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Donald Trump's Remarks On John McCain Question Meaning Of 'War Hero'


Donald Trump might as well be dubbed the human can-opener given the population of worms he has set loose on the Republican primary field. Most recently, it was his taking issue with John McCain being called a war hero. The Arizona senator and GOP presidential candidate in 2008 was a POW and torture victim in Hanoi for five-and-a-half years during the Vietnam War. Trump's remark was widely denounced. The phrase war hero has more than one meaning, and we thought we'd check in on what those words have meant over time in American politics. David Greenberg teaches history and journalism at Rutgers and writes about history for Politico. Welcome to the program once again.

DAVID GREENBERG: Thank you - nice to be on.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the kind of war hero personified by our very first president, George Washington - pretty common meaning for war hero, wouldn't you say?

GREENBERG: Yeah, sure. This is the classic image of the war hero - the general, the victorious commander, the one who has both courage and vision to, you know, lead his country or his people to victory. And a lot of the great generals from Washington onward have fit that mold pretty well.

SIEGEL: Presidents in that mold would include Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower and a slew of 19th-century presidents as well.

GREENBERG: Yes, exactly. I mean, some of our 19th-century generals were brigadier generals who had kind of less luster than Grant or Washington, but certainly that was what got you promoted in politics. That's what gave you your public reputation.

SIEGEL: Then there's a different kind of war hero - not a commander, but a more junior officer, perhaps enlisted man or woman who does something extraordinary - John F. Kennedy and the PT boat experience or John Kerry running on his naval experience in Vietnam, also a war hero.

GREENBERG: Sure. You know, Kennedy certainly benefitted a lot and nourished that image from World War II. But by all accounts, the heroism was genuine. He risked his own life in order to help his comrades. That's the kind of heroism that also we have always easily recognized and honored.

SIEGEL: Kerry had trouble running as a war hero.

GREENBERG: Well, Kerry did I think for two reasons. One was that when he came back from Vietnam, of course, he became a leading voice against the war. And this, to many people, suggested a lack of the patriotism that he had shown earlier. But even if you think that's unfair - and I do - it nonetheless came as a surprise to people to learn that he had only been in Vietnam, been in combat for a few months and that he had built a whole campaign around that. So we do expect that our soldiers serve at considerable length or with considerable risk. And we don't like it to be seen as something that's just being done for political purposes.

SIEGEL: And we have the John McCain experience - being a POW for more than five years, being tortured by his North Vietnamese captors, a man who literally agonized for his country - an unusual description of the war hero?

GREENBERG: Well, certainly not the conventional one. But I think it's fair to say that we can go back in history and also find examples of people who were taken captive and for that reason are considered heroes. Nathan Hale was the first one that came to mind for me, who famously said he regretted he had but one life to give for his country. He was, of course, a spy for George Washington, going behind enemy lines and was apprehended and executed by the British in the Revolution. So that too has a longer lineage than we might suppose.

SIEGEL: And of course, many medals have been awarded posthumously to people who've died in combat - not been taken captive, but didn't survive the battle.

GREENBERG: Yes, that's exactly right. These are things we recognize as heroism. I think with the Vietnam War though, there is something of a change or a new understanding of heroism. And we have the celebration, if you will, of the POWs and MIAs, who it was assumed were abandoned by our leadership in the Vietnam War. Now, a lot of research has found these claims to be overstated, but it's had a power hold on our imagination because the Vietnam War was such a troubled war for us. And the MIA legends or myths came to embody, I think, a sense that it wasn't our soldiers who let us down. It was we who let them down.

SIEGEL: David Greenberg, thanks for talking with us about it.

GREENBERG: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: David Greenberg of Rutgers University is a history columnist as well for Politico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.