As readers can see on TAC‘s main page, our cover story this month is on America’s Vanished veterans — those who never came home from Vietnam and remain classified as “missing in action.” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sydney Schanberg has compiled copious evidence that some of these men were left behind at the conclusion of the war. But that’s not evidence that most media outlets care to examine. As Ron Unz argues in his introduction to Schanberg’s essay in TAC, the only thing that comes close to being as shocking as a story itself is the utter lack of interest it has generated among journalists and politicians who routinely profess to “support the troops.” Andrew Bacevich, in his contribution to TAC‘s symposium on Schanberg’s investigations, suggests that the ritual display of the POW/MIA flag by politicians great and small is an act of tokenism that draws attention away from the country’s overall obliviousness to the realities of war. (It’s not only Vietnam veterans who are unaccounted for, by the way — thousands of American soldiers were MIA in Korea, and some of them are known to have been POWs.)
When the prestige media has deigned to notice this story, it has only been to frame it in terms calculated to trivialize, with much stress laid upon fictional scenarios. Thus, for example, the New Republic in 1985 ran a cover proclaiming, “Sorry, Rambo, there are now POWs in Vietnam,” complete with a picture of a shirtless Sylvester Stallone toting a machine gun. The Atlantic in 1991 was similarly as interested in Tinseltown as in Indochina, with a cover heralding, “The POW/MIA Myth: How the White House and Hollywood combined to foster a national fantasy.” Peter Worthington, to his credit, in responding to Schanberg and TAC in the Toronto Sun, doesn’t portray present the story as Hollywood-induced hysteria, but instead he opts for a preferred neocon debating point — Schanberg is bad because he said Cambodia would be better off without U.S. intervention, which means he didn’t predict the Khmer Rouge’s horrors, which means no one should listen to him because he’s an America-hating, Commie-coddling jerk. Oh, did someone say something about missing Americans? Forget about them, just think about the Khmer Rouge.
(Schanberg, unlike any neocon that I know of, actually spent time in war-torn Cambodia. And yes, he was wrong about what would happen there, though the U.S. was never in a position to stop the Khmer Rouge and may well have fueled Pol Pot’s rise by “secretly” bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The whole thing, though, is a red herring on Worthington’s part.)
As Gareth Porter argues in TAC‘s symposium, there is reason to doubt some of the evidence purporting to show that Americans were abandoned in Indochina. What’s needed is not for journalists and political leaders to buy into Schanberg’s story solely on grounds of material he presents (as much of it as there is), but for them to make a serious effort to address all of the evidence, including what is still locked in the government’s own files. Talk of supporting the troops and commemorating their sacrifice is hollow so long as Washington — which means the capital’s press as well as its politicians — chooses to keep the public ignorant about the fate of America’s missing veterans.