tried it, my parents told her they didn't care. And then we were punished. In those instances where the other had actually also been bad, blaming the other only resulted in joint and several liability instead of acquittal--small satisfaction at best.)

In short, yes, Democrats are frequently horrible people and blah blah blah--if you need to get that out of your system, please do so now and then we can get back on point.

Let's talk about the Schanberg piece on McCain.

Schanberg's allegations on McCain's handling of missing-POW issues boils down to essentially two points. The first is an allegation that Senator McCain obstructed two attempts to pass a bill that would have made the Pentagon "transparent" with regard to information on missing POWs, and then derailed the legislative side of it entirely by successfully introducing a bill that effectively sealed any information the Pentagon has (by creating a process for releasing files that doesn't actually require any files to be released). Second, Schanberg writes that Senator McCain has engaged in a pattern of bullying and abusive behavior directed towards those who believe the government has information on missing POWs, including the families of missing military personnel who have spoken out on the issue or sought information.

Schanberg makes an impressive case that the Pentagon has information on missing soldiers that it hasn't released. This is really the main issue: it would be absurd to think that all the military personnel who went missing in action in Vietnam ended up in POW camps, and there's a very high probability that some number of the ones who did end up in POW camps weren't released at the end of the war (there's quite a bit of evidence, some offered by Schanberg, that the North Vietnamese kept some prisoners as leverage and that the Nixon Administration had a strong interest in pushing the whole thing under a rug--at the intersection of those two lines you're likely to find POWs effectively "lost and forgotten" by the governments of Vietnam and the United States). For instance, if, as Schanberg states, PAVE SPIKE readings indicate the whereabouts of twenty American airmen, it seems like there ought to be a moral obligation to find out what happened to these men and to secure their release if they're alive or to inform the families if they aren't (rather than rehash Schanberg's description of PAVE SPIKE, I'd prefer to point you to caption "6" under the heading "10 Key Pieces of Evidence That Men Were Left Behind"). It's hard to imagine a reason the Pentagon ought to withhold this information if they have it--strike that: it's hard to imagine a good reason for the Pentagon to withhold such information. Bad reasons abound, starting with the embarrassment of seven successive Presidential administrations beginning with Nixon and ending with the present one. If Schanberg is right about the situation--and, as I've said, I tend to trust Schanberg--then he's also right that it's time for the books to be opened.

The fact that Schanberg's brief has its partisan aspects is insufficient for rejecting it. A longer piece might well indict Senator Kerry and Presidents Carter and Clinton along with Senators McCain and Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush père et fils, and no doubt others. But only one man in this list is running for President. Let's talk about Senator McCain and the Schanberg piece.

When you live by the sword, you die by the sword, or so the cliché goes. When you run a Presidential campaign relying on your character and your military experience, things (if there are any) that reflect poorly on your character and military experience become issues.* If the story of how you were captured in wartime, how you were tortured, and how you were released is important, then surely the stories of other men who were in a similar situation are important and should be pried out of the Pentagon's clutches? And do you not owe them and their families a duty, particularly when you make your brotherhood in arms such a facet of your public persona? And in any case, what kind of man sits at a table during a Senate hearing and yells at a woman for wanting to know where her brother is? For that matter, what kind of man participates in the effective burial of honorable soldiers' service records? What kind of man does so in the furtherance of a disgraceful political policy apparently designed to avoid the admission that a President broke faith and left men behind and then six more Presidents didn't rectify it?

When you loudly declaim your character and make it a central issue, you've opened the door for people to ask whether your conduct has been consistent with your alleged conduct or to offer examples of where your conduct suggested your character isn't what you've said it is. Senator McCain says he's a good and honorable man whose services to his country as a brother-in-arms make him this country's best choice for leadership. Sydney Schanberg has offered evidence and documentation that, if true, challenges that portrayal. So I ask you to read the Schanberg piece and to think about it, though I suspect it is unlikely to change anybody's mind six weeks before the Presidential election. Perhaps, at least, if Senator McCain is elected, and if Schanberg's portrayal of the Senator's actions and manner is accurate, then nobody will be surprised if President McCain is an angry, blustery hypocrite who pays lip service to principles he then betrays. And if the Senator is elected President and proves to be the grave and honorable man his campaign has presented to the world, well then I am prepared to wonder what happened to Sydney Schanberg. But right now, I'm only afraid the smart money is to bet on Schanberg.

*As an aside, this is the sole respect in which Governor Palin's grandchild is a relevant issue. The fact that Governor Palin has a pregnant teenage daughter isn't any of your business, or mine. But, unfortunately, the fact that Governor Palin is running for national office as a "pro-Life" candidate for a party that has made "traditional family values" a central political issue and has held up pregnant teenagers as examples of the alleged moral bankruptcy of a lax and permissive society and yet Governor Palin has a pregnant teenage daughter is everybody's business: if one examines the express beliefs of Governor Palin and her party in light of Governor Palin's family situation, one must conclude that either (a) those beliefs are ineffectual and/or morally bankrupt, or (b) that Governor Pain is ineffectual and/or morally bankrupt--i.e. either her principles have failed her family or her family has failed her principles. If you want to be rude about how you say it, you can reduce this to a question over whether Governor Palin is merely an idiot (for believing what she does when it doesn't work) or incompetent (for being unable to make her beliefs matter in her own household), and whether idiocy or incompetence are automatic disqualifiers for office for either yourself or for the man who nominated you for his second-in-command.


Leanright,  Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 12:31:00 AM EDT  

Eric, before you pass judgement on Ms. Palin, I would like to ask if YOU have children, and if so, do they do EXACTLY as you wish day in and day out?

I consider myself a very engaged father to my two daughters, yet as much as I would like them to do EVERYTHING I want them to, they are still their own people and may do things against my teachings. Does that make me a bad father?

You do the judging....seems like something you enjoy.

Jeri Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 2:26:00 AM EDT  

Oh - Eric. I am sorry - usually I find your arguments on point, even if you lean further left than I do.

In this case we'll have to agree to disagree.

In the case of a political candidate or other public figure, family members are not, by definition, an extension of that figure's persona. They are their own independent selves, entitled to privacy, publicity, independent beliefs and decisions, and free will choices. The older they get - past about 13 or so - the more that is the case.

Imposing the logic that a candidate for the conservative right (or liberal left!) must have a Stepford spouse and children just doesn't compute. You are not a parent yet - but you have been a child, and I'd imagine some of your friends have children. The sins of the father should not be visited on the children - and the sins of the children on the parents. (Except, of course, as minors where the parents are legally liable for damages... LOL)

I can no more control my 16 and 19 year olds' daily lives and choices than I can control the wind. I can hope my values hold true - but they have not.

For example, the 19 year old is a conservative religious believer, pro life and anti-gay marriage, although he supports Obama. He also dates the mentally ill - true Fatal Attraction chicks.

My 16 year old is much more liberal and quite agnostic/skeptic, which is in line with our household's belief system. However, he's fatalistic about our political process, I'm not sure I am going to be able to persuade him to exercise his franchise - and I hold that sacred.

I realize these aren't on the same level as teen pregnancy - but they are areas that, in spite of a really solid family life and good parents, our kids have made their own choices about core values and aren't by any stretch of the imagination extensions of my id or my husbands or anyone else's. They are their own persons, agents of their own destiny.

Evaluating me based on my nearly adult children's (or spouse's) behavior, choices, values, etc is flawed logic and assumes a degree of control and influence in the teen-parent relationship that is just not possible.

Eric Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 10:12:00 AM EDT  

I think you both missed the point of the footnote:

If I insisted that my family values were the family values everybody ought to follow, it would be relevant to ask how those values panned out when I applied them to my own family. If they didn't pan out, it would imply one of two conclusions. Either:

1) There's a problem with my values when applied to the real world in any family, or;

2) My values are fine, but I am ineffectual at transmitting them to my own family.

Frankly, my view is that Governor Palin is probably adequate as a mother and her conservative religious family values are unrealistic.

Jeri is of course right that a parent can't control his or her child's daily actions. The conclusion a rational person might draw is one that shows a little more humility than Governor Palin and the religious, conservative, anti-choice branch of the party is showing. Nor are Jeri's actual examples that on point in context: Jeri's values appear to place a high priority on thinking for oneself, and the fact that one of Jeri's children has thought for himself and reached an opposite set of beliefs probably ought to be a source of bemused pride for Jeri--were I in her situation, I'd be proud of my boy for showing independence and I'd be wondering in an amused fashion what I'd done wrong.

The values Governor Palin has expressed on the political stage place a premium on not having sex before marriage and accuse American culture of saturating teenagers with sexual images instead of core Christian values that all "real" Americans share and that our country was allegedly founded upon. Many of Palin's advocates, defenders, supporters, and followers have gone out of their way to point fingers at Jamie-Lynn Spears (a woman whose family clearly has independent means) as a public example of shame. And then when somebody says, "Well, wait a minute, how is the Palin family situation different from that of the celebrities you condemn or the other teenagers you harangue with 'abstinence only' and deny access to reproductive care?" the person who asks the question is roundly condemned for not understanding that kids will be kids or whatnot.

I'm calling bullshit on that. I'm not the "family values" candidate for Vice-President. I'm not the one who claims to have a rulebook that answers all my moral and spiritual questions. Oh, and if my public positions contradict my private life, yes, you can call me out on it. Go ahead. I'm not holding Palin to a double-standard: I'm holding her to the standards I try to adhere to, and you can kiss my ass if you thought otherwise, Leanright.

Two last points:

First, for the record: I'm not a parent and I'm not a husband. I do represent criminals. And, more relevantly, I'm my public defender office's main guy on juvenile delinquency: I assign the cases, I handle the bulk of detentions and first appearances, I'm the liaison when issues arise, blah, blah, blah. And I hate to tell you folks, but there's one thing prosecutors, juvenile court counselors, and defense attorneys seem to agree on in juvenile court: you want to try to figure out how kids got this way, 80%-90% time it's the parent(s). Factor that in how you'd like.

Second: my only regret with the footnote is that once again Governor Palin has become the main attraction instead of the sideshow. My bad. This wasn't an entry about the disconnect between Governor Palin's family values and her family, and what that means for somebody who might take over the leadership of the country, thank you very much, as opposed to having a disconnect on their own time. This is an entry about Senator John McCain running as the armed forces candidate when there are reasonable allegations by Sydney Schanberg that he failed POWs in Vietnam. This entry was written earlier in the week, before the Senator brought it up again in the debate last night. If people would rather talk about Palin, clearly I need to break this entry in two.

Jeri Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 12:33:00 PM EDT  

Sorry - although I watched the debates I'm rather burned out on politics. The subject of children-as-extension-of-id caught my attention though, and so I helped take things way off track. :p

Leanright,  Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 5:31:00 PM EDT sounds as if you are equating juvenile delinquency to teenage pregnancy.

Eric Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 5:58:00 PM EDT  

Sorry, guess I was channeling Bill O'Reilly. I'll step away from the falafel and ask if we can get back onto the topic of whether there's any merit to Schanberg's claims about Senator McCain, can anyone rebut Schanberg's facts or analysis with something concrete, and if there is something to Schanberg's article what does it say about McCain's ability to lead or his campaign's focus on McCain's ties to the armed services.

If folks would rather discuss the footnote, I can start a new topic about Bristol Palin, if people really are that intent on talking about her. I can understand the preference--if it's true McCain yelled at a MIA's sister during a hearing, he might be a bit of an asshole even if the MIA's sister was nuts.

Schanberg. McCain. Legitimate? Bullshit? Relevant? Not? Thoughts?

Leanright,  Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 11:27:00 PM EDT  

Well? "The Killing Fields" IS one of my all time favorite movies!

Does that count for anything?

John the Scientist Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 4:40:00 PM EDT  

Schanberg. McCain. Legitimate? Bullshit? Relevant? Not? Thoughts?

1. Relevant

2. Bullshit

First I'll give you the logical reasoning, then the "some guy on the internet" reason, which you can discount.

First, Schanberg. Well past his prime, as is Woodward. I've not seen him, but have seen Woodward recently, and what I see there is a bitter, partisan hack, not the more balanced reporter of Watergate days. A lot of Boomers of that ilk are bitter because the "revolution" seems to be fading away. I suspect and double check everything they do.

So now I find it highly amusing that Schanberg trots out this horse shit that was investigated to death in years past and used by ultra-conservatives and bitter Vietnam-era veterans to oppose renormalizing relations with the PRVN. In the past, liberals such as he castigated such bitter conservatives for not letting bygones be bygones. Now they suddenly care about the MIAs? Hmmmm. (I don't know his particular stance, but the fact that, despite being somewhat of an expert in that region of the world, he has not brought this up in the past, makes me suspicious).

The US has sent several covert and overt mission into PRVN since the end of the war and found nothing. On grandstanding ex-Green Beret has made a lot of stink but he's discredited himself on several instances, and the other direct evidence is from the traitor Garwood, also not a good witness. So I ask what is the proof? Schanberg trots out the old Politburo statement - once again, where is the proof. The Pentagon long ago dismissed the statement as disinformation because the Soviets knew we had spies over there, and one way to keep our eye off the South American ball and fixated on Asia was by keeping this sore open and bleeding.

However, no credible reports from the thousands of boat people surfaced during that sad episode. Remember, we're talking about white people in Vietnam - they stick out like Jesse Jackson at a Klan rally. Nothing substantial from all those refugees from all over Vietnam, about over 600 Americans?

The stated purpose in the Politburo speech was as bargaining leverage. Why was that leverage never used? In 1980, the PRVN got into a nasty little war with China. That was one of the issues that brought about the thaw in relations with the US a few years later. At the beginning of that campaign it was by no means certain that the PRVN would prevail against the PLA - then would have been the perfect time for a covert lever to get the US to distract China with some saber-rattling off of Taiwan.

Also, the PRVN has allowed US teams in the North to search for downed aircraft, some of which have been found. If the anyone had seen anything of white people - and it's hard to conceal 600 white prisoners from rumor even in the PRVN, they would not have allowed US teams in to ignite an international incident.

Then there is the idea that American prisoners were interrogated in Russia - and I believe that some high-value prisoners did disappear into the military version of the Gulag Archipelago. Not more than a few, and they were quickly disposed of. The Russians would have leapt at the chance to exchange low-level American enlisted men for their captured spies in the late 60s and into 70s - instead they exchanged Gary Powers.

I just don't buy it. This has until recently been the purview of bereaved families who can't accept that their loved one died in the jungle. The liberal press takes a look every once in a while and has not pursued it because there is just no evidence. In recent years they have not been anywhere near this. Until now. Color me suspicious, and given what I know about the politics of the Soviet sphere (which, you will have to give me, is much more than the average bear), I call bullshit.

Now here's the "some guy on the 'Net answer": I met one of the special forces guys who went in on one of the covert missions. I don't know him well, so he could have been bullshitting me. But his opinion was that there were no Americans held there after 1975, except for a few deserters such as Garwood, and that any officer of value had been shipped to the USSR for torture and disposal.

John the Scientist Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 4:47:00 PM EDT  

Oh yeah, one final thought. That a man with enough honor to survive the ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton would then turn his back on his comrades smack of a conspiracy theory -if that were written in a novel, would you not be expecting some sort of HUGE motivating force, otherwise it would not be believable. You might not like his politics, but McCain is not that evil.

John the Scientist Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 4:54:00 PM EDT  

Arrgh - one more thought - the PRVN invaded the RVN in 1973 to disastrous results because of US air cover. They succeeded in 1975, using more armor than the Russian and German forces at Kursk (combined) due to the fact that US air cover was not present (which should be to our everlasting shame).

The discovery of even one US prisoner in the period of 1973 - 1975 might have tipped the US over to supporting the RVN with air power. I don't think that the Commies were that stupid - even if they had some prisoners, which I doubt, I think they were dead by 1974. The ephemeral value of "leverage' was not worth the real risk of losing all that armor again - the Russians were pissed at how much the re-supply effort cost them.

Eric Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 5:26:00 PM EDT  

Thank you, John, for the thoughtful and well-informed analysis. I think you've persuaded me to give Senator McCain the benefit of the doubt on this one.

You're probably right about Schanberg, too, tho' I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But your "seeing my Schanberg and raising me a Woodward" (so to speak) probably has me--I don't know for sure if you're right about Schanberg, but unfortunately I can't really argue with you about Woodward, at least as far as Woodward having become a bit of a hack. (I suspect, though, that we differ on the whys and ifs of his hackery, or where his partisanship really lies. At this point, Woodward has been by turns so fawning and critical of the Bush Administration that I'd accuse him of being a Woodward partisan more than a politically biased reporter.)

One last note: the MIA thing isn't a partisan issue. The "suddenly care" thing was maybe a cheap shot, just saying. (And while I haven't dug into Schanberg's earlier coverage, I will point out that he claims he's been covering the issue for nearly 20 years, since 1991, see the top of the second page of the article we've been discussing.)

Nonetheless--and once again--I'll give McCain the benefit of the doubt on this score based on your comments. Thank you.

John the Scientist Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 8:25:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I didn't mean it to be a cheap shot at Liberals, I meant it to be a cheap shot at the liberal press, which I think you and I both hold in low esteem, for overlapping, but different reasons.

I agree about Bob Woodward being mostly about advancing Bob Woodward, though.

Eric Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 9:10:00 PM EDT  

Point taken--and you're right about the shared disdain for the press for different reasons.

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