So far, I've been unable to find any reference to McCain's story about a Vietnamese guard drawing the sign of the cross in the dirt before 1999 when the anecdote appears in Mark Salter's book, co-written with McCain, "Faith Of My Fathers." The first Nexis story dates only to 2000. There is one reference to a kind Vietnamese guard in McCain's own 1973 account of his years in captivity, an account whose style and content are often markedly at odds with the later book. Here's McCain's 1973 account:
I had the singular misfortune to get caught communicating four times in the month of May of 1969. They had a punishment room right across the courtyard from my cell, and I ended up spending a lot of time over there.
It was also in May, 1969, that they wanted me to writeas I remembera letter to U. S. pilots who were flying over North Vietnam asking them not to do it. I was being forced to stand up continuouslysometimes they'd make you stand up or sit on a stool for a long period of time. I'd stood up for a couple of days, with a respite only because one of the guards the only real human being that I ever met over there let me lie down for a couple of hours while he was on watch the middle of one night.
In the current (post-Salter) telling, a kind Vietnamese guard relaxed the ropes pushing McCain into a "stress-position" and later revealed himself to McCain as a Christian by the silent symbol in the dirt on Christmas Eve. None of these details was in the original. (Small aside: McCain was being subjected to sleep deprivation and stress-positions, techniques the Bush administration denies are torture and uses against prisoners in US custody.)
It is, of course, perfectly possible that there are two separate incidents concerning the same guard. But the moments would doubtless have seared themselves into McCain's consciousness at the time. So it's striking that the second, more dramatic, and even more poignant version would not have been recalled by McCain so much closer to the event in 1973. It is an event he now says he "will never forget". And yet he omitted it in 1973, out of 12,000 words he wrote about his experience.
Maybe the deeper truth of this story became muddled and embellished, as such stories do, over the years, by people with no intent to mislead. You can see why. Our memories are fallible (as McCain's has been on his prison years before). And it's hard to convey how awful "long-time standing" can be as a torture technique and so the mercy involved in the original incident was less anecdote-worthy. And maybe the notion of another human being simply humane was not compelling enough for a narrative as grand and world-heroic as "Faith Of My Fathers," with the emphasis on faith.
But it remains a fact that the original telling had no explicitly Christian content - and no cross in the dirt. It's about someone being human. Moreover, it's not as if McCain felt constrained in 1973 to say only bad things about the "gooks" who kept watch. In 1973, he singled out the guard whose humanity he remembered. And surely, surely, a Christian gesture in a Communist torture camp would have imprinted itself indelibly on McCain's consciousness. He was capable of using Christian imagery. In 1974, he told a story at a Prayer Breakfast hosted by Reagan of a cell in Hanoi where the beginning of the Creed had been etched in the stone wall. So it's just baffling that an overwhelming moment of Christian witness would be absent from his first telling of the story - and never surface for another twenty-five years.
Then this: I've also been unable to locate the actual alleged passage in the Gulag Archipelago that is referred to in Luke Veronis' "The Sign Of The Cross." (If anyone does, please let me know.) But a reader notes that the story of Solzhenitsen and the cross in the dirt was popularized by evangelical leader and former Watergate crook, Chuck Colson. The anecdote appears in Colson's 1983 book, "Loving God." Here's the relevant passage:
Like other prisoners, Solzhenitsen worked in the fields, his days a pattern of backbreaking labor and slow starvation. One day the hopelessness became too much to bear. Solzhenitsen felt no purpose in fighting on, his life would make no ultimate difference. Laying his shovel down, he walked slowly to a crude work-site bench. He knew at any moment a guard would order him up and, when he failed tro respond, bludgeon him to death, probably with his own shovel. He'd seen it happen many times.
As he sat waiting, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he lifted his eyes. Next to him sat an old man with a wrinkled, utterly expressionless face. Hunched over, the man drew a stick through the sand and Solzhenitsen's feet, deliberately tracing out the sign of the cross.
As Solzhenitsen started at that rough outline, his entire perspective shifted. He knew he was merely one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet in that moment, he also knew that the hope of all mankind was represented by that simple cross - and through its power, anything was possible. Solzhenitsen slowly got up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work - not know that his writings on truth and freedom would one day enflame the whole world.
This passage became popularized inn the 1970s by, among others, Jesse Helms, as the notes in "Loving God" explain:
"The story about Alexander Solzhenitsen and the old man who made the sign of the cross was first told by Solzhenitsyn to a group of Christian leaders and later recounted by Billy Graham in his New Year's telecast, 1977. It has been retold subsequently, most publicly by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC)."
Now here's the 1999 Mark Salter version of the McCain story:
After one difficult interrogation, I was left in the interrogation room for the night, tied in ropes. A gun guard, whom I had noticed before but had never spoken to, was working the night shift, 10:00 p.m. to 4 a.m. A short time after the interrogators had left me to ponder my bad attitude for the evening, this guard entered the room and silently, without looking at or smiling at me, loosened the ropes, and then he left me alone. A few minutes before his shift ended, he returned and tightened up the ropes...
One Christmas, a few months after the gun guard had inexplicably come to my assistance during my long night in the interrogation room, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw him approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me. Again, he didn't smile or look at me. He just stared at the ground in front of us. After a few moments had passed he rather nonchalantly used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. I saw my good Samaritan often after the Christmas when we venerated the cross together. But he never said a word to me nor gave the slightest signal that he acknowledged my humanity.
One detail has changed: McCain's first version has the guard making the sign with his feet, while the latest ad shows the sign being made with Solzhenitsen's stick. So the ad itself is closer in imagery to the Colson account than to Salter's. But the trope is exactly the same: the silent communication, the total stranger, the desolation, and the cross. And, of course, this has profound Christian symbolic reference. Every Christian will immediately associate the drawing in the dirt with a stick with Jesus and the woman caught in adultery: another moment of unexpected mercy.
One more thing: McCain's various stories only talk of one guard - "the only real human being that I ever met over there". And yet the guard who loosened his ropes in May 1969 could not have been present the following Christmas, as McCain had been transferred to another location (unless the transfer occurred between Christmas and New Year of 1969 and unless the guard was transferred to exactly the same camp at the same time).
I know I'm on a hiding to nothing on this. There is no way to know for sure what happened between two people in a prison camp in an incident to which no one else was a witness more than a quarter century ago. And it's perfectly possible that all of it is true, if muddled. But when a candidate tells a story that doesn't really add up with his previous accounts, and when he runs a campaign ad based on that story whose imagery is closer to someone else's account than his own, when a life changing moment is forgotten for a quarter of a century until a critical campaign when an appeal to conservative Christians was vital, the question is worth fleshing out - and I will gladly air any evidence that emerges in McCain's defense.
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