Saturday, September 27, 2008
The Invisible Man
At what point might people look at John McCain and say, okay, we admit it, we blew it, the guy has no business being president? I'm deadly serious. It's not like he's trying to hide it. What I'm talking about is the fact that he's entirely about shooting from the hip. And, of late, lying. After a while, it gets really disturbing. Calmness under fire, careful deliberation? Since when? Sarah Palin? Suspending his campaign? "We are all Georgians?" F-bombs, calling his wife a c*nt?
I have my theories, of course. As an Air Force flight surgeon -- a doctor to pilots -- I saw things when I was in Vietnam. Among them was a very clear pattern: fighter pilots are a breed apart. The same might be said -- IS said -- about surgeons. Drama, danger, boldness, self confidence: characteristics (along with occasional assholery) of both genera. Other than the fact that one group is trying to kill people and the other is trying to save them, there are common elements that lead to common patterns of self-selection. Fighter jocks differ from airlift drivers. Surgeons differ from internists. In the Officers' Club in Danang (it was, appropriately, called the DOOM Club, for Danang Officers' Open Mess), you could tell the fighter boys easily: louder, drinking more, grouped together, wearing their flight suits with fancy kerchiefs. (For the record, I have nothing but admiration for all military pilots: the ones I knew, and flew with in all sorts of planes, were smart, skilled, and dedicated beyond words. I'd trust 'em all with my life. And often did.)
John McCain, it seems, took it all deeply to heart. A party boy, a poor student, he showed a reckless abandon from the start. Had he not been the son and grandson of admirals his career might have ended before it started; but I'd guess it endeared him to his fellow fliers. The archetype of the archetype. Tough guy, fuck-you sort of a guy.
On my way to Vietnam, I, along with all others on flying status in the Air Force, stopped in the Philippines for jungle survival school. In the rain forest for a couple of nights, we were taught "escape and evasion" skills. There were lectures on what was known about POW camps, torture, and torture resistance. (I particularly recall a letter that had been sent home by a POW, slipping through censors the phrase "if he paints the house, Tell Old Richard To Use Real Enamel." (Capitals mine.) There were mock-ups of booby traps and torture devices. It was scary stuff.
It's a failure for a pilot to be shot down, to be captured, to break under the pain of torture. Fighter jocks see themselves as tough guys, invincible; they're cocky. Without really knowing what it's like, I assume it's the ultimate blow to one's view of oneself. (I remember thinking, during those lectures, that I'd not survive it. When flying in Vietnam, we were issued survival vests, which had, among other things, a file in a sleeve for sticking up one's ass, maps, a statement in several languages that our government would reward anyone who helped us, and a .38 pistol, along with a dozen bullets. The fighter jocks added a bandoleer with a couple hundred more rounds. How stupid, I thought: surviving a situation where you'd need two hundred rounds fired from a pistol? Right. I figured if I were in that predicament, I'd need only one.)
John McCain has been fairly honest about his captivity, admitting he cracked, made propaganda films, tried suicide. It's heart-rending. It's understandable, forgivable, even admirable. Is it heroic? Not, I'd say, to him; not in his heart of hearts. Which, I submit, is the problem. And he's spending the rest of his life dealing with it. Anger, vindictiveness, seeing the world in black/white, good/evil terms. Demonizing opponents, seeing those who disagree with him as enemies, as unworthy. In yesterday's debate, he reeked of derision.
This is me, unqualified psychologist, Vietnam vet, doctor to pilots. I admire John McCain for making it through those years; I'm glad it wasn't me. He deserves respect.
As a senator, he's one of a hundred, contained. Unpredictable, flighty, overly dramatic, he'd be a dangerous president. He makes me nervous: to use the medical term, he's one scary dude.
[Update: others weigh in.]