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.