One of the unsung virtues of the U.S. Constitution is that nowhere does it prohibit Americans from making jackasses of themselves. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Donald Trump, jackass extraordinaire.
Speaking last week to the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa (what were these people thinking?), Trump went even more rogue than usual. Piqued at Sen. John McCain, who spent five and a half years in North Vietnam’s “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war, Trump allowed that McCain was a hero only because he had been captured.
Since it’s not Trump’s nature to hold anything back, he poured salt on the wound, quipping “I like people who weren’t captured.”
This from a man who engineered five deferments to keep him out of the army during the Vietnam War. Now that’s chutzpa with Texas Pete to wash it down.
I doubt there has ever been a time when an aspiring presidential candidate disparaged a man who served his country with great honor as crudely as Trump did in his motor-mouth attack on McCain.
Trump’s foul-tempered comments were a gross insult to anyone who has worn the uniform, who did his duty to his country, and who came away with a lasting measure of quiet pride in having done so.
I am by no means the only Vietnam vet in Durham County who was offended by Trump’s brain-dead rudeness. McCain, who has a fiery personality of his own, graciously said he didn’t expect an apology from Trump.
That was forgiveness of a high order. I’m not sure I can do the same, coming from a Southern family with deep roots in the military.
Indeed, you would need ear protection if my cousin Louis H. Wilson, who won the Medal of Honor in World War 11 and went on to become commandant of the Marine Corps, were alive to hear what Trump said.
Knowing next to nothing about the military, Trump can’t understand the band-of-brothers culture that sustained McCain before and after his North Vietnamese captors offered to release him as a gesture of “good will.”
Though badly injured after ejecting from his Navy jet over Hanoi and tortured so severely that he can’t raise his arms above his head, McCain wouldn’t take the bait. Of course, he knew what the penalty for refusal would be – more of the same.
Trump’s attack on McCain’s honor reminded me of another unbreakable Vietnam POW, the late Col. Benjamin Purcell of Clarksville, Ga. I interviewed him in 1988 for a book I was writing for Duke University Press.
Purcell was 40 when he and several other soldiers were captured by the North Vietnamese in 1968, shortly after their helicopter was shot down. Purcell endured hardships almost beyond endurance on a march into North Vietnam. His captors summarily shot and killed one of Purcell’s party, a young soldier who couldn’t keep up.
For the next five years, Purcell made himself a nuisance to his captors. They responded accordingly.
He used a Morse-like code developed by POWs to communicate with other prisoners. He studied the prison routine, always looking for flaws to exploit – and he found them.
All the while, Purcell’s wife Anne did not know if he was dead or alive. He relied on strong religious faith and devotion to duty to carry him through solitary confinement, knowing that waiting at home was Anne and all that they valued.
It was Purcell’s duty to escape, if feasible. And it was feasible – he went on the lam twice, to the searing embarrassment of North Vietnamese officers running the prison camp.
Purcell’s bids for freedom lasted only a few hours. He had hoped to reach the French embassy in Hanoi or commandeer a small boat and make for American ships offshore – a near-impossible task for a Westerner, no matter how cleverly disguised.
Purcell was the ranking officer among POWs when they were freed in 1973. He retired in 1980 to grow Christmas trees in North Georgia and died in 2013.
To me, Purcell and McCain are the very definition of heroism. Not for being captured, but what they did in captivity – aye, there’s the difference, Mr. Trump.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.