The Vietnam POW/MIA issue needs to be laid to rest – Part One

The issue of the Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) is one of the last remaining leftover campaigns from the Vietnam War. This refers to the fate of American military personnel still listed as Missing in Action or Prisoners of War in Vietnam and the related military operations of the United States forces in Southeast Asia.

The issue has its own very public and heavily promoted symbol – the POW/MIA flag. This flag has attained particular prominence since the conclusion of the Vietnam War – it is flown alongside the American flag atop many government buildings throughout the United States.

In Honolulu, the POW/MIA flag is flown at the headquarters of the American Legion, a military veterans organisation. The motorcycle group Rolling Thunder, dedicated to the return of all ‘live captives’ from Vietnam, held their rally through the streets of Honolulu in late last year. Alongside the American flag, the standard bearer of the rally held the POW/MIA flag. Though the popularity of the motorcycle group has declined, the POW/MIA issue still holds a special place, almost that of a national religion, in the American cultural consciousness.

Is there any truth in this widespread belief that the North Vietnamese kept live American POWs after the conclusion of the Vietnam hostilities? Even a cursory examination of the popular culture reveals that the belief in POW/MIAs still persists. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, numerous movies were made in Hollywood depicting attempts by private individuals – usually Vietnam veterans – to launch rescue missions despite official resistance and denials by the US government that such captives exist. Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, Chuck Norris’ numerous Missing in Action movies, Gene Hackman in Uncommon Valor – all had as their common theme a rightwing version of Watergate.

The US government and its various agencies, the Pentagon, the US Congress, the military intelligence agencies – all are engaged in a deceitful and monumental coverup – namely, denying the existence of live American captives in Vietnam after the end of that war – so we are led to believe by the partisans of this conspiratorial viewpoint. This conspiracy reaches the highest levels of the American government, and it is only the lonesome and courageous efforts of unrepentant Vietnam war warriors – such as Bo Gritz, aided and abetted by organisations such as the National League of POW/MIA Families – that has kept alive this issue in the face of government attempts to squash it.

It is worthwhile examining this issue – and being skeptical of the continued existence of live captives after the Vietnam war – for a number of reasons. The POW/MIA myth – because that is what it is – is unique to the Vietnam conflict in that it has provided a never-ending rehabilitation of that war.

There have been – and still are – military personnel unaccounted for from every war. At the end of World War 2, there were 79 000 American military personnel still unaccounted for. That is out of a total of 16 million Americans who served in that conflict. The Department of Defence’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency is still researching and updating their records as new information about the MIAs filters in.

It is not just from the World War 2 conflict – 7800 Americans still remain unaccounted for from the Korean conflict. There is no residual campaign to liberate American captives from either of these conflicts. The POW/MIA issue is a deliberately constructed propaganda exercise – originating with the Nixon administration – to justify American efforts to continue the Vietnam conflict in a different way from open military intervention. Examining this issue forces us to ask serious questions about ourselves and our own political culture – a culture which exploits the legitimate grief of loved ones of unaccounted personnel for imperialistic political purposes.

Prior to American involvement in Vietnam, there was no such category as POW/MIA. The military had maintained a strict distinction between those who were known to have been captured by the enemy, and those personnel who were unaccounted for. The category Killed in Action/ Body Not Recovered (KIA/BNR) was used in those instances where the body had disintegrated, or was lost in totally inaccessible locations. Aircrew whose plane had been shot down, or who were lost at sea, or downed over dense tropical jungle, were included in this category.

Prior to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, this category was kept separate. The Nixon administration cleverly lumped all MIAs and POWs into one conflated category. It was a brilliant, if malignant, propaganda coup. For now on, any MIA personnel would immediately and inevitably be associated with POW. Once MIAs could be directly linked as possible POWs, the Nixon administration created a category that could never be falsified – if a soldier is listed as MIA, surely they could possibly still be alive somewhere in Southeast Asia as a captive in a secret POW camp?

H Bruce Franklin, an American cultural historian and author of books on this subject, wrote that:

Arguably the cagiest stroke of the Nixon Presidency was the slash forever linking POW and MIA. In all previous wars, there was one category called “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 possibly 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.

Why did the Nixon administration do this? By the late 1960s, despite intensive aerial bombardment of Vietnam, the prospect of outright military victory was remote. The 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese demonstrated to the American military that victory was virtually impossible. Nixon’s predecessor, Johnson, had kept the issue of captured American military personnel, most of them air force pilots, under wraps. Increasing number of Vietnam veterans were protesting the war, most notably organised into the Vietnam Veterans Against the War group.

In addition to the deteriorating military situation for the Americans, the routine torture and killings by their allies, the South Vietnam Saigon regime, was achieving greater publicity and generating further domestic opposition to the war. The Saigon puppet government, a collection of corrupt generals and thieving politicians, was a kleptocratic dictatorship that used savage violence against any and all opponents. When the Vietnamese Buddhists rose up and protested the discriminatory policies of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the early 1960s, protesters were locked up in so-called ‘tiger cages’ where they were manacled, beaten, malnourished and tortured.

When Diem failed to successfully suppress the non-violent Buddhist opposition, he was assassinated in a CIA-backed coup by his generals in November 1963. This coup had the support of the Kennedy administration. Diem was gone, but the client regime remained. Torture and violence was the way the Saigon rulers stayed in power, a regime US forces were supporting. News about this client regime’s brutal measures filtered out, influencing American domestic opposition to the war.

Nixon, inheriting this mess, decided to change the goalposts. No longer was definitive military victory promised, but the rescue of American POW/MIAs. Shifting the moral onus of the war onto North Vietnam, he portrayed the situation as one of helpless captives being held hostage by the scheming, maniacal North Vietnamese. After all, Asian Communists make for convenient villains in American culture. No longer was the Vietnam war a case of American aggression against a weaker opponent. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia – none of these nations ever attacked America. Even if they wanted to, they did not have the capacity to attack.

Forgotten were the lies fabricated by the United States which served as a pretext to invade Vietnam. Forgotten was the constant napalming of villages, burning and mutilating Vietnamese with overwhelmingly firepower. Long forgotten were the millions of Vietnamese victims, and the 300 000 Vietnamese missing in action. Forgotten is the fact that the United States dropped more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than it did during all its participation in World War Two.

Distracting the domestic opposition to the war, the Nixon campaign found an issue that would serve to deflect criticism of its war policies, and refocus energy on continuing the patriotic effort to fight the Vietnam war. Singling out the POW/MIAs in Vietnam was a cynical manoeuvre to counter the Vietnam veterans who were organising protests against this war and exposing the crimes of the Saigon allies.

The Nixon administration, and subsequent presidents, made the rescue of the POW/MIAs a top priority. Former President Reagan declared that if the Vietnamese government did not provide a full accounting of the POW/MIAs, he would resume bombing that country. Actually, the defence department accounting agency keeps detailed statistics about those personnel unaccounted for. The latest information places the number of unaccounted for from Vietnam at 1247. Out of those, 470 are deemed to be non-recoverable. That leaves 777 as the remainder.

Since the war’s end, there have been numerous investigations – congressional committees, federal departments and agencies, as well as private organisations – and no credible or verifiable evidence has yet emerged that a single POW is being held by Vietnam after the end of the war. Yet, we are still gripped by a fever to find those missing POWs.

How did the POW/MIA myth take hold and become such a powerful factor in American culture? How does this issue contribute to an unending Vietnam war? We will examine these issues in the next part. Stayed tuned.

In the meantime, you may wish to read the magisterial study of this issue written by Professor Michael J. Allen, called Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War.

The Covington kids, the MAGA hat and Donald Trump

The Indigenous Peoples March, held in January this year, has been overshadowed by a controversy regarding the confrontation between a Native American Omaha elder and a group of Make America Great Again (MAGA) teens from Covington Catholic school. The students, ostensibly attending a misnamed ‘pro-life’ rally in Washington, were filmed harassing the indigenous American elder. No doubt millions have viewed the viral video footage of the confrontation, and various interpretations have been offered regarding the responsibility for the altercation.

The most public image of the conflict is that of a smirking Nick Sandmann, one of the dozens of Covington Catholic school students wearing the MAGA hat, confronting the indigenous American man. The MAGA-wearing students, after initially being blamed by social media commentators for harassing the Native American elder, have been turned into victims by right-wing and conservative media outlets willing to excuse or at least minimise the causative factor of racism and white supremacy in this incident.

Jason Wilson, writing for The Guardian newspaper, documents how the conservative Right reframed the confrontation into one of a ‘rush to judgement’, where the Covington students are the victims and the indigenous peoples marchers are the aggressors. Wilson perceptively deconstructs the PR campaign the conservative and right-wing media have waged to promote the myth of white victimhood. Much has been made of the presence of a cult, the black Hebrew Israelites, at the indigenous peoples march.

There is no question that the black Israelites are a cult, who misuse and misread history for their own narrow purposes. It is true that this grouping in homophobic and anti-Semitic. But it is interesting to note that the black Hebrew Israelites were never directly confronted by the Covington Catholic MAGA teens. The latter harassed and intimidated the one person who was trying to bring civility and maturity into the incident, the indigenous Omaha elder.

Interestingly, a Louisville public relations company, RunSwitch PR, was hired by the Sandmann family to promote the version of events supportive of the Covington MAGA students. In this age of perception management, having a PR company on side definitely tilts the balance in one’s favour. Propaganda is not the exclusive preserve of Communist systems. Corporate propaganda has become a mainstay of capitalist societies.

The MAGA hat

There is no question that the slogan “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) is an effective propaganda weapon. The MAGA hat, emblazoned with the Trumpist slogan, is now a ubiquitous feature of American political life. It has become a statement of tribal loyalty, a shared white victimhood that rages against ethnic minorities, civil rights, and any perceived encroachment on the privileges of the nativist white majority.

In fact, the MAGA hat has become a more successful and widely implemented symbol of white supremacy than the white hood and bedsheet of the KKK. In the past, there was (and in some Southern states still is) the Confederate flag, a relic of a bygone era of slavery and white privilege. That flag has an atavistic quality about it, symbolising as it does, an economic and political system that was defeated in the ravages of war.

There exists, until today, a neo-Confederate movement, which attempts to rehabilitate the slaveholding South and resist racial integration. This movement, with its own reservations, has endorsed the presidency of Donald Trump. Proponents of the neo-Confederacy look to the antebellum South for values, ideals and as an exemplar of “Anglo-Celtic” heritage. But this movement cannot shake the stigma of being stuck in the past – it required an update for the 21st century.

The MAGA hat is the perfect upgrade for an outmoded and obsolete racist message. Robin Givhan, writing in the Washington Post, states that the MAGA hat is not only an expression of garrulous narcissism – exemplified by Trump himself – but something much deeper:

The MAGA hat speaks to America’s greatness with lies of omission and contortion. To wear a MAGA hat is to wrap oneself in a Confederate flag. The look may be more modern and the fit more precise, but it’s just as woeful and ugly.

By turning the Covington MAGA teens from perpetrators to victims, the conservative media have successfully ignored the legitimate issues raised by the indigenous peoples march – one major issue being the mistreatment of indigenous children. Trump, by allying himself with the MAGA teens, disguised his intervention as concern for the well-being of the Covington students and the alleged ‘rush to judgement’ by the media. However, his posturing of concern for children is rank hypocrisy, given the Trump administration’s mistreatment of children at immigration detention centres.

Donald Trump is the modern version of George Wallace

When discussing the Trump presidency, much is made of the contrast between him and his predecessor Barack Obama. Trump’s detractors on the conservative side of politics emphasise the differences between past Republican presidents and the current incumbent. The implication of this viewpoint is that Trump represents a striking break with the past. While there is merit in this evaluation, I think it falls short in one major respect. We have seen Donald Trump before – his name was George Wallace.

The late George Wallace, the former racist governor of Alabama and diehard segregationist, gained national attention in 1963 when he made his symbolic stand in the schoolhouse, protesting the racial integration of the University of Alabama. After that stunt, Wallace became the public candidate of white resentment, the counter-reaction to the growth of civil rights and formal racial equality. While ultimately unsuccessful, his campaign advocated many of the themes and ideas updated and recycled by Donald Trump.

Wallace, when campaigning for the presidency, tapped into a reservoir of white racial resentment against the perceived rising tide of civil rights. But he also portrayed himself as the anti-establishment candidate, the maverick outsider willing to take on the liberal and cosmopolitan elites that have purportedly excluded the white working class. In tones eerily echoed down the ages by Trump and the Republican right, Wallace contemptuously sneered at the media and the federal government for allegedly giving too much ground to those pesky and demanding ethnic minorities.

Trump is not a brazen segregationist like Wallace, and his only fixed ideology is that of financial speculation. However, his politics has strong similarities to that of Wallace – while Trump popularised MAGA, Wallace had the similar ‘Standing up for America’. In fact, when comparing the political rhetoric of the two candidates, it is difficult to determine where Trump’s viewpoints differ from those of Wallace.

Indigenous nations and anti-racism

There can be no serious anti-racist politics without including the recognition of the indigenous nations of the Americas. Multiethnic solidarity does not submerge all nationalities into one ‘rainbow coalition’ – as nice as the latter sounds. Anti-racist politics recognises the specific demands of each ethnic group, but brings them together to create a nation of solidarity. Focusing on issues of race and gender does not involve marginalising class-based struggles or ignoring economic issues.

It is appropriate to highlight an article by Armenian American writer Anoush Ter Taulian, who wrote about the reasons why she marched in the indigenous peoples march earlier this year. We would do well to learn from her example.