Much of McCain's chauvinistic bluster might indeed be explained by guilt over his long ago confession to the North Vietnamese, a failing for which he might be making atonement through doubling down to demonstrate his unwavering support of the military. And there is also a darker side to him, possibly fed by guilt, evident in his frequently observed volcanic temper, which has sometimes been directed against families of former prisoners who have raised the POW issue. It has been plausibly described as the side of a man who is not at peace with himself.
So who is the real John McCain? A credible case has been made that McCain may have crossed the line and collaborated extensively while a prisoner in North Vietnam. His subsequent actions to block any inquiry into the status of possible POWs have also been examined in some detail and quite reasonably questioned. Many journalists and former government officials have long been aware of McCain's possible misrepresentation of his deportment in Hanoi even if the story has not exactly made the front pages. The Pentagon reportedly has recordings of McCain's radio broadcasts, which could be released if the Senator allows the Department of Defense to do so. And there would also been an intensive intelligence debriefing after the return to the United States, an unredacted version of which has never been produced.
If the recordings were truly limited to an under-duress script fabricated to satisfy McCain's tormentors, as he states in his book, they would only have reinforced the image of war hero, so it raises the question of why that was not done in 2008 or when McCain made his first run for the presidency in 2000. The president of the United States has his finger on the nuclear trigger, surely making his mental state and possible betrayal of his comrades while in military service legitimate lines of inquiry. The documents relating to McCain in the Pentagon archives would reveal one way or the other at least some of the truth about the man.
There are a number of possible reasons for the unwillingness within the media and among the public to seek the truth about John McCain, also noted most recently in the broader reluctance to confront the legacy of the war against Iraq on the 10th anniversary of the invasion. No one likes to reopen old wounds, particularly since both Vietnam and Iraq were wars fought on lies and both are now widely viewed as major policy disasters. And in post-9/11 America, government secrecy has created a situation in which information can easily be managed to both protect and benefit those in the White House and in Congress while embedded journalists increasingly become part of the story as they integrate seamlessly with policy makers.
This groupthink is largely driven by the intangible beltway consensus about the underlying American myth of "we are the good guys" that the public is inclined to support in an age when the country is falsely and deliberately perceived as drowning in a sea of terrorists and ungrateful foreigners. Confidence in America's public institutions can be criticized but must not be seriously damaged so there is a well understood line that must not be crossed.
If one were to read about a war hero Senator who turns out to be considerably less than that and who did his best to block the return of American prisoners it would undermine confidence in government and just might call into question the legitimacy of America's wars since 1945. But it is perhaps not too late to take another look at McCain and the post-Vietnam POW issue while many veterans of that conflict are still alive. It might also help to discredit the Senate's leading warmonger. Either way, it would be a reckoning that is long since overdue.