"It's a mark of national insanity," says American cultural historian and Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, who has written critically about the POW/MIA movement. "There weren't any POWs left in Vietnam after Operation Homecoming. So how did this happen? ... Because people manufactured the POW issue. Ross Perot and [Richard] Nixon sat down in their office and manufactured the issue," he says.
Franklin isn't alone, though the opposition to the MIA/POW flag is far less vocal than its support. At the heart of the disagreement is a question: Are there any former service members still alive in Vietnam?
Both Perot and Nixon maintained for a time that prisoners remained in Southeast Asia, though Nixon later said that wasn't true. Today, the U.S. government says no service members remain alive there, relying on hearings from a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1993 that found that "there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."
The National League of POW/MIA Families also believes there are likely no live soldiers, but reminds supporters that still plenty are left "unaccounted"—meaning the service members' remains or documents surrounding their death have never been given to the families.
According to the Pentagon's prisoner of war and missing personnel office, the number of unaccounted is about 1,600.
The Department of Defense continues to try to recover the remains of those 1,600 service members through an office called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. But the American Legion, a veterans service organization, worries that DOD will suspend those efforts if automatic budget cuts kick in as planned on March 1.
Those cuts are likely to most anger groups who believe live soldiers remain in Vietnam, and suggest a U.S. government cover up.
The National Alliance of Families, which split off from the league because of this view, believes that at least several dozen POWs are still alive in Southeast Asia. On its website, it condemns "decades of government lies and denials" about soldiers who could be alive.
Popular culture hasn't helped disabuse that notion. The 1985 cult film "Rambo: First Blood Part II" depicts a Vietnam war veteran who goes to Southeast Asia to find POWs still alive, while the U.S. government is portrayed in the film as attempting to sweep the issue under the rug.
Franklin, who wrote the book "M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America," says the POW/MIA flag pushes the Rambo fantasy too far.
"The myth about hundreds, or thousands, who maybe became slave laborers, or were killed, or tortured, it's all up there in the flag," he says.
The disagreement over the flag goes beyond the live prisoner question. Some former service members have questioned the prominence of the symbol for other reasons.
"There was a time when a number of us felt like we should get rid of the flag because it was being used politically to keep the Vietnam war going," says John Swensson, a Vietnam veteran and professor emeritus of English at the San Francisco-based De Anza College.