By Mark Shields

In this unheroic era when prominent American males prove their abiding patriotism by prominently displaying an American flag pin in the lapel of their suit jacket, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remains seriously out of step.

McCain has never been a flag waver. With the steady devotion of a lifetime of service, McCain has instead chosen to defend what our flag stands for.

Nowhere has that been clearer than in the continuing political debate over whether the United States should use torture to extract information from captured terrorists.

Major national leaders, including former Vice President Dick Cheney (who received five student draft deferments to avoid going to Vietnam and later said, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service”) and President Donald Trump (for whom avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in New York during his draft-eligible years was his “personal Vietnam” and who once said, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse”), don’t shrink from the challenge of defending Americans’ license to torture.

Forget that the United States Senate ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the binding U.N. Convention against Torture, which outlawed cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. And who was the president who urged the Senate “to demonstrate unequivocally our desire to bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture”? Ronald Reagan, that’s who.

John McCain, patriot, is the only national candidate of either major party to ever make his all-out opposition to torture a signature plank in his presidential platform: “The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.”

With the grave diagnosis from McCain’s doctors, this could be the right time to ask ourselves: Is the patriot no longer that admirable citizen who puts the common good ahead of his personal comfort or profit, who sacrifices herself for the safety of the beloved nation?

In 2017, that definition of patriotism seems both dated and naive. Today’s shrunken patriotism is increasingly the province of the belligerent talk show host or the combative armchair commando who — at a safe distance, with no personal or family skin in the game and while not making any personal sacrifice — endorses a get-tough policy using U.S. military power and people.

To such hypocrisy, John McCain has spoken: “All wars are awful. … Nothing, not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. Whatever gains are secured by war, it is the loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the cruel and merciless reality of war.”

For 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war, McCain endured merciless cruelty. His North Vietnamese torturers broke his bones and his teeth, but not his spirit. He came home to fearlessly fight big money in American politics, big tobacco in Washington and presidents of both parties.

McCain is not a plaster saint; he is prickly and can be short-tempered. But he has shown us time and again what it means to be an American patriot. People from almost everywhere — not the Kremlin, we can be sure — are today praying for McCain’s health. Charles de Gaulle is said to have noted that the cemeteries of Europe are full of indispensable men. John McCain may not be indispensable, but he is irreplaceable.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.