John McCain: a good man in a bomber plane?


‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh usually makes for cringe-worthy listening, especially since they decided to ban me from the slot. However, the equivalent ‘Thought’ on BBC Radio Four can sometimes be listenable and even interesting.

That was the case this morning, when the contributor referred to the recent death of Senator John McCain in the US. The contributor reminded us of a judgement the journalist John Pilger made on McCain some time back, when he noted that as a US air pilot, he had bombed defenceless Vietnamese civilians. The woman on ‘Thought’  then went on to argue that we can separate the moral quality of the person who performs an action – in many other respects McCain was heroic – from the deed s/he performs. The example was cited of the brave lions of the First World War who were led to their deaths by donkeys.

I’m not so sure. The example of the ‘sacrifice’ made in the First World War by so many gullible young men strikes me as deeply foolish rather than morally commendable. Besides, in McCain’s case, he did endure torture and imprisonment from the Vietnamese, but that was because he had dropped bombs on the Vietnamese people, in Vietnam and thousands of miles from his home. If we followed the logic of the ‘Thought’ contributor, we’d acclaim the SAS men who engaged in a gun battle with Francie Hughes or the drivers of the trains to Belsen concentration camp, on the grounds that they didn’t allow the train to crash and kill everyone on board.

There are foundational things that shouldn’t happen, and to praise the courage of someone whose actions support that fundamental premise is a perversion of logic. Imprisoning people without trial is fundamentally wrong, and no number of nice prison guards changes that. We see the same kind of thinking cited in an article about collusion written some years back by Danny Morrison.

“David Aaronvitch in The Observer wrote that, ‘it was pretty much inevitable that some security force personnel would be tempted to use loyalist terror groups as a shadowy proxy… How can a man such as Michael Stone (or a Martin McGuinness, some might add) be walking free, and yet we are contemplating imprisoning the policemen who were trying – albeit illegally – to stop the terror?’

 Once you start applauding the end so much that the means used are commendable, you’re in trouble. When John McCain opened the bombing hatch and rained destruction on the Vietnamese people below, he knew what he was doing and it was inhuman. And please, no “just following orders” talk. We’ve already dealt with that at the Nuremberg trials.

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