'I've Made My Peace with Vietnam'

updated 05/01/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sen. John McCain may be America's best-known prisoner of war. A Navy flier, he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and spent 5½ brutal years in North Vietnamese prison camps, much of the time in solitary confinement. His ordeal was recounted in his best-selling book Faith of My Fathers, written last year with his administrative assistant Mark Salter. In the book, McCain describes what happened—both good and bad—when the Vietnamese discovered his father was Adm. John S. McCain, commander in chief of U.S. Naval forces in the Pacific. Now 63, McCain and his second wife, Cindy, 46, live in Phoenix. He has seven children and four grandchildren. In the following article, written for PEOPLE, McCain tells how he has reconciled himself with his painful past.

For many years, I knew little about Vietnam. I knew the contours of its topography from aerial pictures or from the cockpit of my A-4.1 knew the sounds I heard of Vietnamese society outside the walls of my prison and the brief glimpses I managed from cracks in my cell door of the day-to-day operation of a Vietnamese prison. Yet Vietnam had a more profound influence on my life than my experience with any other country save my own, and the small, random observations I made during the war are almost irrelevant to my remembrance of it. They add just a little color to my memories of the place where I learned many of the most important lessons of life.

When the American prisoners were released in 1973, we were flown first to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. I have often maintained that I left Vietnam behind me when I arrived at Clark. That is an exaggeration. But from the moment I regained my freedom I was intent on not letting Vietnam, or at least the most difficult memories of my time there, intrude on my future happiness. Looking back in anger at any experience is self-destructive, and I am grateful to have avoided it.

When I was their prisoner, the Vietnamese routinely attempted to hurt our morale by boasting that Americans were deeply divided about the war. When I came home I was surprised to discover that their boasts, while exaggerated, were not just propaganda. Americans were divided, and many seemed to have lost faith in the belief that America was the greatest force for good on earth.

Years later, after I entered public life, I worked with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and other Vietnam veterans in Congress to help resolve issues that prevented normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Those issues included Vietnam's cooperation on MIAs, Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia, the continued imprisonment of former South Vietnamese military and political officials and their emigration to the United States. Our progress on these points ultimately encouraged President Clinton to restore normal diplomatic relations on July 11, 1995.

I was proud to play a small role in that effort, but it is important to recognize that normalization is not reconciliation. We may have made it easier for other Americans to put the war and the divisions it created behind them. We might have helped some Americans and some Vietnamese reconcile their lingering grievances. But no one can impose reconciliation between the peoples of two countries that fought such a bitter, bloody and protracted conflict. And certainly no veteran can do that on behalf of another. It is something each of us must achieve on our own.

I've made my peace with Vietnam and with the Vietnamese. There are Vietnamese whom I will never be able to forgive for their cruelty to us. Nor will I accept that Vietnam is a better place for America having lost the war. The Vietnamese people will someday be free, but they are not yet. And our opposition to a regime that denies its people basic human rights was and is honorable. But I choose to use the opportunities afforded by normal relations to help Vietnam find a better future than its hard, war-torn past.

For myself, I try hard to make good use of my memories of Vietnam, as do most vets, to reconcile myself to the past and to find the wisdom we all aspire to in our old age.

It is a surpassing irony that war, for all its horrors, provides the combatant with every conceivable human experience. Experiences that usually take a lifetime to know are all felt, and felt intensely, in one brief passage. As I wrote in my book, at one point my captors forced me to sign a false confession of war crimes. My resulting despair caused me the most painful moment of my life. And yet the reason I had been beaten into confessing, my refusal of a Vietnamese offer to let me go home before my fellow prisoners, remains a source of my self-respect today.

Even hatred of one's enemies is experienced with recognition of their humanity. I have written about how I was held in solitary confinement for two years. During much of that time, I had a guard who would enter my cell and order me to bow. When I refused, he would knock me to the ground. This ritual was repeated almost every morning for two years. I have never hated another human being more.

But as I also recount in my book, another guard helped show me the meaning of the religious faith I had casually professed all my life. One evening I had been tied in torture ropes and left alone in an empty room to suffer through the night. Sometime later this guard, whom I had never spoken to before, entered the room and silently loosened the ropes to alleviate my suffering. Just before morning, he returned and retightened the ropes before the other guards discovered his kindness. He never said a word to me, but some months later, on a Christmas morning, as I stood alone in the prison courtyard, the same good Samaritan walked up to me and stood next to me for a few moments. Then with his sandal he drew a cross in the dirt. Both prisoner and guard stood wordlessly there for a minute or two, venerating the cross, until the guard rubbed it out and walked away.

Such experiences are transforming. I had never felt more free, more my own man, than when I was just a small part of an organized resistance. I discovered then that nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.

I had misspent my youth, preferring a robust social life to the classroom and a successful Navy career. Even now I occasionally indulge in nostalgia for the ephemeral qualities of a happy childhood. But I learned in Vietnam that something better can endure. That is the honor we earn and the love we give if, at a moment in our lives, we sacrifice with others something greater than our self-interest. We can choose to let the moment pass. But the loss we would suffer is much dearer than the tribute we once paid to vanity and pleasure.

In 1985 I returned to Vietnam with Walter Cronkite on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. We visited the site where I had been captured, and returned to the prison where I had been held in solitary confinement, where I had served in the company of so many men who had suffered more than I had and shown greater courage than I could muster. I could not prevent my memories of the place, the good and the bad ones, from flooding my mind. But those memories, no less than the sights and sounds of the country that I had once fought, yielded a simple recognition: My life is blessed and always has been.

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