The Corner

Culture

So Now the POW/MIA Flag Is Under Fire — as a Symbol of ‘Racist Hate’

Another day, another argument that a flag must come down. Today’s target is a bit surprising — the POW/MIA flag that flies from government buildings, honoring the hundreds of Americans still missing and unaccounted for in Vietnam. Writing in the pages of Newsweek, a very angry Rick Perlstein is simply not having it, declaring, “That damned flag: It’s a shroud. It smothers the complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam.” In fact, he claims the entire emphasis on American missing and POW’s was nothing but a political trick designed to detract from alleged American deceptions and war crimes:

During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved [missing, downed pilots] into a newly invented “Missing in Action” column. That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up.

He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions—the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane. He also demanded the release of American prisoners as a precondition to ending the war.

This was bullshit four times over: first, because in every other conflict in human history, the release of prisoners had been something settled at the close of a war; second, because these prisoners only existed because of America’s antecedent violations of the Geneva Conventions in bombing civilians in an undeclared war; third, because, as bad as their torture of prisoners was, rather than representing some species of Oriental despotism, the Vietnam Communists were only borrowing techniques practiced on them by their French colonists (and incidentally paid forward by us in places like Abu Ghraib): see this as-told-to memoir by POW and future senator Jeremiah Denton. And finally, our South Vietnamese allies’ treatment of their prisoners, who lived manacled to the floors in crippling underground bamboo “tiger cages” in prison camps built by us, was far worse than the torture our personnel suffered.

It’s not common to see a leftist still carrying the torch for the Viet Cong and the NVA, but it’s a useful reminder of the rage that beats within some leftist hearts, a rage that can even take a symbol meant to honor and remind Americans of the undeniable fact that there are — in fact — men who are missing in Vietnam, men we can’t account for an may never be found, and turn it into a symbol of — you guessed it — racism. Never mind that Americans were dying to defend people of the exact same race as the enemies they fought. Never mind that families fly the flag to remind their neighbors of their sacrifice, and our nation flies it to remind citizens of the men of courage who fought a deadly Communist enemy. It’s not a battle flag, nor is it a flag of conquest. It’s a flag of remembrance.

But that’s the entire point. Perlstein hates that people don’t remember the Vietnam War the way he wants it remembered, as a racist, unlawful enterprise. The POW/MIA flag is merely a pretext for him to repeat the tired arguments of the 1970s, arguments that lost their sting when the NVA finally triumphed, and the world watched a Communist dictatorship work its vengeance on the South Vietnamese population. He won’t bring down the flag, but he apparently does want to re-start a historical battle that the Left has largely and rightly lost since the Fall of Saigon. His piece is further evidence that the defense of history — like the defense of liberty — requires constant vigilance.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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