Almost every political figure—Democrat and Republican—has offered condolences to the family of Sen. John McCain, who died over the weekend. They tout him as an honorable person and an example of human decency, but he was a racist war criminal.
John Sidney McCain III, son and grandson of four-star navy admirals, was first and foremost a Republican and a staunch representative of the U.S. political establishment and the capitalist class. While serving as a navy pilot in Vietnam, he was gunned down and became a prisoner of war. McCain, a lieutenant commander at the time, had been bombing a lightbulb factory—a civilian target—when he was shot down and saved by a North Vietnamese security guard from the factory. Later, he became a representative and then a senator from Arizona, backing every military intervention the U.S. undertook, from sending troops to Panama in 1989 to Iraq in 2003. In the 2008 presidential debates, he bragged about the “success” of U.S. attacks on Iraq even though he knew well that the “victory” was partly thanks to the U.S. embargo on Iraq, which killed half a million people, along with the deliberate destruction of the country’s water purification system and the ethnic cleansing of Sunni Iraqis at the hands of Shia militants, abetted by U.S. forces.
While McCain is lauded for taking the microphone away from an Islamophobic woman who accused Obama of being a Muslim, it is less well remembered that he supported the rescinding of Martin Luther King Day. His racist history is detailed in Gook: John McCain’s Racism and Why It Matters by Irwin A. Tang, who says, “The combination of racism and warmongering are perfectly encapsulated in ‘gook,’ a racist term formed during numerous U.S. wars… John McCain used this anti-Asian slur freely with the media until he was forced to stop for fear of sabotaging his own presidential ambitions.”
For all this and much more, we won’t miss John McCain.
Why is McCain Important?
McCain’s most important political asset was that he was a POW during the Vietnam War, U.S. imperialism’s first military defeat. During the second half of the 1960s, the Vietnam War sparked an enormous opposition movement involving marches, rallies and clashes with the police. This movement, which developed anti-imperialist positions and solidarity with the oppressed countries, seriously challenged the role of U.S. imperialism, and the resulting lack of support for the war in part led to the U.S. Army’s defeat. The student movement and the civil rights movement were key players in this radicalized left-wing upsurge.
The figure of John McCain, the war hero, represented traditional warmongering, opposed to this progressive tendency. He embodied the celebration of U.S. imperialism, which left over 3 million people dead in Vietnam and millions injured as a result of the war. And he embodied patriotism in a country that considers itself the “policeman of the world”—ensuring the death of millions. He is portrayed as the positive moral representation of the American way of life.
The Democratic Socialist Response
Democrats and Republicans are singing McCain’s praises. Jesse Jackson tweeted, “People like @SenJohnMcCain do not come in bunches like grapes. They are rare like pearls. He represents the best in us. May God give him a special place in his bosom.” Barack Obama said McCain was faithful to “something higher—the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed.” This should come as no surprise. After all, the Democrats and Republicans are united in promoting imperialism and the brutal policies of capital around the world.
But why are the country’s most famous democratic socialists singing his praises and mourning his death? By paying respect to his memory, they salute what he stood for; by refusing to denounce him for who he was, they conceal the fact that he was an enemy of the working class, the women’s movement, immigrants and youth.
John McCain was an American hero, a man of decency and honor and a friend of mine. He will be missed not just in the U.S. Senate but by all Americans who respect integrity and independence. Jane and I send our deepest condolences to his family.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 26, 2018
John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.
As an intern, I learned a lot about the power of humanity in government through his deep friendship with Sen. Kennedy.
He meant so much, to so many. My prayers are with his family. https://t.co/iu28V3snDm
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) August 26, 2018
But it’s not a matter of morals. This thinly veiled “political correctness” reveals the intention to maintain the bipartisan status quo of American imperialism, characteristic of the practice of capitulating to nationalism. Sanders has demonstrated time and time again that he votes like a Democrat while using more progressive rhetoric. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has not even been elected yet, she has clarified some of her positions and backtracked on others, making it clear she is already bending to the Democratic Party establishment.
By whitewashing McCain’s bloody past as a warmonger, she has wasted the opportunity to raise her voice against imperialism. It means ignoring the hundreds of thousands of people who have died as a direct result of McCain’s actions in the military and votes in Congress. While McCain may have espoused a more “politically correct” vision of right-wing politics than Donald Trump’s, his policies still meant death and misery for American workers and people of color who were sent on unjust military campaigns.
At a moment when the left is gaining momentum in the United States, socialists must look to the example of the antiwar students of the 1960s and 1970s and encourage people to organize independently of the establishment parties. Above all, socialists must maintain the fight against imperialist war and racism rather than bend to the norms and pressures of Washington, DC.
We can’t be afraid to say it. John McCain was a racist war criminal who was responsible for the death of thousands around the world– in his role in the Vietnam war, as well as in his role in Congress. We don’t mourn him and we won’t miss him.