On Aug. 25, Senator John Sidney McCain lost his battle with cancer. In his last book before his death, “The Restless Wave,” McCain quotes his hero, Robert Jordan, from his favorite novel — and one of mine — “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” says Robert in the novel’s closing passages.
Hemingway’s novel captures the story and tragedy of an American professor who travels to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic in the country’s civil war between Loyalists — the Republicans — and the monarchists and fascists. In the course of the novel, Robert must come face-to-face with all the cruelty, brutality and smallness that human beings are capable of. He must confront the brutal things he must do himself to build a better world — one worth fighting for indeed.
It is easy to see why Robert was a hero to McCain, just as McCain has become a hero to many Americans. However, others might say that he did more harm than good during the Vietnam War, with one of the missions he was a part of causing the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. While the atrocities he contributed to are certainly unjustifiable, he committed them in the fight for democracy. Despite these criticisms, McCain was lauded as an American icon up until his passing.
The late senator was born into a world in which our enemies were clear and our moral responsibilities clearer. Yet his military career reached its zenith during a war that exposed some of our own hypocrisies, which muddied the waters of moral clarity. The most famous story told about McCain is of his time spent in a North Vietnamese prison, suffering torture and solitary confinement. When he was offered an early release, he refused because it violated the Army Code of Conduct, which stipulated that prisoners of war must be released in the order of their capture. He was punished, and remained in prison for five and a half years.
Whatever can be said of McCain, it cannot be said that he was selfish, or a coward, or that he was incapable of giving himself to a higher cause for the benefit of others. Regardless of his record, these are qualities that are both necessary and inspiring.
We make heroes of people not because we believe heroes exist but because we know they cannot, because this world is too imperfect for heroes. This world is frequently complicated; it is a moral enigma. And so when we find people with genuine qualities, like McCain, we should hold onto them not for them but for us, because without those heroes, the enigma is forever unsolvable. So, grasp these figures like the ledge above a chasm, and wish one of them farewell as they make a journey we must all eventually make.
McCain had dedicated himself to the cause of human liberty and the principle of political equality. To say that he did not, or would not, always live up to these is not to wave off these mistakes as unserious. Indeed, it is the opposite — these shortcomings are grave, and serious, and ultimately tragic, not because they are unique to McCain, but because they are universal. The choice for us is not, and never could be, between perfection and less than that. The choice is, and always had to be, between committing yourself to higher principles despite the world’s harshness, despite your own ethical shortcomings, mistakes and serious moral errors, or committing yourself to nothing at all. It is the essential component of being human — to see the world as it is, and to love it anyway; to see the world how it could be, and attempt to make it so; and to ultimately fail more often than you succeed, but hopefully leave it better when the bell tolls for you.
Aaron Bondar is a senior double-majoring in political science and economics.