Along the banks of the Ho Truc Bach Lake in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam is a monument sculpted from stone.

It’s an image of a person with arms raised and head lowered. The monument portrays the fateful moment in October 1967 when then U.S. Navy pilot John McCain was captured. The monument text, roughly translated, reads:

“On 26 October 1967 near Truc Bach Lake in the capital, Hanoi, the citizens and military caught Pilot John Sidney McCain. The US Navy Air Force Aviator was flying aircraft A4, which crashed near Yen Phu power station. This was one of ten aircraft shot down that same day.”[1]

The John S. McCain monument at Bruc Back Lake. Photo: Jim Bryant, U.S. Navy

The John S. McCain monument at Bruc Back Lake. Photo: Jim Bryant, U.S. Navy

Fast forward to August 27, 2018.

A 62-year-old Vietnamese man, Pham Van Khanh, brought flowers to the McCain monument in Hanoi.[2] He joined countless other Vietnamese who wished to honor their former captive.[3]

Even McCain’s jailer and operator of the prison, former Col. Tran Trong Duyet, said, “When I learnt about his death early this morning, I feel very sad. I would like to send condolences to his family. I think it’s the same feeling for all Vietnamese people as he has greatly contributed to the development of Vietnam-U.S. relations.”[4]

How could a nation that reviled and tortured the late Senator have such love for him after his death? Because of Senator McCain’s work along with former Senator and Vietnam Veteran John Kerry to normalize relations with Vietnam, the Vietnamese government now reveres him as a “symbol of his generation” who helped “heal the wounds of war.”[5] This mutual respect between Senator McCain and his former captors exemplifies the many times McCain rose well-above a conflict to find common ground and to make peace.

john McCain navy fighter

John McCain with his Navy Squadron (botrrom right). Photo: Library of Congress

I have never met Senator John McCain, but as a professional peacemaker I relate to his peacemaking words and consider him a peacemaking soulmate.

We all know the story of how McCain was shot down over Vietnam, beginning his terrifying and heroic stay at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison. Refusing to be released before his brothers-in-arms, the North Vietnamese tortured him mercilessly and placed him in solitary confinement.[6]

His captors didn’t release McCain until after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on March 14, 1973. Though free, he carried substantial injuries for the rest of his life.

As a Senator, he was known for his work across the political aisle. Sometimes he angered the more strident members of his party for taking the higher ground.

Senator McCain admits to his imperfections, and has apologized for his less than peaceful remarks at times.

For example, he famously used a racial slur to describe his captors, feeling he had a right to describe his former captors with any language he chose. He later reconsidered and apologized, and removed the word from his vocabulary.[7]

This man is considered a hero today in large part because he made a career of rising above the fray of the negative discourse that pervades American politics today. Perhaps most famously, he defended Barrack Obama against people who accused Obama of being “Arab”, saying “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happened to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

john McCain peacemaker with president obama

Senator John McCain meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in 2011. Photo: Pete Souza, White House Photo Office

It’s telling that two of his principle political rivals, Former President’s Obama and Bush, will eulogize him at his memorial service.[8]

John McCain’s thoughts on the need to ‘win’ at all costs

Most recently, when speaking to the Senate with a request for a return to regular order in the Senate in the wake of a difficult debate on healthcare reform in 2017, McCain said the following to support his plea:

“I’ve known and admired men and women in the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics. They came from both parties, and from various backgrounds. Their ambitions were frequently in conflict. … And they often had very serious disagreements about how best to serve the national interest.

“But they knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively.

“Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. ….

“Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticize but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst isn’t glamorous or exciting. It doesn’t feel like a political triumph. But it’s usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours.

“….  It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’

“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us.”

John McCain was a peacemaker

Senator John McCain walks with Vice President Mike Pence on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo: US Army. Jose A. Torres, Jr.

I read the words spoken by Senator McCain last year and listened to them again. I have a soulmate in Senator McCain. We have never met, but as a professional peacemaker I relate to his peacemaking words.

I have often thought the woes of Washington, D.C. could be greatly reduced if some mediators could head to Capitol Hill. We professional peacemakers understand that peace and agreement requires people who disagree to disagree agreeably. “Compromise” is not a dirty word. Rather, a compromise allows for differing people to find a common ground. The all-or-nothing subjective myths of “justice” or “fairness” give way to the higher principles of collaboration, mutual respect and peace.

As a divorce mediator, I am involved in helping people find pathways to settlement in the toughest of times.

There are very few experiences as heart-wrenching and personally painful as divorce. Consequently, my aim is to help others learn how to work together while experiencing peace. It’s possible.

Senator McCain’s approach to politics parallels my Dolphin Lawyering philosophy and approach to dispute resolution.  Unlike some of my shark-like colleagues in the legal profession, I strive for a more humane approach encouraging peaceful outcomes.  I therefore live by the creed, “It’s not just a legal process; it’s a human experience.”

Like Senator McCain, I look back on the contentious moments of my past career as a divorce litigator. Similarly, I realize that at times I didn’t always live up to my greatest ideal. But whenever I have embraced peacemaking and mutual respect, I have not only worked as an instrument for others to find peace, but I have experienced my greatest professional joy: helping others.

While many may disagree with political stands by Senator McCain, perhaps we can take his life as a shining example of a peacemaker a person of any political persuasion can follow. I, for one, am certainly grateful for his imperfect, yet sincere example.

Further Reading:

Forgiveness During Divorce: A key to finding peace

Five Tips to Have a Miserable Divorce

Dolphin Lawyering: Why I can be an advocate without being a shark

[3] Id.