Take down the POW/MIA flags

By Rick Holmes

April 22, 2015

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Forty years ago this month, tanks of the army of North Vietnam rolled into downtown Saigon and the last of the Americans flew out. The flags of the defeated government of South Vietnam came down all over what had been suddenly renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Back in the USA, another flag from that war was just beginning to take its place on flagpoles, in a place of honor second only to the American flag.  Those black-and-white POW/MIA flags fly there still, and that’s something we should talk about.

The POW/MIA flag was born as a political banner, not a battle flag.  It was commissioned in 1972 by the National League of POW/MIA Families, an organization the Nixon White House helped create to focus attention on the plight of service members held by the North Vietnamese.

Nixon had a political motive for spotlighting the POWs.  By the time he took office in 1969, millions of Americans were questioning the rationale for what had become a bloody quagmire. People needed a new reason to get behind the war. Nixon gave them the POWs.

As recounted most recently in Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” Nixon made the return of prisoners of war, traditionally a detail worked out after the war was over, into a central issue as the fighting continued. It was a political strategy at home, and a negotiating point with the North Vietnamese in the ongoing Paris peace talks. Nixon denounced the conditions in which American POWs were held and demanded their release.

This mystified the North Vietnamese, Perlstein writes, because while a few hundred Americans were held in Hanoi, many thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers were prisoners in South Vietnam, held in conditions that were far worse. In their eyes, the American POWs were neither heroes nor victims. Almost all of them had been shot down while they were dropping bombs that killed Vietnamese men, women and children.

Americans saw it Nixon’s way. Encouraged by media eager for war heroes, America embraced its POWs. Silver bracelets with POW names inscribed on them became both political and fashion statements. Winning the war became less important than bringing home the POWs. Writing in The New Yorker in 1970, Jonathan Schell said Americans were acting “as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.”

To build even more sympathy for the POWS, Nixon used an accounting trick that later came back to bite him. In military records, soldiers whose planes crashed in hostile territory were classified as “Killed In Action- Body Not Recovered.” Nixon’s Defense Department combined two categories – POWs known to be in enemy hands and KIA/BNRs – into one, rebranding them as POW/MIAs. Instead of talking about 500 or so POWs, the administration demanded the return of 1,600 POW/MIAs.

This slight-of-hand was hard on the families. In World War II, my Uncle Bub’s plane crashed in the Balkans and he was designated a KIA/BNR. His remains were never found, but he was assumed to be dead, and his wife went on with her life, remarrying and raising a large family. Uncle Bub’s president didn’t pretend he was alive and turn him into a bargaining chip or a political prop.

For the wives and families of Vietnam MIAs, it was another story. The MIA wives were lumped in with the POW wives – families who knew their men were alive. The MIA wives couldn’t move on. They had to keep hope alive, even though the Pentagon had little doubt about their husbands’ fate

The POWs and MIAs part ways

In 1973, after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, the POWs were released at last. The Nixon administration orchestrated “Operation Homecoming” to see that they were welcomed back as conquering heroes, the embodiment of the “honor” in Nixon’s “peace with honor” promise.

All the known POWs were home. The problem was there were only 587 of them.

The National League of Families, which had by then slipped out of the White House’s control, demanded to know where the other 1,013 MIAs were.  The Vietnam War might be over, but the home-front army of the POW/MIAs wouldn’t disband until the last man was accounted for.

North Vietnam said there were no living POWs or remains to turn over, but provisions of the Paris Peace Accords were soon broken by both sides, so there was no way the U.S. could look for them. MIA stories became fodder for conspiracy theories, political ads and popular culture. In Rambo II (1985), Sylvester Stallone returned to Vietnam and rescued secretly-held POWs. It was a big hit.

In Southeast Asia, doubts about the MIAs were fed by people who claimed to have seen a secret prison camp or heard of an American still alive. They promised to produce evidence - for a fee.  POW/MIA families lost thousands of dollars to such con artists.

And the POW/MIA flags multiplied.  The further America got from the release of the actual POWs in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, the more prominent the flag became. Politicians, always eager to wrap themselves in whatever flag voters liked, joined in the embrace. In 1989, Congress gave the POW/MIA flag a place of honor in the Capitol rotunda. In 1998, Congress designated six days when the flag was required to be flown.

No living POWs were ever found. Some remains were discovered and returned by the government of Vietnam and the Pentagon is still pursuing leads and closing files. But human remains just don’t last long in the fetid jungles of Vietnam.

In the early ‘90s, two Vietnam vets, Sens. John Kerry and John McCain, were sent by President Bill Clinton to close the book on the MIAs. Kerry later told me about watching a team of Vietnamese investigators sifting through jungle dirt with teaspoons and sieves, looking for any tiny pieces of bone from the pilot who may have crashed there 30 years before.

Kerry and McCain reported back that there was no evidence of Americans, living or dead, being hidden by Vietnam. Clinton normalized relations between the two countries and named a former POW to be the first U.S ambassador to Vietnam.

The wrong flag in the wrong place

Vietnam is now a trading partner, and a popular tourist destination, especially for veterans.

 But still the POW/MIA flags fly, and not just on special days or in special places. They fly in town squares, in front of post offices, state capitals, schools and municipal buildings. Often, they hang right below Old Glory, on the same flagpole. They’ve become so common we hardly even see them.

But we should take a hard look at the flag. It’s white-on-black, like a Jolly Rodger or the ISIS flag. A silhouette of a gaunt soldier hangs his head, barbed wire and a prison guard tower looming behind him. “POW/MIA – You Are Not Forgotten” the flags say.

It’s a nice sentiment, but if it is the statement of the American nation, we should know what it means.  Specifically, who is “not forgotten?” Is it the 587 real POWs we aren’t supposed to forget, the men who came home 42 years ago? Some of them, like McCain, have done quite well. Is that who we’re honoring with the flag?

Is it the 1,000 MIAs, whose status was fudged by Nixon for political and negotiating purposes? What about my Uncle Bub and the other KIA/BNRs before Vietnam? Are they not forgotten?

And if the POWs and MIAs are not forgotten, does that mean it’s OK to forget the KIAs? What about all the others who wore the uniform and risked their lives in all of America’s wars? What about those serving, and those dying, in wars America is still fighting today?

All of them should be remembered, of course. But if we really want to remember all the men and women who have served and sacrificed in the armed forces, we ought to be able to come up with a better flag.

America’s veterans deserve better than to be symbolized by a prisoner held in an enemy camp. That’s a symbol of defeat. We ought to have a flag that pays tribute to everyone who served, not just one war’s POW/MIAs. And we ought to have a flag that brings Americans together – not one rooted in the most divisive war of the last century.

It’s time to take the POW/MIA flags down.  Put them in museums. Bring them out on special occasions. Let the military, cemeteries and veterans organizations fly them as they wish. But let’s stop hanging them everywhere the American flag hangs, a strange and unnecessary addendum, signifying something-or-other that seemed important back in the 1980s

Let’s come up with a better flag to honor service and sacrifice. Better yet, let the American flag fly alone, free from politics, representing all or us and what we stand for, as it always has.