In less than two months, a POW/MIA Freedom March will take over the National Mall in a show of support for the less than 2,000 service members some say are still unaccounted for after the Vietnam War, and for those troops who went missing in other conflicts. The Sunday before Memorial Day, nearly one million motorcycle-riding veterans will take their place, for "Rolling Thunder," an event on the Mall also in support of the POW/MIA issue.
At these events, supporters will wave thousands of black and white flags, each printed with a silhouette of a man next to a watchtower and a barbed wire fence and emblazoned with the words: "You are not forgotten."
Today, the POW/MIA flag is seemingly everywhere: on government buildings, at national cemeteries, at the post office. By law, the flag must also be flown on six national holidays above the country's most important buildings, including the White House, the Capitol, and every major military installation. It even flies at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where the U.S. has held more than 775 suspected terrorists since 9/11.
The POW/MIA flag flies in Guantanamo Bay. (Paul Shinkman/USN&WR)
Though the flag is only required to be flown on six days, many government buildings, such as post offices, choose to fly it all year. It is the only flag besides the American flag allowed to fly over the White House.
How did an unofficial flag honoring less than 2,000 Americans become an official national symbol that many Americans now see every day?
In large part, the ubiquity of the flag can be attributed to the sustained effort of a tiny, Washington-based organization: the National League of POW/MIA Families.
"It's very gratifying to see that this flag is one of most visible flags in the whole world," league chairman Ann Mills Griffiths tells U.S. News.
After a POW wife developed the flag in the early 1970s, the league successfully pushed for support from veterans and their families, and then for years for recognition on the Hill. In 1989, Congress passed legislation to install the POW/MIA on the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and in 1990 it passed a law recognizing the flag as an official national symbol. It also named the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Former Republican congressman from New York John LeBoutillier, who was a member of Special House POW/MIA Task Force in the early 1980s and has been active on the issue ever since, says the flag was intended to be "a companion piece to the Stars and Stripes."
"This was intended at the time to symbolize the importance of the POW issue. That we've got this flag everywhere. And that we care about getting these men home more than any other issue," says LeBoutillier.
It remains a companion piece today—nearly 40 years after the Vietnam war ended—flying directly below or beside the American flag on many government buildings. On six national observances, it remains second only to the Stars and Stripes before any other flag. (The order, generally, is: U.S. flag, then POW/MIA flag, state flags, U.S. territory flags, and military flags). But not everybody thinks the symbol of a small advocacy group should fly alongside the American flag atop the White House.
"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.
In 1999, fellow Vietnam veteran Michael Kelley published a passionate piece opposing the flag on a Vietnam War research portal Swensson runs at De Anza College. "The POW/MIA flag honors a very narrow segment of the veteran population and does that to the exclusion of much larger and equally deserving ... segments of that same population," wrote Kelley, who died in 2011.
Kelley submitted the piece to express his frustration as a member of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee, and what he called "a number of vigorous ... zealous attempts to include the POW Flag on our memorial."
In 2007, a veterans memorial in Newburgh, Ind., caused controversy when it similarly resisted flying a POW-MIA flag alongside an American one.
Today, the POW/MIA flag flies above both memorials—in large part due to the efforts of Vietnam veterans who don't agree with Kelley.
But at some government buildings, such as the U.S. Post Office in Georgetown, Washington D.C., employees say they can't remember having ever flown the POW/MIA flag.
To combat this, Vietnam veterans such as Nick Haupricht have dropped off the flags at government buildings in his home state of Ohio, according to independent veterans site Veteran News Now.
Willie Hager has similarly pushed the POW/MIA flag in his state of Florida, ever since he lost fellow soldier and friend Thomas Hart in Vietnam. According to Hager, a forensic test showed that the remains the U.S. government sent to Hart's family post-war did not belong to their son, but were dog bones, a story that could not be confirmed by U.S. News.
Efforts by Hager, who is a member of the anti-war group Veterans for Peace, helped lead to legislation in Florida mandating that the flag be displayed over the state capitol. The flag currently flies over state capitols in a number of states, and earlier this month a bill for flying the MIA/POW flag over the Utah state capitol unanimously passed a House committee there.
Franklin believes that the flag continues to grow more prevalent because of the psychological response Americans have to Vietnam.
"The Vietnam War is something that happened to us ... and we're somehow the victims of that," he says. "The POW is the ideal iconic figured that embodies of all that."
Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam, has rejected the notion of the POW as an iconic figure.
"I've received scores of letters from young people, and many of them sent me POW bracelets with my name on it. ... This outpouring on behalf of us who were prisoners of war is staggering, and a little embarrassing because basically we feel that we are just average American Navy, Marine and Air Force pilots who got shot down," he wrote in U.S. News in 1973 of his ordeal.
McCain's stance toward the POW/MIA issue hasn't always gone over well. During his first term in the Senate, McCain was disparaged by some POW/MIA activists because he believed there were no live prisoners in Southeast Asia.
"What are we doing with this flag? The war is over … we're not dealing with something that's subject to reason," says Franklin.
But some have come to feel differently about the flag over time, including Swensson of De Anza College.
"It's such a different country now. Now we are taking care of veterans, honoring their service," Swennson says. "So the POW/MIA flag in an odd way serves to do that. I think now it does honor all veterans."
Hager agrees. The Florida-based veteran says that what the flag represents remains important, despite the decades that have passed since the end of the war.
"First it was a banner of outrage, that the government had left people behind. ... We unified around this thing, we rallied around that issue," he says. "The government will never leave troops in the field again, because they know we will find out, and then we will hold their feet to the fire."
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