By Jeff Dumas
Today is Flag Day. On this day in 1777, the Continental Congress formally adopted the basic design for the U.S. flag.
That was the first of many congressional acts respecting the evolving design, placement and handling of the flag. For example, there is a federal law on the books, Respect for Flag (4 U.S. Code, Section 8), which states that the national flag should never be carried “flat or horizontally” (like the Marines do with the huge flag in the Super Bowl), nor should it ever “be used as wearing apparel” (as many runners did in the Bolder Boulder).
But, did you know that the most recent federal flag law dictates that whenever the national flag is flown over a federal installation — from the White House to the post office, and all the forts and bases in between — it must be accompanied by a second flag?
That newcomer is the black and white POW/MIA flag and that recent act is the National POW/MIA Flag Act, which was signed into law in November 2019 (36 U.S. Code, Section 902).
To some observers, the POW/MIA flag is a symbol that pays homage to America’s war veterans, prisoners of war and the missing in action. However, on closer inspection, the history of this flag demonstrates that it has been used — and from my perspective abused — by right-wing revisionists almost since its genesis.
Early on, the POW/MIA flag was commandeered by right-wing political groups that would have the U.S. continue the Vietnam War (forever, I suppose). They did this by insisting that the Vietnam War was not over until “until the last man comes home.” And, since it can’t be proven that there is no “last man” in captivity, the war must continue (per that ridiculous movie “Rambo: First Blood Part II”).
They have rallied around the POW/MIA flag — and they berate anyone who questions its relevance. This reminds me of the German Der Stahlhelm (“The Steel Helmets”) who terrorized the Weimar Republic following WWI by propagating their nonsensical “stabbed-in-the-back” myths. Indeed, the original — and still smoldering — forces that commandeered the POW/MIA flag argue we could have won the Vietnam War had we only had the requisite leadership and commitment. Maybe if more of them had actually served “in country” in Vietnam, they wouldn’t be spouting this nonsense.
Immediately following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, all 687 U.S. POWs were repatriated — including 149 Navy aviators. One of those aviators was Sen. John McCain who, sitting with fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. John Kerry, spearheaded widely televised Senate Select POW/MIA Committee hearings. This committee determined conclusively that allegations of POWs still being held captive in Southeast Asia were a hoax.
So why this new flag? We need to look to the organizations that lobbied the hardest and cowed Congress into requiring prominent display of this politically divisive flag. In that effort, three organizations stand out as the principal agitators: the so-called “Rolling Thunder Inc.” the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. With declining membership, the VFW and American Legion are a largely spent force in U.S. politics, so the leading role went to Rolling Thunder. These are the self-appointed uberpatriots you see astride their loud Harleys flying the POW/MIA flag. These are the bikers who annually assault ears at the nation’s capital on Memorial Day.
Theoretically, the POW/MIA flag represents about 82,000 American service personnel who remain unaccounted for and therefore are still MIA — spanning a period of about 250 years. Of this figure, the number of remaining POWs anywhere is zero.
Why then, is this very small subset of servicemembers being singled out for special recognition with a special flag, when well over 1.3 million men and women have perished in uniform fighting in our country’s many wars? Where is their flag of remembrance?
Well, for me, their flag is everywhere, every day. It is the Stars and Stripes.
And that should be enough of a reminder for all of us.
Before joining his patrol squadron in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War, Jeff Dumas was trained in how to avoid capture and, if captured, what to expect as a POW — having graduated from both the Navy and the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) schools.