Still reeling from the controversy over Confederate flags, it seems the debate about iconic symbols representing racism isn’t over. Newsweek’s Rick Pearlstein argues that the flag almost everyone knows, one that tends to unite people in common patriotic sentiment, is itself racist.
From his column at Newsweek:
You know that racist flag? The one that supposedly honors history but actually spreads a pernicious myth? And is useful only to venal right-wing politicians who wish to exploit hatred by calling it heritage? It’s past time to pull it down.
Oh, wait. You thought I was referring to the Confederate flag. Actually, I’m talking about the POW/MIA flag.
I told the story in the first chapter of my 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan: how Richard Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim.
It began, as cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, with an opportunistic shift in terminology. Downed pilots whose bodies were not recovered—which, in the dense jungle of a place like Vietnam meant most pilots—had once been classified “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.”
During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them 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.
Pearlstein continues on in similar fashion, recounting sins of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration while simultaneously defending the North Vietnamese from any criticisms for their treatment of POWs.
However, upon careful reading, a reader may have considerable difficulty actually detecting the actual racism. Unless “North Vietnamese” constitutes a race. Instead, Pearlstein manages to at once excoriate the South Vietnamese for their own treatment of POWs and Americans for turning a blind eye while ignoring that the South Vietnamese we allegedly protect are the same race as the North Vietnamese blamed for such atrocities.
At the National Review, David French said this in response:
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.
As a nation, we’ve put POWs through enough. Can we agree that declaring the flag they rally behind as racist is going way too far?