The issue of the POW/MIAs from the Vietnam conflict was the main lens through which the Vietnam war was viewed by successive US administrations. The Johnson administration had kept the existence of captured American military personnel a strict secret. Nixon, and his defence secretary Melvin Laird, made the conscious to turn the POW/MIA issue into a public relations campaign.
In 1969, Nixon and his colleagues went public with this issue. The notion of American rescue of POWs became the overriding theme of the Vietnam war. The National League of POW/MIA families has its origins in this campaign. The Nixon government spared no expense in promoting the POW/MIA issue, ensuring that the negotiations between Vietnam and the United States remained deadlocked. On the domestic front, the POW/MIA issue achieved national media coverage, celebrity endorsements and profile. The POW/MIA bracelet became a best-selling item – along with the ubiquitous POW/MIA flag.
The POW/MIA issue was accompanied by a mass marketing campaign – bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee mugs, home windows, badges, motorcycle gang patches, postcards – all featured the black POW/MIA flag. The POW bracelet was a resounding success, with numerous Hollywood celebrities wearing the bracelet as part of the effort to raise awareness of the issue. The POW/MIA flag is sewn into the sleeve of the official white robe of the Ku Klux Klan.
On the international stage, the POW/MIA myth was deployed by the Nixon administration to scuttle peace talks between the United States and Vietnam. Ruling circles in Washington were intent on maintaining some kind of client regime in Saigon. With public opinion turning against the prosecution of this war – and Vietnam veterans were heavily involved in the anti-war campaigning – Nixon and his colleagues exploited the grief of those who had lost loved ones in Vietnam for particular political purposes.
Hanoi insisted that the US contribute financially towards the reconstruction of the country is had spent so many years damaging. The US insisted that first, a full accounting of all live captives and unaccounted for be provided by Hanoi. This is where negotiations deadlocked. In fact, Vietnam was anxious to begin the long and costly process of reconstruction. All the live POWs had been returned by Vietnam in 1973 during Operation Homecoming.
By holding back aid for Vietnam until every single last mythical POW/MIA had been accounted for, the US was effectively imposing an economic embargo on that nation. Let us be clear – there are always missing in action after every conflict. There are still thousands of American military personnel still unaccounted for from World War Two – yet the United States contributed millions towards the post-WWII rebuilding of Europe.
In 2017, the case of the late US Army Air Staff Sergeant Alfonso Duran was closed. A field mission recovered his remains, where the locals had buried him after his plane was shot down – by the Germans. Duran’s case is not from the Vietnam conflict, but from World War Two. He was shot down on February 25, 1944, and his remains were buried in a town in Slovenia. His case serves to illustrate that POWs and MIAs are not equivalent, and that the search for missing personnel continues.
Vietnam cooperated with field missions and fact-finding groups that sought to resolve the issue of POWs and MIAs. Such cooperation continues until today. No prisoners were left behind by the United States. In fact, keeping live captives and then strenuously denying they even exist makes no logical sense from Hanoi’s perspective. If you had captives to be used as bargaining chips to extract concessions, repeatedly denying that you have such captives is hardly logical.
Numerous congressional committees and investigations have taken place into the issue of any remaining living POWs in Vietnam, and no credible evidence has ever emerged that Hanoi secretly detained such captives after the war’s end. Back in 1985, when former US President Ronald Reagan elevated the issue into a national electoral priority, the New Republic wrote that “real-life Rambos have no one to rescue.”
Professor Robert Brigham from Vassar college has stated that it is understandable that those who have loved ones who served in Vietnam have clung to hope – however remote – that there is a possibility that their relatives survived that conflict. What is scandalous is the cynical manipulation of their grief to continue refighting and rehabilitating a predatory and criminal war.
The Vietnamese were defending themselves – first against the French colonial power, and then the Americans – and fighting for their self-determination. The POW/MIA myth inverts history and turns the Vietnamese from fighters into captors. The savage and near-apocalyptic violence visited upon Vietnam left scars on the nation until today. Rather than understanding that essential history, the POW/MIA myth deliberately distracts from it.
When former Senator John McCain passed away in August last year, his funeral was turned into an exercise of near-canonisation. Eulogies flowed endlessly from political figures both Republican and Democrat. He has passed on – rest in peace. His passing should not be an occasion to speak ill of the dead – but uncritical eulogising should not remain unchallenged. He participated as an airman in a vicious and predatory war – a war which inflicted unimaginable suffering on its Vietnamese victims.
McCain himself undoubtedly suffered when he was held as a POW for five-and-a-half years. But his torment was only the resultant outcome of an illegal and savage war in which he voluntarily participated. In fact, we should adopt the same attitude towards McCain as we do towards the Confederate soldiers who fought in the US civil war. Their suffering is undeniable, but they fought for a cause which was criminal and contained a strong undercurrent of racism.
McCain, having dropped bombs on the Vietnamese from a great height, finally faced the consequences of his actions when he was downed and captured. He remained an unrepentant proponent of imperial wars throughout his life. Let us reserve our compassion for human agony for the thousands of Vietnam veterans who returned from that war suffering from PTSD, facing homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and numerous mental health issues as they struggled to reintegrate into civilian life.
Let us remember that there are Australian Vietnam veterans who struggled with PTSD on their return home. Perhaps my own bias as an Australian is showing through here, but nevertheless PTSD issues are not confined to one particular nationality. Let us grieve for Warren, a Vietnam veteran who has lives most of his adult life with PTSD. There is an ongoing problem of homeless veterans in the United States, which requires urgent attention.
It is time to take down the POW/MIA flag. We would do well to honour the veterans by stopping the imperialistic wars which inflict untold suffering and trauma on their victims and participants.