At the very center of the town common here in Walpole, Massachusetts, as throughout much of New England, stands a very imposing flagpole. Just below Old Glory flies the POW/MIA flag, an artifact of the Vietnam War. The inscription declares “You Are Not Forgotten.” For the citizens of Walpole, what does that banner signify?
As a practical matter, most of us—myself included—have long since ceased to hold in memory those who never returned, whether from Vietnam or prior American wars. For families left to ponder the fate of loved ones who remain unaccounted for, that is not the case, of course. Yet such families are relatively few in number. The rest of us, our lives filled to the brim with challenge and difficulty, each of us apportioned our own share of pain and heartbreak, have long since moved on.
Were local authorities to end the practice of displaying the POW/MIA flag, however, my guess is that townspeople would raise a fuss. The tradition fills a psychic void. Decades after the United States officially ended its involvement in the Vietnam War, that entire episode in our history remains unfinished business. Like slavery or the Holocaust, Vietnam is part of the past not yet fully consigned to the past.
The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag testifies to this fact. On the one hand, it represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other, it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming. “You deserve to be brought home,” the flag implicitly states, “And we deserve to know why you were sent in the first place.”
Yet to undertake a serious accounting would find Americans facing a plethora of discomfiting truths, not only about the knaves and fools who concocted the Vietnam War but about the American way of life and the premises on which it is based. Tell the whole truth about Vietnam and you crack open a door that few Americans wish to peer behind. To do so is to come face-to-face with troubling questions about the meaning of freedom and democracy as actually practiced in the United States.
Few Americans are willing to confront such questions, the answers to which could oblige us to revise the way we live. So we salve our consciences by flying flags, sustaining the pretense that we care when what we desperately want to do is to forget as much as possible. The feeble public response elicited by Sydney Schanberg’s reporting on the fate of American POWs testifies to our steely determination to ignore whatever we find unwelcome or inconvenient.
What prompts these observations is my conviction that Americans are even today repeating this process of forgetting while pretending to remember.
This time around Iraq stands in for Vietnam. For its part, Washington has already left Bush’s war behind. Whether out of self-delusion or pure, unvarnished cynicism, those who promoted the invasion of Iraq as an appropriate response to 9/11 are now declaring the entire enterprise a great triumph. Celebrating the putative achievements of the surge, they evince little interest in recalling either the several years during which the war was grotesquely mismanaged or the very reasons conjured up to justify the invasion in the first place. “Bush’s War,” in their telling, has now been rechristened “Petraeus’s War.”
Barack Obama has made himself party to this calculated revisionism. Keen to focus on their own agenda (to include their own war in AfPak), ostensibly liberal Democrats—the ones who promised to change the way Washington works—collaborate with neoconservatives and other right-wing militarists to put Iraq in the nation’s rearview mirror.
Will Washington succeed in perpetrating this fraud? The answer is almost certainly yes. No doubt the Congress will soon take up the business of commissioning an Iraq War memorial to be erected somewhere on the Mall amidst all the other memorials commemorating past American wars. What Congress will not do, however, is demand a full accounting of all that our long misadventure in Iraq has wrought. Nor will the American people insist on such an accounting. Truth will remain unwelcome. Our preference for sanitized history will persist.
Perhaps we need another flag. The text on this one should read, “Suckered Again—and We Let It Happen.”
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, out this summer, is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
Ron Unz: How I met the real John McCain
Sydney Schanberg: My four-decade fight to report the truth
Peter Richardson: Why small media breaks the big stories
Gareth Porter: The evidence doesn’t stack up.
John LeBoutillier: How the D.C. media covers for the establishment
Alexander Cockburn: Sometimes conspiracy theories are true.
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