Around 15 minutes ago, I finished reading a prominent Newsweek article arguing that the POW/MIA flag should—like the Confederate flag—be taken down because it’s a symbol of racism.
Normally I don’t let these internet opinion pieces get me all worked up. As a committed monarchist, I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of human beings are too ignorant and ill-bred to have intelligent ideas about anything.
This one, however, actually got my dander up. Very up. My father spent a miserable year of his life between 1970 and 71 in the jungles of Vietnam being shot out of helicopters and hiding in rice paddies from men who wanted to kill him, and growing up in rural Pennsylvania (i.e. The Deer Hunter territory), POW/MIA flags were a common occurrence. People regularly flew them over their homes, and in one case vividly painted the logo on the side of a barn near my mother’s house in honor of a long lost loved one. As wars that concluded happened more than a decade before my birth go, the Vietnam War is one whose meaning and place in our society I’ve spent a lot of my life contemplating. I wouldn’t say that I have strong opinions about the war, but I do have a strong preference for thoughtful ideas about that war.
And, sadly, Perlstein’s idea isn’t thoughtful. It’s that other thing—asinine.
Perlstein’s argument is essentially this: the POW/MIA flag wasn’t something magically invented by some peasant farmers in Nebraska. It was concocted by the Nixon administration to focus attention on all the prisoners supposedly being held in famously torturous North Vietnamese (many of which Perlstein asserts were fictitious) as a way to motivate the American people to continue supporting the war effort. It was, ultimately, a piece of propaganda in a racist war against the unfairly maligned North Vietnamese.
On first inspection, this argument seems to hold a certain amount of water. Nixon was evil, Vietnam Was evil, this POW/MIA flag was part of sustaining that evil so it therefore must be evil itself. But when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that Perlstein, who was 3 when Nixon withdrew the bulk of American troops, is actually talking out of his ass.
First off, he bases a key part of his idea that the POW/MIA movement should be considered entirely a creation of Nixon because the Pentagon changed the definition of soldiers (particularly pilots) who were shot down but whose bodies were never found from “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered” to “Missing in Action.” To Perlstein this shows a clear effort at manipulating the facts in preparation for the propaganda effort. If these soldiers aren’t actually considered fully dead, but just “missing” you can gin up all this hope amongst their families and society as a whole that they’re still out there somewhere, probably being tortured, and in need of rescue.
What Perlstein misses in this sweeping denouncement is that the shift from KIA-BU to MIA didn’t just reflect a propagandist’s spin but also reflected the fact that the military didn’t really know if a given lost soldier or downed pilot was actually dead. The Vietnam War was one in which soldiers who were presumed long dead were constantly reappearing suddenly in North Vietnamese propaganda or in prison camps or would just wander one day out form the jungle (a case in point the star of Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly).
Second, he does what so many anti-Vietnam War polemicists do and talk about the North Vietnamese as if they were great guys who only had the universal well-being of mankind in mind when they invaded South Vietnam. All the tortures for which the North Vietnamese were famous, the prisons, the shackles, the nail pulling, the bamboo prisons, those were actually all things done by the South Vietnamese.
Here Perlstein is not wrong in the sense that the South Vietnamese government was averse to despotism. The leaders of South Vietnam ranged from the nightmarishly cruel but effective to the nightmarishly cruel and incompetent, but to pretend like that brutality born of civil war was not shared in equal measure by the North is a distortion of reality to so blatant as to merit a kick to the shin. My father describes walking into villages where the North Vietnamese had mounted the severed heads of American soldiers and South Vietnamese civilians on rows and rows of pikes. At the Battle of Huế, they massacred 4,000 South Vietnamese civilians and Prisoners of War, largely by clubbing them to death or burying them alive in pits. The North Vietnamese (like the South Vietnamese) were engaged in an existential, ideological war. In such conflicts, as regrettable as it might be, the niceties of war quickly evaporate into moralist vapor. To try and argue one side was a more humane instrument of human suffering than the other is just an exercise in bias.
Perlstein’s third error is perhaps his most egregious. It comes in in this disaster of a run on sentence:
“[The POW/MIA flag] 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.”
By sneering so derisively at the idea that Americans were “the preeminent victims” of the Vietnam War and then—as already discussed—pretending that all the tortures inflicted were actually committed by the South Vietnamese and men like John McCain were just confused about being forced to eat soups laced with pebbles so as to break their teeth, he’s really asserting that the American POWS and American soldiers weren’t really victims at all.
But they were. They suffered immensely, and they’re suffering had little to do with politics or ideology, imperialism or liberation, it was largely personal. The suffering of violence, of being forced to kill other human beings, of watching those you cared about be murdered, of having your flesh torn apart by bullets, of staring into the existential abyss that is realizing that all of that suffering ultimately ended up being for nothing. If you listen to my father talk about his experience there, he never talks about his time there as if what he was doing was protecting the free world or protecting the citizens of South Vietnam. He talks about it only in terms of trying to survive.
To the American soldiers who served in that war, Vietnam was not a conflict but a labyrinth, a place into which you were plunged against your will by a government adding machine until, by the grace of God, you suffered enough that the adding machine let you go home where, it turned out, a substantial segment of the population had decided in your absence that it hated you for having been kidnapped. People try anymore to pretend like the scorn heaped about the veterans of the Vietnam War never happened, but it did. My father describes being spit upon—literally spit upon—by protesters outside the army base where he was discharged. He tells another story about how a woman he went on a date with after he came home who kept asking him where he had been the last couple years. At first he deferred; he wasn’t proud of being in Vietnam, he wasn’t proud of his service, he didn’t want to have to talk about those experiences he preferred to forget, but she kept pressing and he eventually admitted, “Well, I was in the service.”
“In Vietnam?” she reportedly asked.
“Okay,” she said, went to the bathroom, and then told him, “I’d like to go home.”
You can argue that all that humiliation and rejection and violence isn’t sufficient suffering when compared to the suffering of others. You can, I suppose, build some sort of Vietnam War hierarchy of grievances chart where, after careful mathematical calculation, you fit in a given American soldier below the vice-president of the Viet Cong Veterans Alliance but above that “famous” Vietnamese officer who shot that “alleged spy” after receiving word his entire family had been killed by communist terrorists. But such hair splitting is insane. Suffering is suffering and people who have suffered have a right to articulate that suffering.
It is only because the POW/MIA flag symbolizes that suffering that it continues exist long after, as Perlstein points, all the war has ended and any reasonable hope that the missing soldiers and airmen are still alive. The flag isn’t about going back to Vietnam and redeclaring war. It’s about remembrance. It reads right across its heart, “You are not forgotten.” It says that as much as others might want to forget, we haven’t. We refuse to. To tell the survivors of the Vietnam War, their families, their friends, that the flag they’ve chosen to symbolize that suffering, to embody their protest against a society that would rather they just die off already, is inappropriate or offensive is no less an act of paternalistic silencing than trying to tell #BlackLivesMatter activists that it’s disrespectful to yell so much about the plague of police shootings in their communities.
And this, alas, is what is truly so upsetting about Perlstein’s trite little essay—he’s not really interested at all in actually making an argument about the Vietnam War but only in silencing people. He has this vision of what the Vietnam War was, this act of evil imperialism perpetrated by all these horrible, scheming, lying American bureaucrats (and undoubtedly some corporate taskmasters) on the nice, innocent, progressive, socialist citizens of Vietnam. By taking away the POW/MIA flag, by calling it racist and based on lies, what he seems to want to do is remove a key symbol of those that would resist that narrative, who would dare to push back against it and include their own voices and their own experiences and keep alive the historical memory of those Americans who were more or less kidnapped from their homes and shipped halfway around the world to die in a conflict they didn’t understand let alone care about. He wants to do to them what the Fraternal Order of Police tried to do to Michael Brown, smear them, degrade them, delegitimize them.
That’s not a thing you get to do. Every day in this society we talk about how important it is to recognize the suffering of others, the ways in which they’ve been oppressed. We talk about the increasingly awful relationship between African-Americans and the police, about wealth inequality, about economic deprivation. To stand vehemently in defense of those people’s right to express their dissatisfaction with society, with how they feel they’ve been screwed, but then turn to those that Vietnam War damaged, those whose lives it changed inalterably, whose loved ones it killed, whose heads it filled with nightmares, would be to make us all hypocrites. If the POW/MIA flag is meaningful to them, important to them, it must be important to us because they’re experience must be important to us. We must, when telling the story of that war, make sure that all of its victims are heard, not just the ones we agree with, not just the ones who are victimized the way we want them to be victimized, but even those whose ideas of that war trouble our own, who still insist unfashionably that there really was something at stake in continuing it, or something other than communal national shame in remembering it, or that—like my father—would hang the Peace Protesters and Richard Nixon with the same rope.
(Did you find something meaningful in this essay? Then share it. We’d be forever in your debt.)