Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Michael J. Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War (North Carolina, 2009)

Sep 15, 2009 5:39 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Michael J. Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War (North Carolina, 2009)

A recent front page (Sept. 6) article in the New York Times tells the story of a Defense Department team searching a cow pasture in Germany for the remains of a bomber crew shot down in 1944. “Why after such a long time?” asked a farmer who as a boy had seen the crash.

Why, indeed? Michael J. Allen’s compelling book about the missing in Vietnam relies on unpublished government archives, POW accounts, family meetings, oral testimony, and the proceedings of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs (though no untranslated Vietnamese language sources). The post-Vietnam search for the missing is “unprecedented, despite the fact that their numbers [of MIAs, especially] were modest by historical standards.” 170,000 Northern soldiers from the Civil War never returned. Some 78,000-85,000 soldiers vanished during WWII and 56 years after the Korean War about 8,000 were never heard from again. “Even relatively brief American military engagements in the Mexican War and the First World War left greater numbers missing …when measured against smaller populations.”

Today an extensive and informative website ALL POW-MIA Archives ( describes itself as an "advocacy and intelligence index for POWs –MIAs Archives” and the Library of Congress has developed a huge database. POW/MIA flags still fly outside public and private buildings, all fifty states have a POW/MIA Recognition Day and the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia continues on despite the fact that the embargo of Vietnam has been lifted, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush have visited Vietnam, trade between the two nations has mushroomed, and no-one in this country seems especially interested anymore.
While the search for the unaccounted for is certainly justified and memory of what that abysmal war caused is essential, the American defeat and the resulting MIA/POW cause unfortunately became fodder for the merciless political and culture wars that developed in the wake of the war. Scapegoats, after all, had to be blamed for failing to win the war and extremist prowar elements promoted a false “stab-in-the-back” hypothesis, a la the German far right after WWI.

In his absorbing addition to the immense literature on the war, Allen, who teaches history at Northwestern University, is sympathetic towards family members whose determination to find their loved ones has never flagged. But, as the German farmer asked the Times: “Why after such a long time?” And why did it embrace many more people than family members? Allen’s thesis is that the defeat, plus the suffering of captured and missing military men, was the way Americans with no personal stake in the war could deal with the defeat. Most POWs/MIAs were white, educated airmen –a statement I am unable to verify—with whom many Americans with no family members in the war could more easily identify He also argues that to many –by no means all-- relatives the fact that their lost family members had not been found was evidence they had been betrayed by their government.

When a well -meaning George Bush Sr. addressed the National League convention in 1992 during his campaign for re-election, he began, “We live in a marvelous time” before people in the audience began chanting “No more lies! Tell the truth!” Stung, the President, a WWII veteran, responded in anger, “Are you calling me a liar?” Unpersuaded, a board member answered “If you want these people to vote for you bring our loved ones back home” while people in the audience shouted, “We won’t budge! Tell the truth!”

Bush may have blundered politically but he was correct is trying to move past a lost war and the suffering it caused. Especially painful for the activists was when veterans John McCain and John Kerry, both of who had served on the Senate Select Committee investigating the fate of MIAs visited Vietnam. For all this, both eventually paid a heavy price. It may be a stretch, but during the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, where, given the dominance of the state’s right wing, Bush won big, McCain, the famous ex-POW, and his family, was viciously attacked by “MIA militants.” One McCain opponent dubbed him “The Manchurian Candidate” and a “counterfeit hero.” And in his presidential run in 2004 Kerry was subjected to a stream of unsubstantiated well-financed ads and films charging that he had lied about his service in Vietnam while far more significant national and international issues were ignored during the campaign. It was, writes Allen, “payback” time for both men.

In 1994 Bill Clinton finally terminated the embargo to virtually no public protest. Still, one MIA’s sister was furious. “They have thrown a few flight suits at us,” referring to the return of remains, [but] “they haven’t given us anything.” All the same, in Clinton’s first term, Allen tell us, 258 remains of MIAs had been found and identified—“more… than in any four-year period before or since.”

Allen naively concludes that Barack Obama’s election “suggests that the decades spent mourning those lost in Vietnam had left Americans leery of open-ended military commitments like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He is far too optimistic. Our two current wars continue with no end in sight. American troops are stationed in some 1000 bases throughout the world. More wars and therefore more POWs and MIAs [and KIAs] are very likely. Sadly, the majority of Americans continue to support our country’s historic addiction to wars, at least at the start, before the bodies are flown home for burial or the search for their remains begins.

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