If you know anything about Senator John McCain, it is that his character saved his life; an American hero. Many POW’s died during the five and a half years that he spent in an unspeakable North Vietnamese POW prison at the height of the Vietnam War. The question that begs an answer is: Just how did he survive the extreme amount of torture, the rules of non-communication between prisoners, and the deaths of many of his fellow POWs?
The answer is in his new book, Character is Destiny:
Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember (co-authored by Mark Salter, published by Random House):
“For those of us held as prisoners of war, we needed more than hate to survive. We needed faith. Faith, first and foremost, in one another. We had faith that no matter how bad things got we could rely on the support and encouragement of our comrades to help get us through…for guidance, for comfort when we were hurt and humiliated, for encouragement when our captors forced us to do something we had struggled not to.”
Character is Destiny is a well-researched, well-written book of stories about extraordinary people or people who endured extraordinary things because of their positive, strong character traits, according to McCain. Yet, he is quick to make the point that destiny is not waiting for something to happen to you, it is choosing to be the kind of person that you want to be, one with good character.
The stories are grouped into seven parts: Honor, Purpose, Strength, Understanding, Judgment, Creativity, and Love. Within each part, are examples of people exhibiting a value within each broader topic. As you might expect, Mother Theresa is paired with “selflessness and contentment,” within the section,” Love.” George Washington, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, and Nelsen Mandela are among the stories of more famous people.
What is most interesting are the stories of people not as famous, that many of us may not read before, such as that of Romeo Dallaire, the commander of a peacekeeping force assigned to Rwanda during the 100 days of genocide when 800,000 Rwandans were murdered. His is a sad story of fighting for right when the world would not listen and staying on to keep trying. McCain includes this story as one of righteousness, in the most positive sense of the word.
The purpose in offering these stories to young people is a wish that these examples of heroes will inspire youth to make good choices in developing their own character. Will the book achieve this purpose?
In the first story, Thomas More refused to sign an oath required by King VIII and was beheaded. In the third, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Pat Tillman gave up an NFL career to fight in post 9/11 Afghanistan, where he died. Lord Nelson died in battle but just before declared, “Thank God I have done my duty.”
Edith Cavell surely exhibited great courage in running an underground railroad for British soldier in German occupied Belgium during WWI-she was tied to a stake and shot. Even Dallaire, who was not killed, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his experience in Rwanda, drank too much, and was found unconscious under a park bench at one point.
There are stories with positive endings, such as Coach John Wooden who taught hundreds of boys over the years not only to be better basketball players, but to be better people. He is still alive and well at age 96. There are more stories of heroes who didn’t suffer and die as a result of their heroism, yet there are many more stories of those who did.
While Character is Destiny is certainly a humbling book and makes us aware of the great sacrifices that have been made for noble, moral causes, it leaves me with questions about whether this book achieves it purpose. Will young people be inspired to make choices to create good character when many of the examples presented to them are those of great suffering, torture, and death? If not, what are other ways we can inspire kids to become heroes?
Finally, is this a book in which we should consider the author and his point of view? John McCain may not want to admit that he is extraordinary, but I believe that enduring and surviving as a North Vietnamese POW takes a strength that many of us only find in our dreams. While studies have shown a preponderance of PTSD and self-medication through alcohol and drugs upon returning from the Vietnam War, McCain pulls himself out of hell to continue in public service, at a time when Vietnam Vets were reviled not honored, as they should have been.
McCain’s experiences show a strength of character that no doubt serves him well in public service, but does he hold everyone to a higher standard because of these experiences and the higher level of character he needed to stay alive? Do young people have to risk life and limb to choose a positive character or is McCain showing in this book that character can only be built by risking safety and life?
I’m sure that was not his intention, but is it what readers will take away from Character is Destiny? I leave it up to each of us to decide for ourselves. Oh, and by the way, this is a non-partison book with no mention of Democrats or Republicans-don’t let political affiliation keep you from the book.