Reporting McCain from Vietnam (not) by mattsteinglass
September 6, 2008, 12:39 am
Filed under: President, Vietnam

Every member of the press I know here agrees: it’s almost impossible to write a story about John McCain’s time in Hanoi, from Hanoi. This is for several reasons. First, anyone who had actual contact with McCain during his time as a POW will be the kind of person who won’t tell you anything the government doesn’t want you to hear. They’re aging people retired from government-related jobs, with Communist Party ties. Since the government and Party want them to say approving things about McCain (who has been good for Vietnam in the past 15 years), but also don’t want to piss off Obama in case he gets elected, and since the government is also unwilling to admit that Vietnam ever tortured McCain or any other POWs, but doesn’t want to flat-out call McCain a liar (which would be ridiculously unconvincing in any case, since the testimony of POWs that they were tortured is voluminous), most of these old folks simply prefer not to say anything. The exceptions are people like the former Hanoi Hilton commandant, Col. Duyet, who pretends that McCain and he were buddies and says he’d vote for him, while constantly contradicting everything McCain has said or written about his time there (we never put anyone in solitary confinement, we never beat anyone, there were never protests over Christian worship, and so on and so forth). You can’t really do very much with such  unreliable testimony.

Second, the scraps of information you do sometimes get and which appear to bear on some aspect of the story are too fragmentary, and the American political environment is so super-charged that it’s impossible to simply publish these scraps out of context. People will ask: what are you trying to get at? What are you trying to imply? I think it would be interesting, for example, to talk a little bit about what it felt like to be living in Hanoi during the raids carried out by John McCain and other naval pilots in the summer and fall of 1967. It seems like a relevant part of the story to me, and one nobody has really explored. And, in fact, I’ve been going in and talking recently to a woman whose house was blown up, with her inside it, during the raid on which John McCain was shot down. Her house was near the target he was trying to hit, so it’s theoretically possible he actually is the guy who bombed it, though obviously there’s no way you can possibly determine something like that and I suppose the chances are pretty small — a lot of planes were trying to hit that target that day. But I find it really fascinating to imagine this woman, eight months pregnant at the time, buried under the rubble of her house at the same moment John McCain was parachuting out of the sky towards Truc Bach Lake, a few hundred yards away. It’s just an odd sense of historical connection, I guess. But what would be the point of a piece like that? What would you be trying to say?

I’m still thinking of doing that piece, just as a sort of snapshot of a moment in history. But I haven’t figured out how to do it. You just have to be unbelievably careful in how you write these things. Anyway, for these reasons and others, we’re seeing almost no reporting out of Hanoi on John McCain’s POW story. It’s just too hard to do.


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