McCain makes subtle plea for return to an age of reason


Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at the Battle of Teruel, January 1938, during the Spanish Civil War.

Sen. John McCain has done something that reminds us of when this country was a bigger, better place.

In a piece he wrote for The New York Times on Thursday, McCain praised Delmer Berg, who died late last month in California at the age of 100. McCain praised Berg for having fought selflessly as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and 1938.


Ed Kemmick

He praised him even though Berg was, as the Times said in his obituary, a Communist when he joined the fight and an “unreconstructed Communist” when he died a centenarian.

The way McCain tells it, he has admired the Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade since the age of 12, when he read Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The hero of that book, as McCain noted, was Robert Jordan, a Midwesterner* (not a Midwesterner; see note below) who eventually sees the fight as futile and realizes that the leaders of the opposition to Gen. Francisco Franco’s Nationalists were being manipulated by the Soviet Union.

But Jordan chooses to die anyway, McCain wrote, “to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for.” McCain sees the same matter-of-fact heroism in Berg, who was wounded but survived the war and continued to fight for progressive causes for the rest of his long life.

I have never read “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” but one of my own heroes is George Orwell, who wrote “Homage to Catalonia,” a nonfiction account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

Orwell had gone to Spain as a journalist but joined a Republican militia fighting the Nationalists. Orwell came to a much deeper understanding of politics in Spain, seeing up close the true face of totalitarianism, of both the Right and the Left. He was already one of the best English-language writers in the world, but it was his Spanish experiences that would ultimately give birth to “Animal Farm” and “1984,” his two most famous works.

Spain pushed Orwell away from Communism, but he remained a Democratic Socialist the rest of his life. Democratic Socialist? Hmm. Where have we heard that term lately? Oh, yeah. Bernie Sanders.

We are entering some strange depths here. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate who suffered five years of torture at the hands of North Vietnamese Communists in the Hanoi Hilton, praising an unreconstructed Communist who actually bore arms in the Communist cause?

And George Orwell, whose seminal works painted a picture of life in a totalitarian society like the Soviet Union, remaining a Democratic Socialist anyway? What gives?

What gives is that in the real world, the one populated by thinking adults, there are such things as nuances and subtleties, even paradoxes. This is not the world in which everyone falls into an either-or category like Christian or Muslim, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, right or wrong.

I can’t believe McCain would have noted the death of Delmer Berg the way he did if Berg’s death had not occurred in the middle of this fever-dream of a presidential primary that we find ourselves in. He also made a statement by having his reflections published in The New York Times, regarded by so many members of his party as the very temple of evil.

I suspect that McCain, without so much as mentioning the primary, was making the point that there are values and ideals that transcend political affiliation. And I suspect that his admiration for Berg had something to do with the fact that Berg, after Spain, carried pieces of shrapnel in his liver for the rest of his life.

McCain still bears his battle scars, too, however little they might mean to a someone like that real estate developer running for president, who does not deserve to be named in the company of men like McCain, Berg or Orwell.

Orwell was wounded in Spain, too, very nearly mortally, and his dispassionate account of the incident is one of the monuments of war reporting. So is his description of how he felt during the few minutes in which he assumed he was going to die.

“My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife,” Orwell wrote. “My second was violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. … I thought, too, of the man who had shot me—wondered what he was like, whether he was a Spaniard or foreigner, whether he knew he had got me, and so forth. I could not feel any resentment against him. I reflected that as he was a Fascist I would have killed him if I could, but that if he had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would merely have congratulated him on his good shooting.”

That kind of magnanimity may sound superhuman, but it reflects just the sort of man Orwell always proved himself to be.

McCain’s eulogy on Delmer Berg may not be quite so heroic, but in this era of toxic partisanship and unmasked hatred, it is almost as rare.

*Editor’s note: John Clayton, a writer who lives in Red Lodge, pointed out on the Last Best News Facebook page that, “Despite what John McCain says, Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ is not a Midwesterner. He’s a native of Red Lodge, Montana, who takes leave from his professorship at the University in Missoula to go to Spain.” Thanks. John.

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