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Missing in Action in the Twenty-First Century
By Bruce Franklin
Copyright Duke University Press, 2013.
This chapter excerpted from Four Decades On: Vietnam, the United States, and the Legacies of the Second Indochina War, edited by Scott Laderman and Edwin A. Martini, forthcoming from Duke University Press in June, 2013.
Today, the United States of America has two national flags. One is the colorful red, white, and blue banner created during the American Revolution, with stars that represent, in the words of the 1777 Continental Congress, "a new constellation." The other is the black-and-white POW/MIA flag, America's emblem of the Vietnam War.
The POW/MIA flag is the only one besides the Star-Spangled Banner that has ever flown over the White House, where it has fluttered yearly since 1982. As visitors from around the world stream through the Rotunda of the US Capitol, they pass a giant flag, the only flag that has ever been displayed amid the epic paintings and heroic statues, given this position of honor in 1987 by the Congress and the President of the United States. The POW/MIA flag flies over every US Post Office, thanks to a law passed by Congress and signed by the president in 1997. During the 1980s and 1990s, the legislatures and governors of each of the fifty states issued laws mandating the display of this flag over public facilities such as state offices, municipal buildings, toll plazas, and police headquarters. The POW/MIA flag also hangs over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and waves at countless corporate headquarters, shopping malls, union halls, and small businesses. It is sewn into the right sleeve of the official Ku Klux Klan white robe and adorns millions of bumper stickers, buttons, home windows, motorcycle jackets, watches, postcards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and Christmas tree ornaments.
The flag symbolizes our nation's veneration of its central image: a handsome American prisoner of war, his silhouetted head slightly bowed to reveal behind him the ominous shape of a looming guard tower. A strand of barbed wire cuts across just below his firm chin. Underneath runs the motto: "You are not forgotten."
This colorless banner implies that the Vietnam War may never end. It demonstrates to the world both the official US government position since 1973 and a profoundly influential national belief, Vietnam may still secretly hold American prisoners of war. This was the official reason why every twentieth- century postwar administration, those of presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton, reneged on the pledge in the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement that the United States would help rebuild Vietnam and then waged relentless economic and political warfare against that nation. Even when President Clinton announced in 1995 that Washington was finally establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, he claimed that the primary motive was to further "progress on the issue of Americans who were missing in action or held as prisoners of war."
To comprehend the meaning of all this, one must first recognize that there is no rational basis or evidence for the belief that Americans were kept captive in Vietnam after the war. Indeed, it runs counter to reason, common sense, and overwhelming evidence.
None of the armed forces has listed a single prisoner of war (POW) or even a single person missing in action (MIA) since 1994, when the only person still listed as a prisoner, for symbolic reasons, was reclassified as deceased at the request of his family. There are, it is true, 1,739 Americans listed as unaccounted for from the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but not one of these is classified as a prisoner, a possible prisoner, or even missing. Most of the unaccounted for were never listed as POWs or even as MIAs, because well over half were originally known to have been killed in action in circumstances that prevented the recovery of their bodies. Their official designation has always been Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered (KIA/BNR). Crews of airplanes that exploded in flight or crashed within sight of their aircraft carrier, soldiers whose deaths were witnessed by others unable to retrieve their bodies, or men blown apart so completely that there were no retrievable body parts, all these are listed in the total of unaccounted for. All that is missing is their remains. The KIA/BNR category was never included with the missing in action during the Vietnam War, it was lumped together with the POW/MIA category only after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973.
The confusion thus created was quite deliberate. But this miasma was relatively mild compared with that generated by the bizarre POW/MIA concoction itself. Arguably the cagiest stroke of the Nixon presidency was the slash, forever linking "POW" and "MIA." In all previous wars, there was one category, Prisoners of War, consisting of those known or believed to be prisoners. There was an entirely separate and distinct category of those Missing in Action. The Pentagon internally maintained these as two separate categories throughout the war and its aftermath. But for public consumption, the Nixon administration publicly jumbled the two categories together into a hodgepodge called POW/MIA, thus making it seem that every missing person might be a prisoner. Because this possibility cannot be logically disproved, the POW/MIA invention perfectly fulfilled its original purpose: to create an issue that could never be resolved.
It also created an almost impenetrable fog of confusion that clouds the issue right up through the present. Although prisoners of war were previously not considered either missing or unaccounted for, once the MIA's became defined as possible POW's, then all the POW/MIA's could be dumped into the category Unaccounted-For, which then became synonymous in the popular mind with POW/MIA. So when it is reported that there are still almost 1,800 Unaccounted-For from the Vietnam War, people assume that any or all of them might still be languishing in Vietnamese prisons. MIA and POW and Unaccounted-For have even become interchangeable terms, as manifested by a question I'm frequently asked, usually in an incredulous tone, "Don't you believe there are MIA's?" or, even more revealing, "Don't you believe in MIA's?"
In 2000, Senator John McCain, running as America's Vietnam POW hero, overwhelmed his four Republican opponents in the New Hampshire primary, crushing the runner-up, George W. Bush, by nineteen points. But in the next primary, in South Carolina, McCain's "Straight Talk Express" was violently derailed by a series of explosive charges. The most damaging charge was that, as a member of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, he had viciously betrayed those hundreds or thousands of his fellow POW's left behind in Vietnam. The main ingredients for this charge came from a 1992 article by Ted Sampley, "John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate," which argued that McCain had been brainwashed by the Vietnamese and might very well be acting as their secret agent. McCain's campaign never recovered from the electoral defeat or the shattered image inflicted in South Carolina.
In 2004, the defeat of Senator John Kerry by incumbent President George W. Bush has been widely attributed to the heavily bankrolled "swift boating" by the organization Swift Vets and POW's for Truth, an assault that torpedoed Kerry's status as a heroic Vietnam veteran. But more than three months before the Swift Vets first went public in a 4 May press conference, the campaign to use the POW/MIA issue to destroy Kerry's Vietnam credentials was launched by Sidney Schanberg, one of the most fanatical of the POW/MIA cultists. Using long discredited evidence that Vietnam held many American POW's after the war to be used as future bargaining chips, Schanberg's article "When John Kerry's Courage Went M.I.A" appeared on 24 February in the Village Voice and was soon widely disseminated in various forms. Schanberg claimed that as chair of the Senate Select Committee, Kerry had deliberately "covered up voluminous evidence" of "perhaps hundreds" of these left-behind POW's.
In 2008, Schanberg recycled his anti-Kerry article, along with other articles that he had been reissuing for decades, as "McCain and the POW Cover-up," an especially vitriolic assault on John McCain, who was then in what seemed to be a tight presidential race with Barack Obama. As he had done in earlier articles, Schanberg drew heavily on Sampley's "The Manchurian Candidate." There was nothing surprising or even new in Schanberg's piece. But what some people found startling, indeed, shocking, was where it was published: in The Nation, one of America's leading liberal journals and historically a major opponent of the Vietnam War.
Even more appalling, liberal and progressive media responded by deliriously ballyhooing Schanberg's POW/MIA fantasy. Democratic-Underground.com ran excerpts from and links to The Nation's article, along with ads for POW/MIA flags, pins, and bracelets. Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Alternet.org, and many others reprinted the piece, some adorning it with large images of the POW/MIA flag. Democracy Now!, the nationally syndicated progressive radio and TV show, ran a long, adulatory interview with Schanberg on 23 October and provided a link on its website to a longer version of his article published online by the Nation Institute. Scattered protests from some historians, anti-war activists, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War were drowned out by denunciations, from right, left, and center, of McCain as a betrayer of all those POW's abandoned in Vietnam. The true history of the phony POW/MIA issue has evidently now been buried under a myth so sacred, and so central to our nation's cultural memory, that to question it amounts to heresy.
In the decades since the Vietnam War, joint US-Vietnamese search teams have combed the country for possible remains. The remains of scores of men whose names were engraved on POW/MIA bracelet have been positively identified. Swarms of US tourists, businesspeople, and returning veterans have visited all parts of Vietnam. Hanoi has actually opened its secret records of those captured to American researchers. Today we should know, with as much certainty as could ever be possible, that there are not now, and there never were, American prisoners held in Vietnam after the war. So why are those hundreds of thousands of POW/MIA flags still flying in every part of America?
The short answer is that those flags seem to symbolize our culture's dominant view of America as victim, victim of the Vietnam War and victim of all the peoples we have bombed and invaded since 1975. As George H. W. Bush so revealingly put it in 1991, while celebrating the beginning of our endless wars in the Middle East and southwestern Asia, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" In a nation still festooned in those black- and- white banners, the true history and crucial lessons of the Vietnam War are now missing in action.
H. Bruce Franklin is the author or editor of nineteen books and more than 300 articles on culture and history published in more than a hundred major magazines and newspapers, academic journals, and reference works. Before becoming an academic, Franklin worked in factories, was a tugboat mate and deckhand, and flew for three years in the United States Air Force as a Strategic Air Command navigator and intelligence officer.