Tag Archives: MIAs

You have forgotten what to remember

You are not forgottenCan someone please explain to me what it means to fly this flag? The POW-MIA flag is ubiquitous these days around veterans. Our town hall flies this black flag halfway below the Stars and Stripes. When the latter is at half mast, the former hangs indecorously low. Which reminds me of a pirate ship stalking a wavering Old Glory.
 
I understand POW and MIA, and “you are not forgotten.” But there is no flag for the veterans, the dead or wounded, to whom does this lone flag speak and why?

Since the Gulf War, the US military maintains that it loses track of none of its soldiers. We’ve had POWs but they’ve been returned, and we’ve had MIAs whose bodies have been found. One was recovered even recently, though it was the body of a pilot lost over Iraq, understood to have died. Casualties at sea are still sometimes unrecoverable, but at least something about American war-making proficiency now permits us to confirm deaths even sans corpus. Supposedly.

US military engagements between those wars, and later, have been kept outside public scrutiny, or not officially admitted. As a result, they’ve added no POWs or MIAs for the home front to worry over.

Which leaves Vietnam, from whose era comes the dark silhouette of a bent inmate in the shadow of a prison guard tower. According to the last report, there remain 1728 American soldiers missing in action in Indochina. They are unaccounted for — it might be more fair to say–not missing persons, expected to turn up.

During the Vietnam War, the MIA list gave hope that your soldier wasn’t among the fallen. It was a hope that loved ones could cling to for even years after the fall of Siagon. On the radio, a Dick Curless hit from 1965 continued to resonate even as the war receded from memory. “Six Times a Day” told of a bride in post-WWII Germany who met the trains every day, awaiting the return of her German soldier, held by the Soviets in war-reparation labor camps until the Russians considered them to have atoned. Was this what we expected Vietnam was doing?

Six times a day the trains came down from Frankfort
The night he came ten years were almost through
She held him close and said I knew you’d be here
He said I had no doubt you’d be here too

American wives were determined to wait even longer, except evidence of post-war prisoners never came. There was speculation of a cover-up, suspicions which politicians like John Kerry and John McCain do little to assuage. After the war, some believe that prisoner GIs were left behind, whom the North Vietnamese hoped to exchange for war reparations. Instead of paying, it’s conjectured that the US government chose to deny the existence of those men. No American diplomat has ever confirmed the scenario, and no surviving GI has ever surfaced.

The closest we’ve come to rescuing POWs was at the movies, when Rambo went back for a jailbreak and to do-over America’s lost war.

Even as the rumor persisted, the fate of the abandoned POWs is assumed to have been execution at the hands of their former foe, presumed so exasperated and bitter. The general consensus today, no matter the theory, is that no veteran is anticipated to step alive from the sad lists of the Vietnam MIA.

If they are presumed dead, then what separates an MIA from the dead, who we honor together with all veterans? The Vietnam MIA have been added to the Vietnam Memorial. How now is their memory any different?

Even recently I’ve seen relatives of those MIA conduct special ceremonies on Memorial Day, with the empty place setting, the chair, the vase and rose, etc. It looks to me as though the family members have even passed the ritual down to grandchildren who would not even have know the missing soldier. But this ceremony isn’t conducted for the regular dead, who are also missing from the family table, it’s reserved for the missing dead. And so I wonder at the distinction.

MIAs represent casualties who fell off the books. If a soldier’s capture is confirmed, his status changes to POW, otherwise soldiers come up missing through desertion, treason, malfeasance, or physical obliteration. Mother nature can dispose of bodies, but the most common cause of disappearance is owed to the inhuman scale of mechanized war. As weapons grew more powerful, physical bodies more frequently disintegrated. Missing bodies today, even looking back retrospectively, are the result of human beings eclipsed by machine violence. In the engagements America has chosen from Vietnam onward, usually the technology for the big violence is our side’s alone. Which is not to implicate friendly fire. Often USAF air strikes are called in over battlefields strewn already with GI fatalities.

At first the act of flying a POW flag was aimed at the Vietnamese, to remind all around us, with a sideways glance at our enemies, of our concern for our soldiers. Perhaps the MIA component was an urging to Vietnam as well, after the war, to put effort into recovering US soldier remains. Over the decades, I’m not sure that Vietnam could have shown itself more cooperative. If archeological digs are today able to unearth more evidence, it’s not because the Vietnamese weren’t trying.

Who today are we addressing with the POW-MIA flags? I see these flags usually paired with the Red, White and Blue. But those are directed at our foes.

If a soldier’s relation has question to suspect their soldier is an MIA, isn’t that a beef to take up with the US military? The POW-MIA flag seems to say, we don’t trust you, don’t lie to us about our boys in uniform. We don’t want you smashing their bodies to smithereens, or leaving them behind and not telling us. The POW-MIA flag is a renegade message which says: we support the troops, but not their mission. Give them back.

Flying the POW-MIA flag is so unpatriotic, it’s patriotic.

Avenge Vietnam among other things

POW-MIA pin- Bring em Home Or Send Us BackThe wait was long at the post office, prompting a gentleman ahead of me to remark “Soon this is what health care is going to be like. Get used to it.” I might have agreed, if he hadn’t gone on to expound with unsolicited details. “Socialized medicine like Obama has in mind will lead us to ruin -etc, etc.” I had to chime in. “A good part of the population can only hope their health care will be as easy to get as walking into the postal office.”

I asked him if he’d had health care lately. He said yes. I asked if he was insured. Again yes. I assured him he was more fortunate than a sizable number of Americans. He told me he could tell by my tone that I was a liberal, and that he had no intention of arguing, but he’d just say this, etc: No one is being denied health care anywhere and proceeded to list all the hospitals that couldn’t turn them away. I assured him people were suffering from inadequate health care, unemployment, etc. He: “why don’t they get off their asses?” Me: can’t get jobs with benefits, malnutrition, unequal access, don’t know their options. He went on about lazy immigrant jerk-offs, between pointing his finger in my face and telling me to “shut up,” while insisting on getting the last word. Finally he turned away and I saw what was on the back of his jacket.

I’d already sized this fellow up by his ironed dark blue-jeans, his Harley-Davidson patch and his trim grey hair. He was a pensioner biker, but I hadn’t appreciated him bad-mouthing the postal workers who were on their break but still within earshot. He was likely a Limbaugh ditto-head, based on his outspoken populist right-rage, and on his too-crisp denim jacket he had a large MIA-POW emblem.

Now, I’ve seen folk still caught up in the MIA sentiment, and they take it very sentimentally. I’ve even seen young teens performing a “missing you” place setting ceremony with the empty chair, candle and rose, on military occasions, for what must be by now a grandfather or great uncle. Probably this is a ritual they have grown up with and will pass on to their kids. It’s a depressing self-isolation, but I don’t want to begrudge them their incapacity to question the poor-man’s lost-war avenger dogma.

But an MIA freak who’s also a beer-hall loudmouth? No quarter.

I remarked, to the back of his head, that I didn’t see how someone could expect to be taken credibly on the subject of social problems, who also believed there are American soldiers still being held hostage in Vietnam. The Lord-Harley-Fountleroy wheeled around and nearly clocked me.

“I’ll punch you in the face if you dare insult the memory of the guys who -etc, etc” he yelled. The broader my smile, the more he repeated his threat. Our already indiscreet argument had drawn the attention of everyone in the line, including the counter staff. I guess he thought that an MIA blasphemy would give him license, in the court of public queue opinion, to shut me up with his fist. He went on to make the rest of his arguments to the postal clerks, looking for affirmation of his inherent indignation. I just kept smiling and winking at them. Sentimental conservative hard-asses? I don’t feel for you.