For Whom the Bell Tolls

John McCain at 81 years is dead. And what a life he led, although in important respects it didn’t work out, as he would have liked.

For one, for almost from the time he left the US Naval Academy in 1958 he tied himself irredeemably to unnecessary and subsequently failed wars, wars that may have been well fought but were terribly wrongly conceived.

For two, the heroism of his father’s war, that he so longed to be a part of, had no place in Hanoi where he was imprisoned for five long years. Nor, and for three, was there any real greatness to be had in the wars against the peoples of the Middle East, wars that McCain continued to wage if only as a U S Senator. And finally and for last  there were the  presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008, won by George Bush and Barack Obama, who would one after the other eulogize the Senator in Washington’s National Cathedral on September 1, the two campaigns both ending in failure. McCain remained in the Senate, a frustrated and conflicted man, until his death on August 25 of this year.

McCain wasn’t the country’s hero that he would have liked to have been. But he was a good man, and in some respects a great man (“let them go before me”) and throughout his life, especially remarkable in the age of Trump, he was honest and given to straight talking.

I want to have something good to remember him by. And I found a lot, of this, a lot of good things to remember him by, in a brief, but excellent “vita” of McCain written by George Blaustein  for N+1 magazine. What follows here  are the first couple of pages from Blaustein’s Vita,  My Fellow Prisoners.

My Fellow Prisoners

On John McCain

THERE IS a right way to swear, a right way to spit, a right way to roll a cigarette on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a right way to drink wine on the retreat from the Battle of Caporetto, a right way to get gored by a bull, a right way to dismantle a welfare program, a right way to blow up a bridge, a right way to taunt your captors, a right way to catch a bonefish, a right way to lead, a right way to serve, and finally there is a right way to die.

The right way is the heroic way and the manly way, which happens also to be the moral or ethical way, which happens in turn to be the picturesque way. You will sometimes fail to follow the right way, in which case there is a right way to grimace and a right way to atone.

“MOST CURRENT FICTION bores the shit out of me,” said John McCain in 2007, surprising no one. He always gravitated to the lost generation, Ernest Hemingway above all. If we are to believe McCain’s account, when he was 12 (this would be 1948) he found two four-leaf clovers in the yard and ran inside to preserve them in the pages of a book. From his father’s shelves he happened to grab For Whom the Bell TollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and his eyes lighted upon this:

“What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.

“Shoot thee,” said Pablo.

“When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.

“Now,” said Pablo.

“Where?” asked the man.

“Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. Have you anything to say?”

“Nada,” said the civil. “Nothing but it is an ugly thing.”

This is the scene in which Pablo, leader of a band of Republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, kills four policemen and has the town’s fascists flailed to death.

The mature McCain who relates this anecdote admires Hemingway’s “austere glare at the savagery that war can coax from even good-natured people,” and notes that the scene “should disabuse the most immature reader of any romantic notions about the nature of organized bloodletting.” There is a wrong way to kill fascists. But young McCain was beguiled: Hemingway’s account of the Spanish Civil War “gave flight to a boy’s romantic notions of courage and love, of idealistic men and women ennobled by their selflessness and the misuse and betrayal they suffered for it.”

The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor of Spanish who has come to blow up a bridge for the Republican side. He falls in love with a girl named Maria. Despite Pablo’s treachery and the mission’s increasing risk and his own doubt that blowing up the bridge will really accomplish anything, he does his duty. Old McCain recounts his younger self’s breathless page-turning:

Hemingway, the rascal, allows the reader a brief moment of hope with a quick feint toward a happy ending as the hero nearly escapes his fate and rides to a better life with his new love. . . . I, still smug because I had penetrated the story’s early mysteries, fell for it and cheered silently.

But instead of a happy ending we get a picturesque death, which, young McCain realizes, is an even happier ending. Jordan is injured by an explosion, orders to safety the Spaniards he has come to love, drags himself to a tree, and waits there with a gun. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate to leave it very much,” he thinks as he dies. That line gave McCain the title for his second memoir—Worth the Fighting For—in which he fondly recounts this romantical reading. “How great it made me feel as I closed the book and charged on with my young life,” old McCain remembers, “aspiring to Jordan’s courage and nobility and certain I would possess it someday.”

It must be nice to have a favorite book, and to have it remain your favorite book your whole life. McCain reread For Whom the Bell Tolls many times, but the first impression of a 12-year-old looking for models of greatness and manly exertion—“how and why to be brave, how a real hero lives and dies”—remained the truest impression. No older, wiser reading could supplant it. To read Hemingway and fall for it, to enjoy falling for it, to think it is your destiny to fall for it—maybe this is how Great Men read books: like boys.


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