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John McCain and the Meaning of Courage

Honoring His Political and Military Legacy Is Vital

U.S. Senator John McCain speaks at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 2017. Charles Mostoller / REUTERS

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher of war, wrote in the early nineteenth century that “courage is of two kinds: first, physical courage, or courage in the presence of danger; and next, moral courage, or courage before responsibility.” The late U.S. Senator John McCain demonstrated both. His physical courage was apparent during the 23 combat missions he flew over North Vietnam, especially the last of these, when he was shot down over Hanoi, severely wounded, and captured by the North Vietnamese. During his captivity over the next five and a half years, more than two of which he spent in solitary confinement, he demonstrated not only physical but also moral courage while enduring the worst possible forms of torture. Perhaps his most courageous act as a prisoner of war came when he refused to accept early release, in order to remain with his fellow Americans and deny the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory.

Years later, McCain would continue to demonstrate moral courage. He often broke with his party and never adapted his political positions to the latest opinion polls. He refused to attack the character of his political opponents, even as political competitions across the country reached new depths of incivility.

McCain’s unwillingness to callously disparage his rivals was rooted in his empathy for his fellow man. At a time when American public discourse was becoming increasingly insular, he sought to foster relationships with like-minded nations and understand conflicts abroad that affected U.S. security and national interests. His fast-paced overseas trips, always with bipartisan groups of colleagues from the U.S. Senate and House, were legion. During my many meetings with him and his dear friends Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Joseph Lieberman, McCain always tried to understand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the perspective of the Afghan and Iraqi people. Empathy lay at the root of his humaneness, including his opposition to any form of torture.

Psychologists tell us that empathy and humor are linked. The

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