An essay published in Newsweek, The Washington Spectator and at least one other website argues that a flag honoring U.S. troops who have been captured or gone missing is actually “racist” and deserves to be treated with the same hostility as the Confederate flag.
“You know that racist flag?” writes Rick Perlstein. “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.”
No, Perlstein isn’t talking about the Confederate flag, but actually the POW/MIA flag, which can be seen at countless veterans’ events and outside the offices of many congressmen.
The problem lies with the flag’s origins. “Missing in action” soldiers, Perlstein says, were simply invented out of thin air by Richard Nixon in an effort to “justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim.”
Perlstein expresses outrage at Nixon’s administration for inaugurating a “newly invented” missing-in-action category to describe pilots who were shot down and never had their bodies recovered. Perlstein seems to imply that Nixon invented the idea of “missing” soldiers out of whole cloth, though this is quite untrue. Soldiers have been going missing for as long as wars have been fought, and official “missing” classifications were famously applied to thousands of soldiers in both world wars whose fates were impossible to determine.
Whatever the origins of the term itself, Perlstein says the flag is obviously racist, because, well, it implies that being a POW under the North Vietnamese was bad:
The moral confusion was abetted by the 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.
It’s not clear how, exactly, the POW/MIA flag can be tied to the poster for a movie that came out nearly a decade after it was created. It’s also not exactly clear how the flag portrays Americans as the “preeminent” victims of Vietnam: the flag itself has a timeless appearance and doesn’t mention Vietnam or the Vietnamese at all.
Perlstein goes a step further, suggesting that even when the Vietnamese did torture prisoners, they were “only borrowing techniques practiced on them by their French colonists,” though oddly he only offers this excuse to the North Vietnamese while being extremely severe in his condemnation of the South Vietnamese for any atrocities they committed.
The POW/MIA issue is an enduring concern for Perlstein, who wrote a similar article complaining about it for The Nation in 2013. It also played a role in his 2014 book “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan”, which ran into allegations of plagiarism.
“That damned flag: It’s a shroud. It smothers the complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam,” says Perlstein. “We’ve come to our senses about that other banner of lies. It’s time to do the same with this.”
Unsurprisingly, Perlstein’s conception of the flag is not shared by everybody.
“I’m appalled that anyone can make anything racist out of something that stands for what [the flag] stands for,” Vietnam veteran Ed Lewis told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Lewis founded Ride of the Brotherhood, a charitable organization that assists veterans in the U.S. and also assists with the search for missing soldiers’ remains in Vietnam.
Lewis pointed out that while the POW/MIA flag is most associated with Vietnam, its purpose extends well beyond that war.
“That flag symbolically stands for not just the POWs and MIAs from Vietnam but from all wars,” he said. He cited as an example the recent discovery and return to the U.S. of the remains of several dozen Marines killed in the Pacific during World War II.
As for the notion that the flag’s “barbed-wire misery” somehow demeaned the experience of others in the Vietnam War, Lewis said the imagery was designed to be symbolic and to extend well beyond the circumstances of that war alone. It simply symbolizes the universal experience of any prisoners of war, with the barbed wire showing they are restrained and the tower representing that they are always watched.
“We’re not the only country that lost in the [Vietnam] War, or any war,” he said.
While Perlstein complains that the flag had hurt relations with Vietnam after the war, Lewis said that his group actually collaborates extensively with the Vietnamese for the shared goal of discovering those still missing from the war. In fact, Lewis said that in September he will be traveling to Vietnam to help search for the remains of 16 North Vietnamese special forces. Ultimately, the cause is about providing closure and honoring veterans of all conflicts, Lewis said.
“Whether your a soldier of the American Army, the Vietnamese army, the German Army, the Japanese army…no matter what military a soldier may have served under, it’s only right that their remains be returned to their family for closure.”
Still, Lewis said he wasn’t surprised the matter had somehow become politicized.
“I just knew, I felt that deep down inside, that when the controversy with the rebel flag started coming down, I told my wife ‘Anything that’s out there can be made controversial if you want to,’” he said.