By the time I was ten years old I already hated the government. When I was eight, they almost killed E.T. When I was nine, they wouldn’t let Kevin Bacon dance. At ten, I watched Rambo attempt to bring home prisoners of war from Vietnam only to be refused and left for dead by government bureaucrats. Long after outgrowing my concern for aliens and dancing rights, the cheesy, over-the-top 1985 “Rambo” movie still stuck with me because the plot was at least plausible. Would our government knowingly leave POWs behind? Did they?
In the introduction to a symposium in the latest issue of The American Conservative, TAC publisher Ron Unz confirms my childhood suspicion. In a piece titled “Was Rambo Right?” Unz writes:
“(T)he average teenage moviegoer of the 1980s watching mindless action films such as ‘Rambo,’ ‘Missing in Action,’ and ‘Uncommon Valor’ was seeing reality portrayed on screen… as the years and decades went by, and various schemes to ransom or rescue the POWs were considered and rejected, their continued existence became a major liability to numerous powerful political figures, whose reputations would have been destroyed if any of the prisoners ever returned and told his story to the American people. So none of them ever came home.”
Unz’s claims are based on the investigative work of Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Sydney Schanberg. No slouch, Unz notes that Schanberg was a high ranking editor for the New York Times, his book on Cambodia was made into the 1984 Oscar-winning movie “The Killing Fields,” and he is considered to be one of America’s foremost Vietnam War journalists. Schanberg makes a very detailed case that our government—including presidents, congressman and other officials—either had knowledge or were presented with evidence on numerous occasions pointing toward the existence of hundreds of American POWs left behind in Vietnam, and did little to nothing about it. Unz describes one of Schanberg’s allegations as “a story that if true might easily represent the single greatest act of national dishonor ever committed by our political leaders.”
Other than The American Conservative, Schanberg’s expose has only been published online by The Nation Institute and that was in 2008. But if his story is true, only half true, or even ten percent true, why isn’t this a major news item? If President Obama makes a joke at a White House dinner, it makes headlines. If U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul takes a fairly conventional conservative position concerning illegal immigration, it becomes a controversy worthy of coverage. But the possible betrayal of hundreds of our soldiers in Vietnam orchestrated at the highest levels of government for decades? We hear nothing.
On Memorial Day it struck me that a holiday intended to honor the memory of those who served their country, might also be a good day for Americans to reflect on what their government does to its soldiers. Writes Pat Buchanan “While Americans this Memorial Day put flags out for all of their war dead, the arguments do not cease over the wisdom of the wars in which they fought and died.” But today, what I see is a glaring lack of argument with too many Americans simply assuming their government knows what it’s doing when it comes to foreign policy. Americans pay taxes, but still raise hell about it. They become involved in electoral politics, but still bash politicians. But when it comes to foreign affairs, it’s as if the same government everyone knows to be incompetent domestically gets a pass internationally. As we ask America’s bravest to put their lives on the line, something we salute, admire and memorialize—but are still reluctant to ask “why?”
Vietnam veteran and author Andrew Bacevich suggests that this lack of reflection concerning foreign policy is a well-established part of our national psyche, writing in the The American Conservative: “The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag… represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other (hand), it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming… Few Americans are willing to confront such questions… 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.”
We honor wars and the warriors who fight them—but are reluctant to think about why we fight or even the particular plight of certain fighters, including often overlooked issues like the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the military or the alarmingly high suicide rate. It’s easier to raise a flag than an objection. And if Schanberg is even partially right about American POWs left in Vietnam, not only is it a national disgrace—so is the fact that no one wants to talk about it.