It’s Tuesday, so you know what that means: it’s time to get outraged about something stupid and inconsequential.
Here to help us with the online outrage du jour is Newsweek, a dated news magazine that used to be leafed through by people while they waited to see their dentist. Founded in 1933, it was a big deal up until that whole Internet thing happened. After that, it faded away into irrelevance before being sold for $1 to Sidney Harman, a wealthy and politically connected nonagenarian, who then dumped it on Tina Brown and Barry Diller, who then dumped it on International Business Times after spending the better part of a year trying to get rid of the cash-hemorrhaging operation.
Diller famously called his purchase of Newsweek a mistake, a sentiment one can identify with after reading the publication’s screed against that ages-old emblem of racism and xenophobia: the POW-MIA flag. You read that correctly. When he sees the POW-MIA flag, Newsweek writer-cum-Salon commenter Rick Perlstein is not reminded of American servicemen and women captured and tortured by foreign enemies. No, he’s reminded of how racist America is:
You know that racist flag? The one that supposedly honors history but actually spreads a pernicious myth? And is useful only to venal right-wing politicians who wish to exploit hatred by calling it heritage? It’s past time to pull it down.
Oh, wait. You thought I was referring to the Confederate flag. Actually, I’m talking about the POW/MIA flag.
I told the story in the first chapter of my 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan: how Richard Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim.
If you can believe it, that’s actually the most coherent passage in the entire piece. Did you know that prisoners of war are members of a “cult?” Perlstein apparently does. Did you know that mistreatment of American prisoners of war in Vietnam is “a pernicious myth”? Perlstein says it is, so it must be true. If I learned anything from his piece, it’s that there is apparently such a thing as a POW Truther.
The suffering of Vietnam-era prisoners of war became an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign earlier this year when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump mocked former Navy pilot Sen. McCain for being captured, imprisoned, and tortured in the Hanoi Hilton by the North Vietnamese.
“[McCain’s] not a ‘war hero,'” Trump said. “He’s a ‘war hero’ because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay? I hate to tell you.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, responded to Trump by posting a picture of the POW-MIA flag to his Facebook page with a note saying, “They are all heroes.” Perlstein, as you might have guessed by now, was distressed by Sanders’ salute to American prisoners of war:
Actually, as I document in The Invisible Bridge, it’s more complicated than that: many of the prisoners were anti-war activists. One member of the “Peace Committee” within the POW camps, Abel Larry Kavanaugh, was harassed into suicide after his return to the U.S. by the likes of Admiral James Stockdale, who tried to get Peace Committee members hanged for treason.
Stockdale would become one of the nation’s most celebrated former POWs and a vice-presidential candidate. Kavanaugh took his life in his father in law’s basement in Commerce City, Colorado, in June 1973. Americans would agree that one of them—Stockdale or Kavanaugh—is not a hero—though they would disagree about which one is which.
That damned flag: It’s a shroud. It smothers the complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam.
Nailed it, Newsweek. The circumstances surrounding the Vietnam War were crystal clear, and everyone knew everything about the whole affair…right up until somebody decided to design a flag to honor those captured by or still missing in Vietnam. America was united on whether the war was a good idea…right up until that flag was hoisted. There was no controversy and no confusion…right up until somebody made a new flag in 1971, more than two decades after Eisenhower first began to assist the French in Vietnam.
If you’re wondering where the proof is of the POW-MIA flag’s racist heritage, you’re not alone. It turns out there is none, nor does the author attempt to make anything approaching an argument on the topic. At least outlets like Salon and Slate humor their readers with convoluted arguments that make no sense. Newsweek, accurately realizing that it’s probably not worth the effort to cobble together anything approaching coherent content for what’s left of its dwindling readership, apparently figured that stupid headlines are even cheaper to produce than stupid articles.
It’s enough to make one think Sidney Harman might have overpaid for the publication.