Flags. Flags everywhere. Every time you turn around, someone is saying something about a flag, its origins, how racist it is, and just how quickly it should be forcibly removed not only from public display but also private display and any and all stores. Yes, it’s been a busy summer for flags, a summer wrought with a nauseating dose of bias and hypocrisy. A summer where this nation has been so flag-obsessed one cannot help but wonder, which one is next?
There was the moment when the White House was decorated with the rainbow design of the gay pride flag, the Obama administration’s way of celebrating the Supreme Court ruling in June. The SCOTUS ruling legalized gay marriage across the nation, and this was, apparently, cause for greater celebration than anything having to do with our nation’s history or soon-to-follow celebration of its independence, because multi-colored flood lights quickly drenched the White House in a governmental rendition of gay pride. Soon after, the Confederate flag came under fire due to its being displayed by a crazed shooter. The flag’s mere presence in the shooter’s grasp condemned it to swift judgement and immediate banishment; just try to find a store carrying Confederate flag products just a month later. But wait, there’s more!
In early August, Newsweek decided to fan the flag-hating flames by taking on yet another symbol of our nation’s history: the POW/MIA flag. On August 11, Rick Perlstein penned the piece most now know as “The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag”, and he did not mince words. Although Perlstein’s piece garnered its little slice of the infamy pie courtesy of Newsweek, it was originally published by The Washington Spectator under the title “It’s Time to Haul Down Another Racist Flag of Hate”, the title of which was changed following a firestorm of outrage from readers. No, Perlstein is apparently not one to hold back – or take the time to be accurate in his rendition of history – because he dedicated quite a bit of time to describing the POW/MIA Flag as “racist” and referring to the ways it “spreads a pernicious myth.”
“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.” Rick Perlstein, “The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag”
Perlstein doesn’t just take on the flag itself, either; no, Perlstein takes on Vietnam itself with comments such as this one: “[Nixon] declared [the POW’s] treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of names, violations of the Geneva Conventions – the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane.” In that one sentence, the author not only makes light of the suffering our nation’s POW’s endured but refers to the North Vietnamese in such a way that heavily implies they were not nearly as bad as they were portrayed to be. Wait, what?
There are examples of North Vietnamese atrocities abound, making it difficult to choose just one. Of the many, here are just a few: the Hue Massacre, the genocide of the Montagnards, and the many, many horrors of “Uncle Ho”. The Hue Massacre is a shining example of just what took place during the Vietnam War at the hands of the North Vietnamese; during the massacre thousands of men, women, and children were murdered by various means and tossed into dozens of mass graves. Death was the result of countless gruesome acts including slow, methodical beatings and being buried alive, and murder did not stop at the human residents, either. The North Vietnamese seemed to take pleasure in their utter annihilation of an entire social stratum, as an eye witness recounted in the book “The Hue Massacre, 1968-1998”: “……a squad with a death order entered the home of a prominent community leader and shot him, his wife, his married son and daughter-in-law, his young unmarried daughter, a male and female servant and their baby. The family cat was strangled; the family dog was clubbed to death; the goldfish scooped out of the fishbowl and tossed on the floor. When the Communists left, no life remained in the house.” No mercy was shown, and it is absolutely mind-boggling to think a supposedly educated writer would attempt to depict the North Vietnamese during Vietnam as anything but what they were: bloodthirsty, conscienceless, vile creatures with no respect for life at any level of its existence. Dr. Seuss once famously wrote “a person’s a person, no matter how small” and for the North Vietnamese, that was taken to heart in a murderous way: anything and everything was worthy of torture and murder, no matter how small.
The POW/MIA flag did, indeed, come into being as a result of the Vietnam War. Perlstein says he went over his personal feelings regarding the flag in his 2014 book about Nixon, and he clearly enjoyed the idea of recapping it in the midst of this summer’s Flag Mania. He lists the creators of the flag as the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, a group that was founded by Sybil Stockdale, the wife of a POW. The league was, according to Perlstein, founded for the purpose of embarrassing Lyndon Johnson. Nixon’s handling of and references to POWs are referred to by Perlstein as “bullshit four times over”, dismissing the North Vietnamese treatment of POWs as behaviors simply learned thanks to their being used on the North Vietnamese themselves by “French colonists.” At this point, which was rather early on in the piece, the author sinks even lower, saying we Americans “paid forward” those exact same techniques at Abu Ghraib. This is not just a hit-and-run piece against the POW/MIA flag, it’s a practically endless stream of American-bashing tripe.
“…in 1971 that damned flag went up.” Rick Perlstein, “The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag”
It is accurate that Sybil Stockdale co-founded the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, but she did not act alone. Stockdale teamed up with other wives of POWs and MIA soldiers, wives living in Coronado, California, and Hampton, Virginia. Those other two groups were led by women by the name of Evelyn Grubb and Mary Crowe, and it’s worth noting that one of the members of the group was none other than Joe McCain, brother to John McCain. It was Grubb who oversaw the creation of the flag, and Grubb who became the driving force behind convincing the military to adopt it. However, it was another League member, Mary Hoff, who first realized they needed a flag, and Hoff who picked up the phone and placed the call to Annin Flagmakers in Verona, New Jersey, the oldest, largest flag-maker in the country. As you can see, the creation of the POW/MIA flag was not the result of one person’s fanatical drive to embarrass a politician. The POW/MIA flag was created as part of a collaborative effort made by women whose husbands were being held prisoner or who were missing entirely. The flag was created by women who understood the stabbing ache of a husband being tortured and possibly killed, a husband whose whereabouts were entirely unknown, a husband they might or might not ever see again, dead or alive.
Hoff made the call to Annin’s then-Vice President of Sales, Norm Rivkees, in 1971. Rivkees admits he had no idea who or what the League was at the time of her call, but he took the idea straight to the company’s president, Randy Beard. Beard didn’t hesitate; he agreed without hesitation, adding “we would be honored.” Because it was an honor, indeed, to take such a major role in the creation of the flag that would become representative of the overwhelming sacrifices of a tragically high number of our nation’s service members.
It was graphic artist Newton F. Heisley who took on the task of the flag’s actual design. Heisley was not just any artist, either; Heisley served in World War II as a C-46 twin-engine transport pilot assigned to the 433rd Troop Carrier Group. He returned home with a Bronze Star, earned his Fine Arts degree, and ended up putting not only his training and natural talent but his military past to work years later when the creation of the POW/MIA flag was assigned to him. The image Americans now know as the POW/MIA flag is one of three possibilities Heisley sketched, and it’s one with a rather personal note. That final image depicts the profile of a gaunt young man one can easily imagine as sorrowful, yet persevering – a young man who was, in real life, Heisley’s United States Marine Corps son. His son was recovering from hepatitis at that time, hence the frail appearance, and was on leave when Heisley sketched him for what would become the iconic black-and-white image on the highly symbolic flag. It was also Heisley who penned the phrase “You are not forgotten” which would end up being part of the final design. The flag was, Heisley said, “intended for a small group” and “no one realized it was going to get national attention”, attention that took years of effort from the wives of men lost and captured during the war.
Ten years would pass before the flag would fly above the White House, a historically-significant event that took place in 1982 on POW/MIA Recognition Day. It was, on that day, the first flag other than Old Glory to take its place above the White House, and in 1989 it was placed in the Capitol Rotunda. Even so, it was not until 1998 that Section 1082 of the Defense Authorization Act, which was codified as Title 36, Section 902, of the U.S. Code, made it mandatory for the flag to be flown at certain locations on each of six particular days: POW/MIA Recognition Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day. The locations required to fly the flag include the Capitol, the White House, the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, all national cemeteries, all major military installations, all medical centers of the VA, and all United States Postal Services offices, among others. This flag is not just a scrap of black cloth, it’s a symbol of remembrance, a mark of respect, for those taken prisoner or missing in action while in the service of our nation.
“…the league and its flag had become the Pentagon’s own Frankenstein’s monster.” Rick Perlstein, “The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag”
It is bitingly clear Perlstein views the POW/MIA flag as an atrocity all its own, an offensive thing best torn down and relegated to the annals of history rather than left flying high in highly visible locations all across the country. He seems to have bought into quite a few of the more venomous traits of the Vietnam War – both true and patently false – and there is, of course, no undoing his personal beliefs. The fact that he has chosen to use those twisted personal beliefs as a platform on which to stoke the fires of confusion and frustration currently slithering within our borders is simultaneously shocking and sad – yes, sad. He has taken a symbol meant to remind us to never forget our POWs and those MIA, and he has attempted to pervert it. He has attempted to turn it into the next victim of group-think, the next flag to fall at the hands of the grasping masses who seem to know no better than to follow the cues of the mainstream media like lemmings over a cliff.
“That damned flag: it’s a shroud. It smothers complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam.” Rick Perlstein, “The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag”
Was Vietnam a well-run, wisely thought-out war? Of course not. Was it the stage on which approximately 58,151 Americans played out the final acts of their lives, making the ultimate sacrifice in service to this country? Yes. Was it the site of roughly 1,350 POW and MIA Americans and 1,200 Americans KIA whose bodies were not recovered? Yes.
Author George Eliot once said “our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” The existence of the POW/MIA flag is wrapped up in the importance of remembering our imprisoned and dead. Forgetting the sacrifices made by those fighting for our freedom, our safety, our security, and our ability to live in what remains the greatest nation on earth – despite our constantly-growing issues – that is a travesty of the worst kind. Failing to respect and remember them, that is not just sad, it’s wrong.
The POW/MIA flag isn’t just a symbol of the lost, it’s a representation of sacrifice, and Perlstein – and those like him – would do well to remember those sacrifices were made in their names. This is not just about a flag or two, it’s about our nation’s heritage, our history, and the blood that has been shed both on its soil and for its continued existence as a free country. We are Americans, and it is time we act like it. Fly your flags high. Stand your ground. You should be proud to be an American. They were.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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