An American Hero, still in the Hanoi Hilton

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BBC Radio Four had a long obituary of John McCain this morning; it mentioned that the Vietnamese tried to use his imprisonment for propaganda.  My immediate thought was: “tried?”  I was instantly reminded of this video that played in a loop at the entrance to the Hỏa Lò prison in Hanoi, where McCain was tortured so badly that he lost mobility in his arms for the rest of his life.  The Vietnamese specifically bragged that McCain was held there, said that they treated all the Americans humanely, and that conditions were so pleasant that it was called the Hanoi Hilton.  I remember being furious at the time; they were willing to so blatantly lie about the conditions and their actions to people, and surely that would have been found out?  Surely someone would have called them on it?  But then I thought that this is what every government does; who knows how much Western governments tell us that is blatantly false?  Surely this is just the way that the world goes – the victors write the history for the world, but also the stories for their own people?  I’d somehow missed that nuance in school.  Besides, there was no way I was going to bring it up; the Vietnamese government has its tentacles everywhere in society, and I didn’t want to be thrown in jail at the beginning of our big six-month trip for using social media to call out the government’s lies.  So I stayed silent, snapped some photos, and forgot about the whole thing until this morning, when I got all angry again.

The tops of the outer walls at the Hanoi Hilton; bottles were broken off, creating a strip of broken glass that prisoners would have to try to crawl over if they were trying to escape over it.
The locks on one of the doors of the Hanoi Hilton.

Then I remembered: back in 2006, I wrote to McCain to express support for something he was doing – perhaps speaking out against the war in Iraq, or pushing for campaign finance reform, or something similar that gave him his maverick status.  His office wrote me back, and someone – I like to think it was McCain himself, but I know it wasn’t – signed their response with a real pen with real ink.  I remember thinking how professional it was that the office would respond to someone who wasn’t even a constituent of the Senator, that they would send a slightly personalized letter thanking me for my time, wishing me the best, and that the response got a real signature – not just a poorly printed image.  I thought that just for that touch I would definitely, absolutely support him in 2008 if he ran for President, but then a senator from Illinois ran on the Democratic side, and even though I never got a signed letter from Obama, I forgot about McCain’s letter, and only just remembered it this morning, too, and never supported him in any other way after that.  But I still thought he was classy.

So John McCain reminded me that the small gestures matter.  Rest in Peace, Senator, and thank you for your service.

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