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When the myth becomes history


I was driving past the main Boulder post office yesterday when I noticed that, right under the American flag, the post office was also flying the POW-MIA flag, which those of us of a certain age can remember becoming a thing in the last years of the Vietnam War.

I wondered what was up with that, and a little Google flexing turned up this:

Congressman Chris Pappas (NH-01) released the following statement after legislation he introduced in the House, The National POW/MIA Flag Act, which will require the POW/MIA flag to be displayed alongside the American flag at certain federal buildings and memorials to honor all POW/MIAs, was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump on November 7, 2019:

“I am pleased that President Trump has signed the bipartisan National POW/MIA Flag Act into law,” said Congressman Pappas. “This legislation, which I was proud to introduce and work to pass in the House, honors those service members who were prisoners of war and the over 80,000 individuals who remain unaccounted for. This legislation reaffirms our country’s commitment to them and ensures that the words emblazoned on the POW/MIA flag continue to communicate a clear message of our unwavering support and commitment to our nation’s heroes and their families. That message is this: you are not forgotten.”

In other words what we have here is yet another round of right wing paranoia/conspiratorial thinking transformed into pseudo-history. It’s a good thing that at least the Democratic party . . . [taps earpiece] excuse me Chet, we’re getting an update here:

The National POW/MIA Flag Act will ensure that the POW/MIA Flag is displayed whenever the U.S. flag is displayed, effectively ensuring that both flags are displayed concurrently every day at federal locations already designated under existing law.

This legislation was introduced in the House by Reps. Pappas and Bergman on March 7, 2019 and passed without objection in October. Companion legislation, which was introduced by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Cotton (R-AR), John Thune (R-SD), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), passed the Senate with unanimous consent in May.

Okey dokey.

Just to review here, the whole POW/MIA thing had an extremely brief life as a non-insane issue, arising from understandable concern from grief-stricken families in the final years of the Vietnam War, when there were, you know, actual American prisoners of war in Vietnam, and the MIA status of a handful of service members was not yet 100% confirmed to be a functional KIA status. ETA: Note that “MIA” was a status invented by the Nixon administration for propaganda purposes: prior to that pilots who were shot down and whose bodies were never recovered were categorized as KIA/Body Unrecovered.

But the war ended and the POWs were repatriated, and it also became clear that all the soldiers missing in action were dead. That should have been that, but of course ain’t this America:

The moral confusion was abetted by the [POW-MIA] flag: the barbed-wire misery of that stark white figure, emblazoned in black.

It memorializes Americans as the preeminent victims of the Vietnam War, a notion seared into the nation’s visual unconscious by the Oscar-nominated 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which depicts acts of sadism, which were documented to have been carried out by our South Vietnamese allies, as acts committed by our North Vietnamese enemies, including the famous scene pictured on The Deer Hunter poster: a pistol pointed at the American prisoner’s head at exactly the same angle of the gun in the famous photograph of the summary execution in the middle of the street of an alleged Communist spy by a South Vietnamese official.

By then, the league and its flag had become the Pentagon’s own Frankenstein’s monster. You can read about the mess that resulted in the definitive book on the subject: Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War by Northwestern University’s Michael J. Allen.

Allen describes how Vietnam’s “refusal” to “account for” a thousand phantoms became an impediment to reconciliation and diplomatic recognition between the two nations. (How bizarre, how insulting, how counterproductive this must have been to a nation that must have suffered missing corpses in the thousands upon thousands?)

A delegation led by Congressman Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Missing in Action in Southeast Asia, traveled to Vietnam in 1975, convinced of the Nixon administration’s deception that hundreds of “MIAs actually” existed. The members of Congress returned home, having found their Communist hosts warm and accommodating, doubting there were any missing at all. In hearings, a CIA pilot captured there in 1965 testified: “If you take a wallet-full of money over there, you can buy all the information you want on POWs on the streets.”

The House committee also produced evidence that China had manufactured stories of MIA in Vietnamese prison camps in order to keep the U.S. from normalizing relations with China’s Asian rival. No matter that the flag’s promoters were abetting an actual, real-live Communist conspiracy, from its original sightings above VFW and American Legion posts, the “You Are Not Forgotten” flag became as common as kudzu.

Midwifing an entire metastasizing Pentagon bureaucracy, the League of Families would also become an irritant to every future president. By 1993, 17 Americans were stationed in Hanoi in charge of searching for the missing and working to repatriate remains. They were provided a budget of $100 million a year, “over 30 times the value of U.S. humanitarian aid paid to Vietnam,” Allen writes.

It would have been evidence of Ronald Reagan’s old saw that the closest thing to eternal life is a government program—if Reagan were not a prime culprit: In 1988, he became the first president to fly the flag over the White House. The next year, Congress installed the flag in the Capitol rotunda.

In 1990, it was designated “a symbol of our nation’s concern and commitment to restoring and resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.” Thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the nation.

The League of Families also still exists, and “continues to work at keeping the pressure on both Washington and Hanoi to bring complete resolution to this issue on behalf of each family with a loved one still missing in Vietnam.” My own state of Illinois holds a ceremony every year to honor the “66 Illinoisans listed as MIA or POW in Southeast Asia.”

And Bernie Sanders posted an image of the POW/MIA flag on Facebook in response to Donald Trump’s insult against John McCain. The message read: “They are all heroes.”

Actually, as I document in The Invisible Bridge, it’s more complicated than that: many of the prisoners were anti-war activists. One member of the “Peace Committee” within the POW camps, Abel Larry Kavanaugh, was harassed into suicide after his return to the U.S. by the likes of Admiral James Stockdale, who tried to get Peace Committee members hanged for treason.

Stockdale would become one of the nation’s most celebrated former POWs and a vice-presidential candidate. Kavanaugh took his life in his father in law’s basement in Commerce City, Colorado, in June 1973. Americans would agree that one of them—Stockdale or Kavanaugh—is not a hero—though they would disagree about which one is which.

That’s from an essay adapted from Rick Perlstein’s great book The Invisible Bridge, which you should read if you haven’t yet.

And in case you think this is over, nothing is over until we say it is:

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday restored a flag honoring missing war veterans atop the White House after his predecessor angered some veterans by moving it last year to a less prominent location.

The POW-MIA flag, dedicated to prisoners of war and service members missing in action, was relocated by former President Donald Trump in 2020 from a prominent position atop the White House to a spot on the South Lawn.

Here we are, nearly 50 YEARS LATER, and this noxious nonsense is still very much with us. As somebody once said the past isn’t even the past.

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