Yesterday came news that my home state, Illinois, is preparing for its twenty-sixth annual ceremony this Saturday to honor the “66 Illinoisans listed as MIA or POW in Southeast Asia.” I absorbed this development the same week I had occasion to attend an internment at a military cemetery in Washington State, over which flew, alongside the banners of all of America’s military service branches, the familiar “POW/MIA” flag with the forlorn, hangdog prisoner silhouetted in the foreground and guard tower and barbed wire in the back. Given the scale of national problems we’re facing these days, this one hardly registers a dent. But it creeps me out all the same. And if you deplore jingoistic, racist propaganda, it should creep you out, too—so, this afternoon, let me unburden myself.
When downed American pilots were first taken prisoner in North Vietnam in 1964, US policy became pretty much to ignore them―part and parcel of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s determination to keep the costs of his increasingly futile military escalation in Southeast Asia from the public. Then, one day in the first spring of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the existence of from 500 to 1,300 of what he termed “POW/MIA’s.” Those three letters—“MIA”—are familiar to us now. The term, however, was a new, Nixonian invention. It had used to be that downed fliers not confirmed as actual prisoners used to be classified not as “Missing in Action” but “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” The new designation was a propaganda scam. It let the Pentagon and State Department and White House refer to these 1,300 (later “1,400”) as if they were, every one of them, actual prisoners, even though every one of them was almost certainly dead. “Hundreds of American wives, children, and parents continue to live in a tragic state of uncertainty caused by the lack of information concerning the fate of their loved ones,” Secretary Laird said. That was part of an attempt to manipulate international opinion to frame the North Vietnamese Communists (against whom, of course, America was prosecuting an illegal and undeclared air war against civilians) as uniquely cruel, even though fewer men were taken prisoner or went missing in Vietnam than in any previous American war. (From 1965 through 1969, they were tortured, at least if you believe American prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were tortured; the techniques were essentially the same.)
During the Johnson years, Sybil Stockdale, whose husband James (Ross Perot’s unfortunate running mate in 1992) was the highest-ranking and one of the earliest POWs, had organized a “League of Wives of American Prisoners of War” (later the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, then the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia) which agitated for attention to the prisoners’ plight—against the Pentagon’s wishes. Under Nixon, the Pentagon co-opted it, sometimes inventing chapters outright, as useful to their propaganda barrage. Their families showed up on newsmagazines and TV; “POW bracelets,” invented by the future wingnut congressman “B-1 Bob” Dornan, then a local Limbaugh on Orange County radio, were unveiled in the spring of 1970 at an annual “Salute to the Military” ball in Los Angeles. (Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan presided, and Hollywood choreographer Leroy Prinz, who had worked with Reagan on the 1942 film Hollywood Canteen, choreographed a splendid pageant.) Bracelets soon sold at a rate of 10,000 a day; Sonny & Cher wore them on TV; some people, the The New York Times reported, believed them to “possess medicinal powers”―and not just the children who displayed them two, ten, a dozen to an arm. A Wimbledon champ said one cured his tennis elbow. Lee Trevino said his saved his golf game. Matchbooks, lapel pins, billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers (POWs never have a nice day!) proliferated, fighter jets made thunderous football stadium fly-bys, full page ads blossomed in every newspaper urging Hanoi to have a heart and release the prisoners for the sake of the children.