Monday, August 17, 2015

The Other Anti-American Flag KY Has Not Taken Down

It still flies under every U.S. and Kentucky flag in the Commonwealth, over post offices and state government buildings and veteran cemeteries, to the eternal shame of every jingoistic motherfucker propagating its lies.

It's the POW/MIA (sic) flag, and it needs to come down now. 45 years of lies is enough.

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; and 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. (Time magazine quoted one South Vietnamese official who was confronted with stories of released prisoners moving “like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms,” and responded with incredulity that such survivors even existed: “No one ever comes from the tiger cages alive.”)
Be that as it may: it worked. American citizens enacted a bizarre psychic reversal. A man from Virginia Beach, Virginia, described to a reporter the supposed treatment of American prisoners in North Vietnam: “they just dig holes in the ground and drop them in. They throw food down to them, and let them live there in their own waste.” In fact, that was how prisoners were treated in South Vietnam—as recently revealed in a shocking Life magazine exposé.

Actually, as I document in The Invisible Bridge, it’s more complicated than that: many of the prisoners were antiwar activists. One member of the “Peace Committee” within the POW camps, Abel Larry Kavanaugh, was harassed into suicide after his return to the U.S. by the likes of Admiral James Stockdale, who tried to get Peace Committee members hanged for treason. Stockade would become one of the nation’s most celebrated former POWs and a vice-presidential candidate. Kavanaugh took his life in his father in law’s basement in Commerce City, Colorado, in June 1973. Americans would agree that one of them—Stockdale or Kavanaugh—is not a hero—though they would disagree about which one is which.
That damned flag: it’s a shroud. It smothers the complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam.
We’ve come to our senses about that other banner of lies. It’s time to do the same with this.

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