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Last year in my neighborhood the yellow ribbons were everywhere–tied to trees and fences, attached to flagpoles, printed on cardboard signs displayed in living-room windows, on T-shirts, cluttering the counters at the local Woolworth’s. One woman down the block from me discovered early on in the war that the yellow plastic bags containing her daily copies of the Sun-Times made perfect ribbons, and the fence around her front yard was soon covered with dozens of them. Now, of course, the ribbons are gone. They began disappearing en masse after the Fourth of July last year, and were nearly gone by fall. The other day I was surprised to notice one lone straggler, a weather-beaten ribbon tied to a tree. But aside from the few remaining ribbons, and an odd T-shirt or two, there’s surprisingly little visible evidence today in American culture of the war that took place only a year and a half ago. George Bush’s repeated invocations of the glory of Desert Storm and his apparent desire to provoke a politically convenient confrontation with Saddam haven’t proved very popular with the voters. Most people, it seems, remain frustrated with the outcome of the war.

The quick disappearance of the yellow ribbons is in stark contrast to the lingering presence of a popular symbol of the Vietnam war, the POW/MIA stickers and flags that remain nearly as ubiquitous in many communities across the country as the yellow ribbons once were in my neighborhood. These two symbols reflect, and to some degree have shaped, two very different experiences of war. The vanished symbolic trappings of the gulf war mirror a painless and transitory experience for the vast majority of Americans, though hardly for the Iraqi people. The POW/MIA symbols linger on as a reminder of a war that was painless and transitory for no one. The POW/MIA symbolism, as H. Bruce Franklin notes in his new book M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America, has snaked its way deep into the national unconscious. To this day, without any substantive evidence, thousands if not millions of Americans believe that their countrymen are still being held in Southeast Asian camps. As George Bush recently discovered when he found himself faced with angry hecklers while addressing POW/MIA activists, this is an issue that will not go away.

Franklin’s book is a challenge to the evidence offered to prove there are live American prisoners in Southeast Asia. It is also an acute analysis of the effect of what he calls the POW myth in American culture, and an examination of this myth’s political uses, beginning with what he sees as its creation by the Nixon administration in 1969 to counteract the effects of widespread discontent with American conduct in the war. He argues that the myth was created for a simple purpose: to shift the moral onus of the war from Washington to Hanoi. As one veteran, disillusioned with this kind of political manipulation, put it, “Americans want to believe that we were the good guys and [that] those rotten gooks are still making our boys grow rice.” They want to believe, and so, in large numbers, they do.

Both the yellow ribbons and the POW/MIA stickers purport to represent simple humanitarian concerns for the safety of American soldiers abroad, but their meaning is more complex. Both gave a deceptively neutral cast to the support for two vicious, murky wars, helping Americans to imagine themselves not as victimizers but as victims (prisoners of the Vietnamese, hostages to evil Arab designs) deserving a kind of concern denied to the primary (non-American) victims of both wars. The yellow ribbons, by focusing attention on the potential dangers to Americans, contributed to a curious amnesia; now that the troops are home, the war has vanished from American consciousness–even though thousands continue to die in Iraq from the delayed effects of the bombing. The POW/MIA stickers similarly diverted attention toward the suffering of Americans and Americans only, but they helped to prolong the memory of the war.

In a few cases the humanitarian gestures are accompanied by attitudes that are far from humanitarian–bumper stickers suggesting we “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” nestle alongside stickers demanding justice for POWs, just as two winters ago T-shirts glorifying our ability to “kick their ass and take their gas” sat easily alongside more soft-hearted expressions. In most cases the humanitarian impulse is sincere enough. But though we hear a great deal about American suffering (which in the case of Vietnam was very real), we hear little about the other victims of war–the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Iraqis, and others who suffered and died in far greater numbers.

As the extent of the political and moral failures of the gulf war become increasingly clear, it has become more difficult even for those who supported the war to justify American actions in humanitarian terms–the intense focus on “supporting the troops” now seems to have been almost beside the point. The conflict was more a slaughter than a war, since the Iraqi soldiers were unable or unwilling to fight. They died in the tens of thousands, while American soldiers were often safer on the battlefield than they would have been in the inner-city neighborhoods many of them hailed from. Yet even people opposed to the war often prefaced their opposition with support for the troops; whatever this support meant, it served to place concern about the suffering of Americans on a higher level than the much greater suffering of non-Americans. (The Iraqi people, guilty of nothing other than living under a tyrant they did not choose, suffered most of all.)

More than two decades since the issue was first broached, it’s hard to escape the revisionist POW/MIA history of the war–a vision of the war as a glorious crusade against an irrational, vicious foe, a war whose glory was tarnished only by the pusillanimous treason of Washington bureaucrats and Hanoi Jane. The cartoonish exaggerations of this version of the war are obvious to nearly everyone, and few of any political stripe remember the war with anything but uneasiness. Nevertheless, its stark simplicity offers a comforting, if not always convincing, antidote to doubt. The traces of this revisionism, Franklin makes clear, are everywhere: The POW/MIA flag flies over suburban malls and the New York Stock Exchange. Bumper stickers demand that Hanoi “release our prisoners of war,” and video games allow children the vicarious thrill of doing just that. Action fans and amateur historians can follow the adventures of fictional POW rescuers in films ranging from the famous (Rambo: First Blood Part II) to the obscure (the Italian Operation ‘Nam, starring Ethan Wayne, son of John). Those preferring pulp fiction can pick up Jack Buchanan’s “M.I.A. Hunter” series, each title (Cambodian Hellhole, Saigon Slaughter, Blood Storm) suggesting the lurid pleasures of violence.

In these books and films the memories of American atrocities in Vietnam–from My Lai to Agent Orange–are replaced by the image of heroic Americans fighting to save their innocent comrades from devious Asian demons. The questions raised by critics of the war, who wondered at the cruel logic of destroying a country in order to save it, are replaced by a grunted one-liner: Rambo’s “Do we get to win this time?” The POW films, Franklin argues cogently in the best section of the book, allow Americans to reimagine the war to fit their own specifications, to replace moral doubt with simple certainties. In this vision of history, as film critic Rob Edelman noted in a review of the film Uncommon Valor, “The Vietnam war is not really over . . . and we–America–can still pass for a touchdown at Ho Chi Minh Stadium and eke out a . . . second victory in the Rice Paddy Bowl. Just send a few good boys back there, kick some Asian ass, liberate a few MIAs. The Laotians–or Cambodians, or Vietnamese, for they are really all alike–will fall like Indians in a John Wayne movie, and America will be proud and regain its honor.”

When the gulf war ended a little more than a year ago, George Bush claimed he had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome” once and for all. Perhaps. But in the popular culture the syndrome had already suffered a number of blows. Bush’s “cure,” cultural critic Avital Ronell has argued, meant little more than the “uncomplicated forgetting” of the pain our country had caused in Vietnam and was later to cause in Iraq. “The problem is that the Vietnam syndrome is not about the grief that we might feel about the dead, or the guilt we might acknowledge for having destroyed a culture,” Ronell argues. “The Vietnam syndrome is about losing a war and returning home without heroization, mythologization, or the experience of total mobilization.” Ronell undoubtedly exaggerates, but his interpretation has more than a grain of truth in it. The POW/MIA films offered precisely such mythologization, offered a symbolic regeneration through violence.

The gulf war, of course, offered us the real thing. But by focusing attention on the regeneration and not the violence, Americans were able this time to see only an antiseptic war. Only days after the final slaughter of tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi troops, Tribune columnist Joan Beck gleefully recalled the joys of a war with, as she put it, “miraculously few casualties,” and Pentagon officials boasted of a “clean win.”

If the glorification of the “M.I.A. Hunter” series has provided symbolic satisfaction for some, the political manipulation of the POW/MIA issue has caused a great deal of pain and suffering. Born in the routine atmosphere of deception and fraud associated with the U.S. government prosecution of the war, the issue was first used to divert attention from two of the most vivid challenges to the American sense of military and moral superiority in the war–the 1968 Tet Offensive, which revealed the North Vietnamese to be much stronger than most Americans suspected, and the atrocities of My Lai. In an effort to distract media attention from the failings of the war effort and from the growing antiwar movement, the Nixon administration decided in early 1969 to “go public” with the POW issue in a big way–and was remarkably successful. “Throughout President Nixon’s first term,” Franklin writes, “the issue of POWs and MIAs would serve mainly as an indispensable device for continuing the war, functioning on the domestic front as a potent counterforce to the anti-war movement while building insurmountable roadblocks within the peace talks. . . . Once infused with . . . intense domestic support, the issue could be presented as a purely “humanitarian’ question to transform the peace negotiations into a stage for displaying the inhuman features of the enemy.” The issue quickly took on a life of its own. Its proponents were unwilling to be reined in by successive administrations less interested in using the issue than they were, and government officials found themselves under attack by what Molly Ivins calls “armchair Rambos.” (As we learned in the presidential campaign, and as Franklin documents in his book, one of the most truculent true believers was H. Ross Perot.)

The most obvious victims of the POW myth were the Southeast Asians, who were forced to endure a war prolonged by the political opportunism and moral failure of the U.S. government. But the issue also caused Americans a great deal of pain, particularly military spouses whose involvement in the POW/MIA crusade led to profound disillusionment. Virginia Warner, once a leading POW/MIA activist, complained in 1971 that her organization had “been used to drum up war sentiment,” and began to campaign for immediate U.S. withdrawal from the war as the most humanitarian course of action. Gloria Coppin, former chair of one of the largest POW/MIA activist groups and still a believer, now acutely criticizes the blatant manipulation of the issue by those in the White House. “Nixon and Kissinger just used the POW issue to prolong the war,” she told Franklin in 1990. “Sometimes I feel guilty because with all our efforts, we killed more men than we saved.”

The sections of Franklin’s book dealing with the alleged existence of POWs are less satisfying than his trenchant treatment of the mythology surrounding them. For one thing, it’s hard to “prove” a negative; it’s always possible, however unlikely, that some bit of evidence was overlooked. But Franklin is convinced there’s no evidence, and much of his book is devoted to a dogged search through the claims and counterclaims offered over the years.

Written with a degree of polemical zeal, Franklin’s book is not designed to convert the true believers. Describing the POW proponents as nearly religious in their fervor, he responds to their beliefs not only with logic but also with angry invective, accusing them of “self-deception, amateur research . . . half-truths, phony evidence.”

He’s venturing onto slippery terrain. The numbers offered by the Pentagon and by the POW believers have ranged all over the place. And the farther from the evidence the believers get, the higher the numbers go, so that the 53 alleged “discrepancies” claimed by early POW believers have become untold thousands in the more flamboyant calculations. Much of the difficulty, as Franklin points out, comes from the problematic nature of the POW/MIA category, which suggests that those declared missing are being held prisoner. Most of those classified as missing were lost in situations that made survival virtually impossible. The vast majority were downed airmen, who, if they weren’t immediately rescued by American forces, were unlikely to have survived–if for no other reason than that medical facilities to treat them were virtually nonexistent.

In 1976 the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia eventually narrowed the “discrepancies” down to a handful, noting that there was no evidence that any of the few who were known to have been captured in the war had survived past 1970. True believers declared there’d been a government cover-up, though in recent years many of them have given up claiming that prisoners are still being held in Vietnam, insisting that they’re now in Laos, a location (Franklin implies) chosen by POW proponents more by the process of elimination than by any real evidence.

In any case, the evidence has been notoriously unreliable. The photographs that from time to time appear in the press, purportedly of live POWs, invariably turn out to be hoaxes manufactured by forgers out to exploit the families of alleged POWs. The “live sightings” reported were always sightings of Robert Garwood, who finally returned to the United States in 1979. His story is a complex one, made more confusing by his admission that he has a propensity to embellish the truth. Court-martialed in 1980 as a North Vietnamese collaborator–former American POWs claimed he had served as an armed guard at their camps–he initially denied reports of the continued existence of POWs in Vietnam, but later linked up with the POW advocates and supported their claims. They argue that his case proves there are still prisoners; Franklin thinks it proves there are none. It’s hard to see how it proves much of anything one way or the other.

But the lack of proof is striking. After all these years and concerted effort, no one within the government or without has been able to offer any evidence that POWs are being held. Franklin puts it bluntly, noting that even the report issued by the POW-believing Reagan administration “was unable to cite any evidence of unrepatriated live POWs despite intense scrutiny of ‘several million captured documents’; interrogation of ‘over one quarter of a million prisoners and defectors’ during the war; thorough debriefing of all returning U.S. and allied prisoners; postwar interrogation of tens of thousands of refugees, including ‘defectors from Vietnam’s security services, military and diplomatic corps’ . . . satellites, spy flights, and electronic monitoring . . . and ‘a special team deployed in Southeast Asia.’ The report was forced to state outright: ‘We have yet to find conclusive evidence of the existence of live prisoners, and returnees at Operation Homecoming in 1973 [when American prisoners were returned] knew of no Americans who were left behind in captivity.'” The POW believers have offered elaborate conspiracy theories, but no credible evidence–or any compelling explanation of why prisoners would still be held.

We may never know the truth, though Franklin’s book persuaded me at least that the likelihood of there being live prisoners in Southeast Asia is slender at best. If there were any remaining after 1973–which is unlikely–they’re probably no longer alive.

The belief in POWs is strangely comforting: it seems to absolve Americans of blame in the war, to distance them from the damage the war caused the people of Southeast Asia. I’m not sure how the moralists will finally judge the behavior of those in the Vietnam war, but the death and suffering of Americans was, and remains, a tragedy. And if Americans are still being held, this too would be a tragedy. But the number of dead among the Southeast Asians numbered in the millions, and unless we consider these people less human than we are, this must be considered the greatest tragedy of all. Until we can look this fact squarely in the face and acknowledge, as Franklin puts it, that “the bones of many Americans have mingled not just with the earth of Vietnam but also with the bones of many Vietnamese,” we cannot truly begin to understand the painful meanings of the war.

M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America by H. Bruce Franklin, Lawrence Hill Books, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.