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Peikoff on POWs

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I was catching up on my collection on Peikoff podcasts when I heard this (from episode 41):

The question is:

McCain is thought of by many to be a hero because he refused the offer to be let go from his vietnamese captors on the grounds that he would be leaving others behind and didn't want special treatment for being the son of an admiral. This did not do anything to help his fellow soldiers. It seems to me that the rational and heroic thing to do would be to get out of prison and go back to America and demand the government do everything possible to free the P.O.W.s. Was he being stupid and self-sacrificial.

Peikoff says:

Yes. I agree with this questioner completely. It amounts to applying egalitarianism to the victims of the concentration camps. One shouldn't escape even if he does because his mother-in-law has pull, they should all escape equally. I wouldn't say that it therefore shows that McCain is stupid. I think it was a mistake but let us suppose he was sincere and he honestly believed this was an essential to morale or this was just. You'd have to say, if so, he was certainly courageous and had integrity. He lived up to it. But as an action I think it's entirely misplaced, mistaken and in fact self-sacrificial.

I say the questioner has got the grounds for not leaving wrong, it wasn't McCain's personal quirks at issue here. Unlike the victims of concentration camps, captured military personnel are still in the military and subject to its standards of conduct while captive. There is a de facto chain of command based upon the most senior office present even in a prisoner of war camp. Offering preferential treatment directly to the prisoners is a means for the enemy to attack that chain of command and set the prisoners against each other as they vie for favors. Egalitarianism has nothing to do with it. It was not self-sacrificial for McCain to keep his integrity and his honor.

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What does the preservation of the chain of command within a POW camp buy you, that reinstating yourself as a member of the chain of command external to the camp is worth forgoing?

It seems to me that acting on principle to preserve the chain of command at a loss of adding yourself back to the pool who are fighting the enemy is an example of living by principle, where principles are divorced from their purpose.

The intel he could have brought back, what he could have told the American people about his treatment and the nature of his enemy. These are valuable weapons. If I were his commanding officer in the camp, I would have ordered him to go.

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What does the preservation of the chain of command within a POW camp buy you, that reinstating yourself as a member of the chain of command external to the camp is worth forgoing?

Inspiration to your fellow POWs. Integrity, respect and honor. The tangible manifestations of these are a senate seat, and nearly the presidency.

If he could escape he should do it, but if it is at a perceived cost of a quid pro quo for the enemy then it is unacceptable.

It seems to me that acting on principle to preserve the chain of command at a loss of adding yourself back to the pool who are fighting the enemy is an example of living by principle, where principles are divorced from their purpose.

The intel he could have brought back, what he could have told the American people about his treatment and the nature of his enemy. These are valuable weapons. If I were his commanding officer in the camp, I would have ordered him to go.

The principle of not cooperating with the enemy has the purpose of maintaining the will to resist among the captives. It is a morale issue inside the camp, and to the extent it prevents use of prisoners for propaganda purposes it is a morale issue outside the camp. The negatives of being released improperly would entirely offset anything McCain could say about the nature of the enemy and their treatment of POWs, which were already known to those who would have listened.

Morale effects every service member and the civilian political will to fight. Napoleon Bonaparte estimated that “the moral is to the physical as three is to one."

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I am having trouble wrapping my head around this offer to be let go and how come a prisoner who last week was being tortured is today allowed to decide (no less) whether he wants to leave or not.

I think the reason why you couldn't accept an offer like that is because:

1. There's no reason to think it is a real offer (other than the captors' word, which means nothing)

2. If the captors wanted to release him, they didn't need his permission. They could've ordered him to leave. Obviously, they wanted something more than his permission from him, even if only symbolic.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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Jake is right on. McCain was offered an early repatriation, in part so that his captors could demonstrate that American elites would accept special treatment as a matter of course. McCain correctly (in that limited context) refused to take the early release and play into NV propaganda.

Also, remember that McCain's life was saved by his fellow prisoners, and he felt an obligation to maintain solidarity with them. Believing that his status would increase his chances of survival, he may have seen staying as a way to pay back his fellow POW's by spreading the mantle of his celebrity over them. I think McCain made a choice in the matter based on his personal system of values at the time.

Peikoff seems to have forgotten that "morality ends at the point of a gun."

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The fact that it was a choice that the VC wanted him to make willingly shows their hand.

The propaganda value of a few pictures of McCain walking away a free man would be worth the world to them. Don't forget about all those useful idiots back in the states who already believed that this was a war where the poor were sacrificed, that this was an unjust war against the "peaceful people of Vietnam". An Admirals son walking off Scott free? Priceless.

They (the VC) would get none of that if they forced him to leave, pictures of them dragging him to an aircraft would mean nothing.

Returning to the concept of a soldiers ethics, as someone said earlier escape is one thing, collusion is another.

As for morale it is a thing that is shared. In a shitty situation you all build the morale, but one man can destroy it. To have one guy give up, to quit, and walk free while you and the rest have no hope of being similarly treated would be devastating. How many others would loose their hope because of that one action?

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I'm not in a position to say either way, and neither is Peikoff. The guys at the Hanoi Hilton were subjected to extreme forms of torture on a daily basis, seperated from each other and all contact from the outside world, denied medical care, etc, etc. Some of the guys that were brought in there had injuries from their capture: bayonet wounds, broken limbs, disease. Most of the POWs spent the better part of a decade in the worst conditions imaginable with little hope of ever getting out alive. Passing judgement on a man's choices made while under those conditions is just reprehensible.

Here is a link to the code of conduct and the relevant paragraph, just so everyone is educated when they are referring to it:

"PARAGRAPH III

If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy." (Code of Conduct)

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Jesus, no offense, but all this armchair general crap is making me so sick that I just had to post. I'm a soldier and I can't claim to have been in a situation anywhere near as bad as McCain was probably in, but I have been through the suck. It's real easy to criticize a man's decision while you're typing away on your computer in your air conditioned study sipping on iced tea, isn't it?

You guys are looking waaaaayyy too far into this. It's as simple as this...those men were his brothers and whether they were going to die in that camp or leave, they were going to do it together. Of course every man has his breaking point I imagine, but before you go into these kind of situations, you have to come to terms with the fact that some fucked up shit may very well happen, and you all have to come to an agreement that no matter what, you will be there and have each other's back.

Ever been in a situation where you are so physically and mentally exhausted and beat down that even the simple task of putting one foot over the other to keep forward momentum is enough to make you want to cry? When every cell in your body is telling you to quit, you don't give two fucks about "the intel you can bring back, what you can tell the American people about your treatment, and the nature of the enemy!" The only thing that keeps you going is looking to your left and right and seeing that your buddies are there sucking right along side of you. There's a certain power in that solidarity. Though I wouldn't have the audacity to criticize a man in that situation who decided one way or the other, I would think that I would have made the same decision as McCain.

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Objective guy... You're not the only soldier in here... Re-read the posts above.

Almost all of them say that McCain made the correct choice. No one here has demeaned his service or his decision. Even those that disagreed did so impersonally with not backhanded remarks about the decision so chill out.

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The reason why there is a thread on this subject is because a philosopher who is very highly regarded around here made a foolish and ill-informed comment on being a POW. While this does not detract from his philosophical work, which in my opinion is outstanding, it did need to be pointed out that, in this case he is incorrect. The majority of the posts on this thread were from men who were/are soldiers. However they constitute a small fraction of the total members and lurkers on this forum. Since they have the proper understanding and experience to clarify this issue, they did.

That is all, and there is no reason to get huffy about it.

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The reason why there is a thread on this subject is because a philosopher who is very highly regarded around here made a foolish and ill-informed comment on being a POW. While this does not detract from his philosophical work, which in my opinion is outstanding, it did need to be pointed out that, in this case he is incorrect. The majority of the posts on this thread were from men who were/are soldiers. However they constitute a small fraction of the total members and lurkers on this forum. Since they have the proper understanding and experience to clarify this issue, they did.

That is all, and there is no reason to get huffy about it.

Makes sense, point taken! Thanks for setting me straight! haha huffy eh? Cranky bastard would be more accurate I think! :thumbsup:

Edited by objective_guy
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Rand?

Uh, no. Two obvious things that Ayn Rand was very wrong about are: (1) the morality of homosexuality and (2) the character of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. She realized her error about the second, but not about the first. (Those certainly weren't her only errors, but they were two that sprung to my mind quickly.)

In general, Objectivists agree with Ayn Rand's philosophic principles. They do not accept every opinion of hers on random topics as the gospel truth.

Also, just for the record, I don't think Dr. Peikoff's analysis of McCain is so obviously wrong -- let alone "reprehensible" -- as some people have claimed in this thread. Knowing McCain's thoroughly altruistic "country-first" attitude, it's pretty likely that his decision to remain a POW was motivated by deep altruism. In that case, even if his decision was right, it's not praiseworthy or virtuous.

For me, I'd want to know more of the particulars than I currently do to pass judgment. However, I would never be so cavalier or hostile toward Dr. Peikoff, even if I ultimately disagreed with him. He deserves better than that.

Edited by dianahsieh
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West: One of his podcasts last summer, I believe. Sanjavalen may remember better than I do since he brought it to my attention.

Agrippa: An important omission. :confused:

With regards to McCain being an altruist: During the 2008 Presidential campaign, I did hear McCain say that while he was a POW he went from being a selfish, hot shot pilot to a humble man who realized something greater than himself, or some crap like that, but I specifically remember him saying he transformed from a "selfish" person.

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However, I would never be so cavalier or hostile toward Dr. Peikoff, even if I ultimately disagreed with him. He deserves better than that.

Whatever the reason McCain chose to remain captive, Peikiff's statement about what a man should do in a situation where he is being tortured for years on end is "foolish and ill-informed." This not a cavalier statement, and I did not mean it as such, I am quite serious.

Peikoff "deserves" nothing from me other than honesty.

Edited by wilicyote
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Whatever the reason McCain chose to remain captive, Peikiff's statement about what a man should do in a situation where he is being tortured for years on end is "foolish and ill-informed." This not a cavalier statement, and I did not mean it as such, I am quite serious.

Peikoff "deserves" nothing from me other than honesty.

Are you saying McCain's choice is above being judged due to the circumstances?

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No, I am saying that McCain should be judged "in context." Many of us who have been in the military have a better understanding of that context, and we pointed out that, in light of that context, Peikoff was clearly incorrect.

Don't mis-understand, I am not defending McCain's choice, I am pointing out that Peikoff is unqualified to do a good job of judging his choice.

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No, I am saying that McCain should be judged "in context." Many of us who have been in the military have a better understanding of that context, and we pointed out that, in light of that context, Peikoff was clearly incorrect.

Don't mis-understand, I am not defending McCain's choice, I am pointing out that Peikoff is unqualified to do a good job of judging his choice.

Considering the more recent posts regarding McCain's character and motives, I don't think it's such a cut-and-dry case as you make it out to be. At the very least, it's still not clear to me. I think Mrs. Hsieh, Kendall, and others have raised issues that are legitimate and aren't easily answered as they would require more than knowledge of what actions McCain took and what the standard of conduct of the military are. As an example, if one is a police officer, there are a great many "duties" that are part of the code of conduct that I would regard as immoral if a police officer actually undertook to fulfill them.

As far as arguing that 'McCain leaving the camp would decrease the morale of his compatriots' goes, I'm not sure that this is a legitimate principle with which to build a case. I think there's a disconnect somewhere in there, though I need to think more on it.

edit: this is the relevant video mentioned earlier in the thread:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that the "principle" that is operating here is the idea that the code of conduct and maintaining appearances is primary.

Edited by West
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I think the existence of the draft during the Vietnam war should also be considered. If a soldier was drafted against his will, I think it would be entirely moral for him to accept such an offer (assuming it was valid), and very altruistic to do otherwise (other things being equal). I am guessing this wasn't the case with McCain, but I think this would need to be taken into account when forming any relevant principles.

Assuming the soldier is fighting voluntarily, for selfish reasons, in a war he correctly believes to be objectively justified, and assuming that leaving the prison camp can objectively be expected to help the enemy, I think it would indeed be heroic to remain.

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