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This post is a week overdue, and in our weird funhouse media environment, that might as well be eternity (I suppose I should really be writing about Burt Reynold’s death now…and maybe in a way I am). Yet the larger ramifications of this eulogy are bigger than just one moment, and since none of our leaders said quite the right thing, we have to piece meaning together on our own as the wreaths wither and the pomp dissipates.

Like a lot of American, I have been thinking about John McCain’s funeral and the legacy of one of the most eminent national leaders of our era.  My feelings about McCain’ politics are complicated and are undergoing revision (indeed, my feelings about America’s “great era” during the second half of the twentieth century are likewise complex and undergoing change).

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But this post isn’t about politics as such. As is traditional for a funeral piece, it is about larger issues of character and value.

During the horrible 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously cast aspersions on John McCain by saying “He’s not a war hero…He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” The implication was that McCain was some sort of loser–one of the ultimate insults in Trump’s big book of putdowns (which the swindler apparently has held onto since primary school).  I stand against Trump and the dangerous poisons he has injected wholesale into our political system, yet his imputations against McCain are worth examining…for McCain’s life was indeed deeply shaped by loss.

McCain was born into the shiny luster of deep brass: his father and his grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy and it was always clear his life too would follow a path of naval service and leadership.  But that path often veered into strange and horrible territory of loss and failure, to wit:

He lost his freedom during a disastrous war which we lost.

He lost years of his life to torture, deprivation, and cruel mind games.

He lost the Republican primary in 2000 (possibly due to dirty tricks) and he lost the presidency itself in 2008.

He lost his political party to Trumpism (although whenever Trump’s runaway train finally blows up, whatever Republicans are left, if any, will cravenly say that they always were always McCain style mavericks who were never fully with the Donald).

He lost a battle with cancer and he lost his life.

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Yet McCain’s life was not defined by these losses.  He kept stepping around them and he kept on swinging to the end.  McCain never gave up.  He kept on trying even despite mistakes, setbacks, or naked misfortune.  If we told young John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton that he would survive and become a wild success–titanically rich, internationally known, and one of the great legislators of his day—he might have doubted us, but, clearly, he kept grasping forward despite pain and despair.  The Navy’s (seldom used) motto is “Semper Fortis” which can be alternately translated as “Always Courageous” or “Always Powerful”.  These different interpretations can have different…or even opposite meanings, but McCain tended to prefer the former even when it was at the expense of the latter.

One of the most pernicious forces in life is loss aversion which Wikipedia defines as the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.”  Loss aversion makes people value things incorrectly. The fear of losing one’s crummy medical care makes one avoid taking steps which would provide better medical coverage.  The fear of losing one’s dead-end job makes it hard to conceive us the endless possibilities for meaning and success. The fear of losing national prestige leads us down a paranoid and brutish path which self-evidently forfeits moral leadership.

Undue fear of loss is undue FEAR, or, to be blunt: people who are excessively afraid of losing things become cowards, and cowards do stupid, crazy things.

We have all lost things in life…things which haunt us. Lately we have lost things as a nation too.  Most disastrously we have lost our ability to stand up for honor and fairness even if it hurts us in the short term.  If we let this haunting fear creep into our hearts we will lose more things: our hard-won social gains, the great scientific discoveries of tomorrow, international prestige and the inestimable (albeit imperfect) boon of Pax Americana.  We could even lose our democracy, and end up with a thing that is called a republic but which is not truly a government representative of the people’s wishes.

John McCain is gone. We have lost him (and I suspect even his detractors and opponents are already starting to feel that loss), but we can honor him in the way that he would appreciate best.  We can learn from our losses and then put them behind us without letting them change who we really are or make us afraid to do what is right. That would be a true legacy, towering above a name on some building or highway.  America claims to be the Home of the Brave.  In his best moments, John McCain was indisputably brave. Let us all partake of this inheritance and try to be braver.

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Verdun

A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.

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The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).

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The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.

As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.

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Spent shell casings at Verdun

I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.

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What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.

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Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.

During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged.  Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition”  A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”

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The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)

And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.

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