War heroes and great nations

It’s hard to say anything negative about Senator John McCain. Not because of his words or deeds; those are easy to condemn, and they have been for many years. But the thing is, you’re not allowed to condemn him.

John McCain is a war hero and a cancer patient. When you condemn a war hero, you condemn the nation he serves and the values he fought to defend. When you condemn a cancer patient, you condemn the sanctity of human life, which is the one thing we all have in common. Believe me when I tell you that out of respect for war and cancer, I’m choosing my words carefully.

Because John McCain checks both of these boxes, it’s tough to call him a gutless coward. It’s hard to point out that for years, he’s been the embodiment of an utter lack of conviction and compassion. It’s mean, quite frankly, to say that Washington’s saddest, most pathetic joke is the idea that John McCain is a maverick.

Even when he spits on the values he fought to defend, as he did today, John McCain is a war hero. Even when he turns a blind eye to the sanctity of human life, as he did today, John McCain is a cancer patient. Call him out if you like, but in the end, you’re the one who’s going to look like an asshole.

Now, I’ve never fought in a war. I’ve never had cancer. I don’t know what it’s like to be John McCain, and I count myself lucky not to have endured what he’s endured. And I credit a lot of my good fortune to the fact that I don’t live in John McCain’s America.

I may not know what it’s like to be John McCain. But with all due respect to war and cancer, I don’t think John McCain knows what it’s like to be an average American.

And in a way, I don’t blame him. I believe that John McCain thinks he’s genuinely different from the men and women in his party. I believe he thinks he’s braver, more honourable, and maybe even more American. I believe that there’s no greater casualty of the myth of “John McCain, war hero” than John McCain himself.

As a Canadian, I often feel like there are concepts that America will never understand. “Universal health care makes moral, ethical and economic sense” is a big one, as I’ve mentioned. “Stockpiling guns is a dumb, dangerous approach to keeping your family safe” is another. Plenty of individual Americans get it, but America as a nation just can’t figure it out.

Today, I realized that “war hero” is an American concept that I can’t wrap my Canadian head around. We’ve fought in our share of wars, and we honour our soldiers, but we don’t do it with the same fervour. We don’t tend to think of military service as a qualification for public office. And we sure don’t tend to excuse years of dismal performance in that office because of it.

In other words, to my knowledge, there’s no Canadian version of John McCain. There’s nobody on the Hill who gets that kind of pass, time and again, for saying one thing and doing another. The “war hero” card, in Canada, is not a card you can play. Not in the way America trips over itself to play on John McCain’s behalf, at least.

Americans who have done me the honour of reading this far might argue that this is what makes America great. They might say that America is at its best when it honours the sacrifices of a man like John McCain. In a weird way, I admire that perspective.

As a Canadian, I’d argue that America’s greatness is a myth without the action and conviction to back it up. I would say it’s been tough to understand why America thinks it’s the greatest nation on Earth. And I would admit that it gets easier once you understand that John McCain is America’s idea of a hero.

In that sense, John McCain may well indeed be the quintessential American. Strong and courageous in his youth, admired among his peers, and doomed to be the last to believe his own press. Kept alive, in the end, by his own unparalleled privilege, to enjoy his final days as a living, breathing myth.

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