A letter to Senator John McCain, now in hospital with a grave illness, on how his service to his country has impacted me:
Dear Senator McCain:
My name is Nate Thayer and we met several times when I was an Associated Press correspondent and the Southeast Asian correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review based in Thailand and Cambodia. We first met prior to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements on the Thai-Cambodian border, several times thereafter in Cambodia, as well as in D.C.
But never mind that now.
I am writing to tell you after hearing of your diagnosis with brain cancer that I love you and respect you and that you have made me a better American.
I understand you are very sick and wanted you to know I have been thinking of you. I have thought how often one does not convey the positive impact and the important memories someone has of one to them.
I have learned to understand, as wisdom comes with age and experience, how important this is. Through you, I have learned how important it is to do the right thing.
You have had a significant influence on my life, not so much for your politics (although that, too, but of which I just as often disagree as I don’t), but for your steadfast moral compass and humanity–for doing and saying the right thing as you believe it to be, defending your informed, thoughtful beliefs, and making these clear even when they might not serve your short-term interests of politics or might result in criticism.
I remember so very well how deeply knowledgable you were on the minutia of Cambodian politics and the regional and superpower context of that conflict in the 1980’s and 1990’s–something I had devoted many years of my life to–and how impressed I was when we would meet by how inquisitive and demanding you were seeking out facts on an issue that held little political capital then.
I expect you do not remember me (and I am sure you have more important memories), but I remember you. And I remember how you conducted yourself as an American elected official and how this impressed upon me how important dignified, principled public service is and should be.
You taught me to be a better American.
I remember seeing you at a public forum in Arizona when an older, good intentioned woman in the audience suggested that Obama–your opponent at the time– was a secret African Muslim and how you gently and without hesitation relieved her of the microphone and said “No ma’am. No ma’am, you are not right. He is a good man. We just differ on some views.”
That day, you showed me how to stand up for principle. I will never forget this, your instinctive act of decency and statesmanship. You showed me then how to be a better American.
But I remember, more than anything, how you stood up against the Bush administration use of torture in our country and in my name.
While I would never compare my own experiences to yours, I, too, spent years involved in wars in Indochina and elsewhere. I remain haunted by the times I have been confronted with torture being conducted in my presence and I still grapple to this day whether I acted sufficiently to stop it, to oppose it, to do the right thing.
Once, at least, I did, and it was because of you.
I remember having gone into combat with Cambodian “freedom fighters” and, after capturing a strategic and irrelevant village, the guerrilla army I was traveling with captured a wounded enemy soldier, who had been shot in the legs and was in great distress, not just from the pain of being shot but fearing that he would soon be executed. We put him in the back of a military transport truck–a donation from the U.S. government–and began a long, slow ride over rutted, dirt ox-cart paths through the jungle back to guerrilla bases on the border with Thailand with this poor son of a mother grimacing in pain.
The team I was with had lost several men during fighting that lasted all day and they were pissed off. One of them began jabbing the wounded frightened boy with his bayonet, torturing him.
I was scared because I was afraid that these angry young men, all of whom were heavily armed, would shoot me if I tried to stop them. They were very angry because of the loss of their friends on this irrelevant rural patch of farmland in that battle that, very soon, no one would even remember happened. They were right to be angry, but they then began to take it out on this young wounded boy who didn’t want to be there any more than his short term enemies did.
I remember thinking of you while riding in the back of that truck at night in the rain coming back from this battle and thinking that conflict, in its essence, is a defense of principle. And bravery in military battle is no more important than bravery in political battles that wars ostensibly are waged over.
I remember thinking what would John McCain do? And I wrapped my six-foot two-inch body around this much smaller, crying boy and demanded that the soldiers stop torturing him.
That happened because of you, Senator McCain.
Thank you for helping me do the right thing, McCain.
And I am confident that young boy, who was a conscripted soldier for Hun Sen’s Vietnamese installed army, would thank you, too, if he knew you likely saved his life as a result of the principled stands you have made a career of and imparted on people like myself, showing by example the importance of acting with principle and decency.
The way you have lived your life has made a difference.
Thank you for making me a better person and a better American.
I just wanted you to know this because I have been thinking about you.
My warm regards,