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The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag

Roundup
tags: Vietnam, MIA, POW



Rick Perlstein is the national correspondent of  The Washington Spectator, on whose site this article first appeared. This piece was updated by the Spectator on August 13 to remove the word "racist" from the headline, and has been similarly adjusted here. An apology from the author and a response from Spectator editor Lou Dubose were also appended to the original article and have been replicated here at the bottom of the piece.

NEWSWEEK EDITORIAL NOTE: We published Rick Perlstein’s article on the POW/MIA flag, because it insightfully examines the cynical manipulation of public opinion at the expense of the downed pilots and foot soldiers the creators of the MIA movement claimed to represent. Perlstein is an accomplished historian who has spent years researching the Nixon and Reagan years. He knows this material. Our prolonged national discussion of the tragic Southeast Asian war that extended beyond Vietnam is often framed in what can be reasonably described as racist terms. The defenders of an Asian country that was invaded, bombed, defoliated and savaged (see: Kill Anything that Moves by Nick Turse) are vilified, while the invaders are beatified. Neither position is correct or fair. It was a persistent yet perhaps understandable disregard for the “other” victims of a war, beyond our own nation’s tragic losses, that informed the piece.

Nowhere is it suggested, nor do we imply, that individuals who remain devoted to the POW/MIA flag are racist. And it was neither Mr. Perlstein’s intent, nor ours, to dishonor those who served in Vietnam, although based on comments of readers, many were offended. A more careful editor would have moved the term “racist” lower in the body of the story and kept it out of the headline, where it was an unintended red flag that provoked the understandable ire of many readers. —Lou Dubose, Editor of the Washington Spectator 

You know that racist flag? The one that supposedly honors history but actually spreads a pernicious myth? And is useful only to venal right-wing politicians who wish to exploit hatred by calling it heritage? It’s past time to pull it down.

Oh, wait. You thought I was referring to the Confederate flag. Actually, I’m talking about the POW/MIA flag.

I told the story in the first chapter of my 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan: how Richard Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim.

It began, as cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, with an opportunistic shift in terminology. Downed pilots whose bodies were not recovered—which, in the dense jungle of a place like Vietnam meant most pilots—had once been classified “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.”

During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them into a newly invented “Missing in Action” column. That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up.

He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions—the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane. He also demanded the release of American prisoners as a precondition to ending the war. This was bullshit four times over ...

Read entire article at Newsweek


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