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I miss the old Veterans Days

I surely do miss the old Veterans Days. The pre-2016 ones. Back in the day when Americans agreed on what a hero is. Back when, say, a man who flew 23 missions over enemy territory and was shot down, captured, clubbed, bayoneted, denied medical care, horribly tortured to exact a phony confession, and when his captors discovered that he was the son of a top U.S. Navy admiral turned down an offer to be released unless all the other prisoners who had been there longer were also released, would, I think, be called a hero. By everyone. The good old Veterans Days.

But in July of 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump said that such a veteran, Sen. John McCain, was, well, “He’s not a war hero. … He’s a war hero because he was captured. … I like people who weren’t captured.” (YouTube “Trump McCain no hero.”)

This caused a stir, as you may remember. It was often pointed out that Trump himself not only evaded capture by the North Vietnamese but also evaded capture by the United States Selective Service, thanks to four years of educational deferments followed by permanent medical disqualification. Bone spurs, Trump’s family doctor attested.

Many speculated that this, finally, might it be the end of Trump’s already controversial campaign. Much to the surprise, shock and other emotions of those of us who believed this, it caused scarcely a ripple in the polls. I wondered then, and do still, what would have been the public reaction had Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or any public figure made a similar statement regarding prisoners of war.

We all know how things actually went from there.

Apparently, millions of Americans found Trump’s dissing of McCain’s service and (alleged) courage to be of little or no consequence. Possibly in the category of, “I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much, but …” that you often hear from them. Just blowing off steam. No biggie.

Not like, say, kneeling during the national anthem.

Then there were others who took it even farther, saying that McCain was no hero at all. Their reasons seemed to be that, well, Trump said it, so it must be true. Trump’s True Believers. I debated this subject with several Facebook friends. When I listed the facts about what happened to McCain, one loyalist texted back, “Well, he wasn’t that much of a hero.”

There is a further implication about, “I like people who weren’t captured,” that I have never seen discussed anywhere. What does it say about other Americans who became POWs in America’s wars? I think it’s obvious. Our now-commander-in-chief, who has never apologized for the statement, must believe that among the 590 other Vietnam War POWs who were imprisoned with McCain, there were no heroes. They didn’t get away. Likewise the 55 American pilots and others who died in Vietnamese captivity. No heroes there. And let’s not forget the roughly 20,000 Americans captured during the Revolutionary War, about 8,500 of whom died in the horror of British prison hulks. They definitely failed to get away. Or the 5,000 or so from the War of 1812, or the 194,000 U.S. troops captured during the Civil War, of whom about 30,000 died in Andersonville prison or similar hellholes. Only about 4,200 Americans didn’t get away from the Germans during World War I, and only 147 are listed as having died in captivity. Likewise, of the 94,000 Americans captured by the Germans in World War II, fewer than 2,000 died in captivity. Things were horribly worse for the 30,000 Americans captured by the Japanese. You may remember learning about what some have called the “heroic” stand of a few hundred Marines on Wake Island, none of whom managed to get away. Or of the Bataan Death March. About 12,000 American POWs died in Japanese captivity during the war. Seven thousand Americans were captured during Korea, and their ordeals at the hands of the fathers of Mr. Trump’s North Korean and Chinese friends have been well-documented. Twenty-seven hundred died there as POWs (nps.gov/NationalPOW Museum).

Of course the more than 1.1 million Americans killed in our wars certainly didn’t get away.

I guess the wounded, often horribly maimed, burned, disfigured or broken (sometimes to suicide by post-traumatic stress disorder) got away? Do they cut it as heroes at least, President Trump? I mean, did they really get away?

I don’t think Donald Trump was lying when he said John McCain was not a hero. I actually don’t think Trump actually lies at all, since to “lie” means to know what the truth is. I think Mr. Trump has some kind of condition that causes him to believe that anything he wants to believe at a particular moment is true, and doesn’t get what the rest of us call “truth.” He has gotten himself into trouble too many times for it to be otherwise.

I think it is a terrible thing to disrespect the honorable military service of any American. During the Vietnam War the few protesters who did this won no friends for their movement. In those days, and until Mr. Trump’s comment in 2016, comments like that would have been unheard of. It would have been professional suicide for any public figure to have made it. Mr. Trump has brought us a long way, if not a good way, from those days.

The motto of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (founded in 1967 in still in existence) is, “Honor the Warrior, Not the War.” The United States has a long and distinguished military tradition. It sad to see it sullied, again, on this Veterans Day.

I so miss the old Veterans’ Days.

Phil Newton lives in Saranac Lake and is a retired public school history and social studies teacher. He served in the U.S. Air Force Security Police in Vietnam in 1967-68 and the Army National Guard from 1983 to 2000.