I’ve been thinking about Charles Dickens and Marley’s ghost. Forty years after Nixon and Humphrey won their party’s nominations amid the division and acrimony it created, the ghost of Viet Nam plays anew before our eyes. Perhaps that was inevitable, not because of comparisons with Iraq, but because John McCain is the presumptive GOP nominee. Most of those who returned from Viet Nam, and let’s remember 58,000 did not, quietly resumed civilian life and moved forward. Viet Nam, while hardly forgotten, has not been the leitmotif of their biography. A few like John Kerry came home activist critics. Viet Nam informed who they are but, in some profound way, they too put it behind them. Finally, a number (some deeply scarred by combat) came home angry, and who could blame them? Children of the Greatest Generation, they were brought up to believe America invincible. That they were given to selective memory in referencing Normandy and bypassing Korea is revealing, but let’s give them the slack they deserve. These particular veterans were angry with an enemy not vanquished, were dismayed by what they saw as a dangerously disheartened military and, perhaps especially, were furious with those who opposed the war at home. John McCain was among these returnees, and that brings me to Dickens and ghosts.
McCain’s behavior in the last few weeks has been inexplicable. Let’s discount that someone who has been the press darling for a decade now cries foul when it assumably pays too much attention to his opponent. No it’s the McCain who on July 15th made the unequivocal statement, “I know how to win wars, I know how to win wars.” Perhaps he repeated it twice because his only command was that of a naval air squadron in peacetime. Then there was the comment of this week in which the Republican presumptive nominee suggested that his Democratic opponent was more interested in winning the election than winning the war in Iraq. Each of these statements, as has been much of his recent campaign rhetoric, are highly charged, disproportionately angry. So I ask myself, what gives? Ghosts?
I’ve come to the conclusion that every time Barack Obama opens his mouth, John McCain sees Jane Fonda. Only that can account for the level of anger on the part of a man who, in facing Iraq, is so obviously haunted by déjà vu. John McCain went through a great deal in that prison camp. At the time of his capture he was the somewhat underperforming son and grandson of four-star admirals. If you have any question about what that can do to a young man, think of FDR’s hard-pressed sons and descendents of a marquee political family. That he acquitted himself so heroically in that camp is all the more impressive, but it surely came with a cost.
I’m not a psychiatrist and don’t even play one on TV, but would it be at all surprising if McCain’s ghosts weren’t very real, if he didn’t suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder? After all, consider what he went through physically and emotionally, compounded by a greater pressure to perform than might have been the case for a mailman or lawyer’s son. PSTD wasn’t even diagnosed until 1980 seven years after his release and the year he divorced his first wife and married Cindy Hensley. Symptoms of this cruel disorder include flashbacks to traumatic times, the ghosts of war. Could this explain why McCain, not his campaign, has strayed from the reservation of late? Of course he has every right, and obligation, to voice his view and to challenge that of Senator Obama, but claiming an unsubstantiated war winning expertise or impugning his opponent’s patriotism crosses the line.
It’s no secret that I am for Obama and against McCain. I think they represent two very different approaches to our present and future. Nevertheless, like Senator Obama, I not only honor McCain’s service, I marvel at it. I also understand why it possesses him so, why in talking about it, as he did today at a veterans’ event, it animates him like nothing else. Memories, a sense of history and the lessons learned can be a critical component of leadership. But ghosts concern me. When Ebenezer Scrooge took his nocturnal tour with the ghost of Marley, he came out a changed man. Whatever demons possessed him and caused his earlier behavior were exorcized from his character. Dickens doesn’t take us far into Scrooge’s future, but leaves the impression that the ghost is unlikely to reappear. It would be comforting to think the same held true for the ghost of Viet Nam, but from what we’ve seen these past few weeks, that doesn’t appear to be the case. It’s a bit unnerving; something to seriously consider as we look toward November.