Sometimes the left does things that are so bizarre that at first blush you think you are being trolled. Take this, for instance. In Newsweek “historian” (this is an appellation that, in this particular case, doesn’t seem to require any academic credentials), accused plagiarist Rick Perlstein claims to have discovered yet another “racist” flag:
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.
The only hint that it isn’t a clever bit of trolling and clickbait is that is is obvious that Perlstein is bleeding from his eyes and whatever as he writes this.
Perlstein’s claim here is pretty much bull***t. The history of the POW/MIA flag is well documented. It was created by POW families and it was in response to widespread outcry over the treatment of US POWs by the North Vietnamese. Contrary to what Perlstein claims, there was widespread concern about US prisoners long before the Peace Talks started, of course, Perlstein was still pooping yellow at the time and can be excused for substituting what was actually being talked about for whatever be picked up in college. The treatment of US prisoners held by the Koreans and Chinese was well-known. The hugely successful film, The Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962.
There was good reason to be concerned. Over 900 US and allied prisoners were known to have been held by the Koreans and Chinese after the armistice. The Soviet Union held Japanese prisoners will into the 1950s and never provided an accounting of who they held or their disposition. So the idea that no one cared about prisoners until the Evil Tricky Dick dreamed them up is simply a rather grotesque lie.
As Sean Davis writing in The Federalist says:
If you can believe it, that’s actually the most coherent passage in the entire piece. Did you know that prisoners of war are members of a “cult?” Perlstein apparently does. Did you know that mistreatment of American prisoners of war in Vietnam is “a pernicious myth”? Perlstein says it is, so it must be true. If I learned anything from his piece, it’s that there is apparently such a thing as a POW Truther.
From this anti-historical beginning, Perlstein not only jumps the shark, he levitates above the very ocean.
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.
Missing in action was a term that was used in World War II and Korea. Anyone can look at contemporaneous War Department, Navy Department, or DoD documents and find it. You can also find it in newspapers and casualty reports throughout the Vietnam War. This should be logical to all but the dimmest bulbs.
Actually, through most of recorded history, prisoners have been exchanged (assuming they weren’t killed outright or sold into slavery) were exchanged on a regular basis. In the US Civil War, for instance, prisoners were paroled and exchanged until the Dix-Hill Cartel ended in June 1863. And not to put too fine a point on it, a peace was being “negotiated.” When you “negotiate” it is customary to ask for more than you expect to get and it is usual to pressure the other side to give in. So the history of how prisoners had been treated (and there is no evidence whatsoever that Perlstein is even vaguely familiar with the subject) is really immaterial to a process of negotiations.
North Vietnam was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and was obligated to notify the Protecting Power (Switzerland) of the names of prisoners. Bombing civilians so long as they aren’t deliberately targeted is not against the Geneva Conventions. Wars don’t have to be declared but the Vietnam War was approved by Congress. The treatment of North Vietnamese prisoners is immaterial to the discussion as reprisals against prisoners is not allowed by the Geneva Conventions. Viet Cong were illegal combatants and however the South Vietnamese government wanted to treat them under their own laws or policies was not a subject of international oversight.
So the underpinning of Perlman’s story is, as they say in Germany, quatsch.
Now, why is the flag racist?
Racist is the leftwing codeword for “I don’t like it.” Damp toilet paper, for instance, is racist. America, too, is racist. Supporting American troops is racist. Not liking commies is racist. Perlstein is upset that we don’t see POW collaborators like Larry Kavanaugh, Edison Miller and Gene Wilber as heroes rather than as unindicted traitors and that makes the POW/MIA flag racist.
As David French writes, this is about rewriting American history:
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.