Historian/journalist Rick Perlstein kicked off an unexpectedly violent storm when he piggybacked on removals of Confederate battle flags from public buildings in the wake of the racist Emmanuel AME massacre in Charleston to tell the true story of the POW/MIA flag that hangs on many government buildings. He contends, with plentiful backup, that that the Nixon administration cruelly cultivated the ambiguity in the designation "Missing in Action" to rally families and war supporters behind the myth that the Vietnamese enemy was holding thousands of hidden prisoners. The U.S. military knew perfectly well that downed flyers had crashed in the jungles and were almost certainly dead. But Nixon thrived politically on exaggerating the number of U.S. troops in Hanoi's custody and backed the "National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia" as a counter to antiwar passions. The black and white banner was made into a symbol of aggressive patriotism.
In other words, that flag is a tool of psychological projection: we bombed, defoliated, poisoned and burned Vietnam, but they're the guilty ones.
When I read Perlstein's account of Nixon's exploitation of the families of the MIAs in The Invisible Bridge, I reacted strongly. This seemed to me one of Nixon's more grotesque offenses. Yet on reflection, I think that reaction is something of an anachronism. Now that we use a small professional army which we expect to fight our wars without bothering the "Homeland," we compensate for our guilty awareness that we're passing off the pain to others by exaggerated solicitude for the irreproachable troops. In the era of mass citizen armies, I suspect there was a chronic realistic awareness that the military machine often wasted the lives of men who thought of themselves more as grunts, than heroes. Every history of broad-scale war is one of wasted lives.
When Perlstein's article was first published in The Washington Spectator it appeared under the headline "The Forgotten Story of America's Other Racist Flag". No longer. If you follow the link above, both author and editor have appended apologies for using the term "racist." I see in the comment section that the old passions, especially from those who had lost relatives and friends in the jungles, have broken out from the flag's defenders. It was not pretty.
But I am sorry that Perlstein and his editor felt they had to retract the adjective "racist." That they reacted as they did makes me think that in addition to an N-word, U.S. usage now nearly has an R-word.
I'm not prepared to accept that linguistic prohibition. Of course the U.S. war in Vietnam was racist. The enemy (and the set we called "allies") were incomprehensible little brown people, "gooks." The notion that the U.S. had the right to take the place of the French imperialists and dictate the evolution of this complex, ancient land was a product of racist ignorance.
What I might have retracted was the article's lede, the equation of the POW/MIA flag's racism to the struggle against our country's deepest white supremacy. The Confederate flag stands for the particular racism that defended the slave status of persons of African origin. Its widespread prominence in southern U.S. state capitals some fifty years ago signaled defiance of the African American civil rights struggle. That's our domestic racism; Vietnam was more in our imperialist vein, still morally indefensible, but a differently contested territory.