10/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain And My Captive Cadets

Last Thursday night John McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president by offering a detailed account of his experiences as a prisoner of war. Please don't think me dismissive in saying that I have heard some version of that speech at least a dozen times before.

Of course, many speakers in St. Paul told John McCain's story, turning his resilience in the Hanoi Hilton into the defining narrative of today's GOP. And the candidate himself habitually invokes this story when caught in a political tough spot. But ten years ago I was inundated with speeches that addressed the Republican national convention. Many of them recounted POW experiences that were comparable to Senator McCain's.

From 1995-1999, I taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy. One of the few civilians in the English department, I taught a required upper-level course on writing and public speaking. The final assignment was a ten-minute speech in which, projecting themselves some twenty years into the future, cadets announced their retirement after a successful career in the Air Force. It was a terrific assignment, designed by a lieutenant colonel who had graduated from the Academy, served as an Air Battle Manager in the First Gulf War, and then earned his PhD in American literature. Across multiple sections, these senior-level cadets envisioned who they wanted to be, and what they hoped to accomplish, by the end of their military careers.

I cannot speak to what happened in my colleagues' classrooms, but in mine, the pattern was clear. While a few cadets saw themselves transitioning from the service to jobs in banking, teaching, medicine, or the ministry, an overwhelming majority "retired" from the Air Force to accept the Republican nomination for president. From semester to semester, the speeches described stunning acts of heroism and bravery. My cadets would fight air battles over Baghdad, Sarajevo, and Moscow. They would fly stealth bombers over Cairo and Beijing. A handful of wags recounted their triumphs over Martian invaders or recalled how they had pacified a belligerent galaxy. Then the battles would end, and one by one, the cadets would return home to greet their supporters at the RNC.

I was charmed by the confidence and brio of these speeches. The sky did not limit these young men and women; it was the site of promise and possibility.

And yet, for many of my students, the central moment of their imagined military life was being a prisoner of war. In remarkably graphic detail, they described how they had resisted torture and beatings. At twenty, twenty-one years of age, they saw themselves surviving years inside enemy prisons and they spoke freely about what they discovered through their suffering. In the lives they imagined, captivity transformed anonymous soldiers into military celebrities. It was as if POWs possessed a special currency that allowed them to exchange life as a retired officer for life as a presidential candidate.

My cadets had absorbed the lessons of John McCain.

Americans have a long history of valorizing the experience of prisoners of war. Dozens of captivity narratives were rushed into print during the American Revolution, encouraging colonists to identify with the heroic men and women who had been captured by the Indians. Perhaps because pilots are so vulnerable, the Air Force Academy had a particularly keen interest in POW narratives. The Academy had named a dormitory after Lance Sijan, an Academy graduate who had died in a Vietnamese prison camp in 1968. Sijan's resistance was legendary. The football coach praised his tenacity and his refusal to give in. The art gallery featured a show of oil paintings that contemplated different moments in Sijan's internment. Each canvas possessed the gravity of a station of the cross, the clean-shaven pilot dumped in his cell wounded but never broken.

Though he was an Annapolis graduate and had flown for the Navy, McCain's story was like scripture to the officers and cadets at the Air Force Academy, and there was genuine excitement after he announced his presidential exploratory committee in 1998. McCain's reputation was inseparable from an experience that my cadets worshipped, feared, and sometimes craved.

As the senator delivered his acceptance speech, I wondered how long he had dreamed about the moment and whether it had haunted him for many years. My mind drifted back to those uniformed cadets, brimming with bravado and their romantic visions of the world. How sad, I thought, how terribly tragic, that the presidency seemed attainable to them only after torture and imprisonment. Captivity marked the threshold between service and publicity.

Teaching at the Air Force Academy gave me profound respect for men such as Lance Sijan and John McCain, but it also made me suspicious about the way nations can use such stories to justify aggression and dampen political debate. Jessica Lynch was the face of the Iraq War until we discovered that the Pentagon had faked the details of her captivity and rescue. And somewhere in the Anbar Province, stories circulate about Abu Ghraib.

The experience of being a POW may - or may not - make one a better commander-in-chief. But as my cadets supposed a decade ago, it is awfully useful in framing a political campaign.