Saturday, September 6, 2008

"He was served by the martyrs, and by the men that made the martyrs."

I have an insane amount of work to do this coming week, mostly because I missed a day and a half (and was in an unproductive, frazzled state last weekend) on account of the fiasco with my car in Baltimore. I should really be working, and given that I am blogging, I should really be writing about one of the areas I know more about, like perennial grain ecology or Latin American politics.

But I wanted to say a few words about John McCain's speech a couple days ago. Hopefully this will attract the interest of more readers than another paean to the glories of the Morales regime in Bolivia.

I have immense respect for John McCain and I think he is fundamentally a good and great man, and this comes very largely from my admiration from his experience in Vietnam. Let me make one thing clear. In no sense do I support the Vietnam war, and in no sense do I think that he was fighting for 'our freedom' or 'our safety', and even less for the freedom and safety of the Vietnamese. Let's be honest. The American cause in Vietnam was an evil one. The government we were fighting to preserve was a corrupt and greedy oligarchy intent on preserving its own privileges, led by a general who said, famously, "We need four or five Hitlers in Vietnam". This was the regime that herded peasants into barbed-wire camps, that allowed American planes to spread poison over the countryside, that tortured prisoners in the tiger cages, and that turned Saigon into a byword for greed, prostitution and decadence. Vietnam needed socialism. It needed a government that would ensure that farmers and workers could own their land and factories and no longer be at the mercy of the landlord, and it needed a government which could inspire people to work for something greater than themselves, and a set of values which looked to a future where men related to one another in a spirit of love and cooperation instead of self-interest and exploitation. This was worth fighting for, and it was worth a certain degree of war and repression. Ho Chi Minh and his men, for all their faults, were fighting for a good cause in Viet Nam, and the Americans and South Vietnamese were fighting for a bad one.

That doesn't make John McCain's sacrifice and suffering any less admirable. Do we honestly think that you can only do great things while fighting for a good cause? What matters isn't whether McCain's cause was the right one. What matters is that he believed it was the right one, that he held a (to me, misplaced) faith in liberal democracy and capitalism that led him to (again, wrongly) believe that he was doing the right thing for the people of Vietnam. And that he held on to his faith, and his convictions, even when he was subjected to intense torture. What matters, even more, is not his loyalty to his country or his political beliefs but his loyalty to his friends. He loved the men he served with and those he suffered with, so much so that he turned down the offer of early release so that those who had suffered longer than he had would be released earlier. He was sorely tempted to take the easy road; he took the hard one, at the cost of tremendous pain and despair. Maritain said, "God was served by the martyrs, and He was served by the executioners that made the martyrs." He is served whenever a person willingly endures suffering for the sake of others, and whenever a person acts out of love, even if the object of their love may be somewhat misplaced; just the same as when someone acts out of hatred and self-love, even if they do it in the name of something good, it is someone quite other than God who is pleased.

I don't have any particular liking for a number of historical causes. I think that the Ayyubid drive to reconquer the Holy Land was a bad cause; I think that Stalinism was a bad cause, and so was the Indian Mutiny, and so was Falangism. That doesn't mean that I think that Saladin, or Tukhachevsky, or General Moscardo, or Lakshmibai, Queen of Jhansi, who went to her death at Gwalior crying "Mera Jhansi denge nay" were bad people. They were great people, who acted according to their own lights, and sometimes suffered for it.

We often don't know what is right, and all we can do is follow our own conscience. Whether we are ultimately right or wrong, we can remember that suffering for the sake of those we love is always a good act, much as killing or torturing the innocent is always a bad one, regardless of how base or noble the cause in whose name we do it. And we can hope that if we are ever tested, and called upon to take the hard road rather than the easy one, we can do so with as much courage as John McCain.

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