McCain’s war story is a fading memory in Vietnam

September 23, 2008

Part of Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, where Senator John McCain was held, is a museum. The rest was razed for a high-rise. (Justin Mott for The New York Times)

McCain’s war story is a fading memory in Vietnam

McCain’s war story is a fading memory in Vietnam
Sunday, September 21, 2008

HANOI: Senator John McCain’s wartime jailer thrust two fingers into the air as if he were on a campaign trail and shouted: “John McCain! My friend! Victory!”

It is a fiction he seems to revel in – the jailer who was actually the prisoner’s friend, who has watched his political career with paternal pride, and who is now hurt and offended when McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, says he was tortured by his captors.

Tran Trong Duyet, 75, was head of the guard unit at Hoa Lo prison – nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton – during McCain’s five-and-a-half-year imprisonment, which began after his bomber was shot down over the city in October 1967. Duyet presided over the neglect and torture of McCain, which was witnessed by his fellow prisoners and which left him with lasting injuries.

The experience has become a staple of McCain’s political biography, and it has given Duyet a place in a footnote of history, which he occupies with gusto.

For most Vietnamese, though, McCain’s story is an obscure artifact of a receding history. In a week of interviews around Hanoi, neither his imprisonment nor his presidential candidacy seemed to arouse much excitement.

Vietnam’s relations with the United States are on an even keel, and Vietnam has little at stake in the election.

While McCain wins points among some Vietnamese for having supported the normalization of relations with the United States in 1995, his story, for the most part, has taken on an aura of wartime kitsch in Vietnam, like the self-parodying propaganda posters that are now sold in galleries, or the “Good Morning Vietnam” T-shirts popular with tourists.

There is Duyet, the jailer with the vivid imagination. There is the nurse who treated McCain for a few minutes after he was shot down. And there is Mai Van On, the man credited with pulling McCain from the lake after he crashed, and who died two years ago.

There is the little chunk of the prison, preserved as a museum when the rest of the building was razed to make way for a high-rise, with its half-hearted and anachronistic wartime propaganda.

Duyet still seems at home here, and his memories are in harmony with the carefully chosen exhibits in the museum; he pointed proudly to a sweater and a paper fan as evidence of the comforts the prisoners enjoyed.

The walls are hung with photographs of prisoners playing sports and making Christmas dinner and of McCain lying on a cot being treated by a doctor.

“That’s me with the prisoners,” Duyet said, pointing to a group photograph. “And there we are shaking hands like friends when the prisoners were released.”

But his greatest pride is his account of his relationship with McCain.

“I used to meet with him in my office at the end of the day and debate with him,” Duyet said. “We debated quite fiercely, but there was never any personal prejudice between us. The debate was between two men in a manly style. But after that we were quite friendly. We didn’t take it personally.”

This is certainly not the way McCain remembers it, nor is it the way that witnesses and history have recorded it. In 2000, McCain called his captors “cruel and sadistic people” and declared, “I will hate them for as long as I live.”

McCain has visited Hanoi several times in recent years, and although he has returned to the prison, he has not met with Duyet to compare memories. “I’ll call right now my interrogator that tortured me and my friends a gook,” McCain said in 2000, using a particularly offensive term for Asians. “You can quote me.”

Soon after the prisoners were released in 1973, he described his torture in a long essay in U.S. News & World Report.

“They bounced me from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching,” he wrote. “After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes.”

He continued: “For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked.”

None of that is true, Duyet insisted. All fabrication. All political posturing by McCain. “Some Americans still carry a prejudice toward Vietnam,” he said. “So McCain has to say he was beaten to gain the votes of these people.”

At the edge of the lake in Hanoi where McCain parachuted from his crippled plane, there is a small concrete marker noting the event. It depicts a man on his knees with his arms in the air as if surrendering.

“I don’t know much about him,” said Do Van Sy, 78, who was exercising nearby in white shorts and a white tank top, carrying an umbrella in case of rain and a paper fan in case of sun. “You’ll have to ask the older men about that.”

Bo The An, 76, sitting on a bench nearby, knew quite a bit about McCain. “He was a pilot who bombed Vietnam, and he was our enemy,” he said. “But that was a long time ago. The important thing is what is in his mind today. I wish him good luck.”

In his 1973 account, McCain said that he broke his right leg and both arms when his plane crashed and that he was surrounded by an angry crowd, “all hollering and screaming and cursing and spitting and kicking at me.”

Once he was pulled from the crowd, a nurse named Nguyen Thi Thanh said, she bound his wounds and gave him a few sips of medicinal liquor.

In an interview, Thanh, now 81, said she had followed his career since then, although with her fading eyesight he is just a fuzzy image now on television.

“It seems he’s been running for president for a long time,” she said. “So he’s quite persistent, isn’t he?”

She is confident that whatever happens, he will not give up. “I’m only 81 now. My mother lived till 94. That’s 13 more years. So each time he runs for the presidency, I’ll have a chance to see him again.”

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