It is well-known that U.S. presidential aspirant John McCain, a former U.S. Navy pilot, was struck by North Vietnamese fire over Hanoi during the Vietnam War and subsequently spent five and a half years in various prisoner-of-war camps. He still bears physical scars from the experience, notably the fact that he cannot lift his arms above shoulder level.
What, voters are entitled to ask, about mental or psychological scars? Much has been made of so-called brainwashing techniques, in which cerebral tampering is supposed to trigger behavioral changes and specific responses to subliminal code words.
A memorable work of fiction, in which a U.S. soldier is captured, tortured and much later turns up in an American presidential campaign, is the 1958 Richard Condon novel “The Manchurian Candidate.” In it, a U.S. POW is programmed by Chinese captors to influence a presidential election of the future when he is “fed” certain keywords.
The movie version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” released in 1962, caused even more controversy than the book.
Psychological and behavioral studies over the past 30 years have, however, pretty much discredited the brainwashing concept. There is little evidence to indicate that a person can be programmed through external stimuli, like a modern Pavlov’s dog, to do someone else’s bidding, even by means of hypnosis. There is scant chance that a real-life “Manchurian Candidate” could work his way into the political process and follow directions from a devious third party.
What about the opposite? Would a tortured prisoner have residual feelings of vengeance, leading him to seek retribution against his former captors?
History suggests that incarceration has a concentrating effect on the mind that tends to galvanize the strong points of one’s character. In Asia, there are the examples of Korea’s Syngman Rhee and Kim Dae Jung and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.
James Bond Stockdale, a U.S. Navy pilot who, like McCain, was shot down over North Vietnam and imprisoned, has written several books on his experiences. Stockdale persuasively claims that McCain’s character was improved in the crucible of prison and that he would make a fine candidate, capable of withstanding intense pressures.
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