POWs Then and Now


On Jan. 17, 1991, Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, 32, was piloting a F/A-18 fighter jet at the start of the first Gulf War. Hit by an air-to-air missile fired by an Iraqi warplane, Speicher, known as a “top gun among fliers,” was later given up for dead. However, as reported by Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, Christine Spolar (“U.S. hunts POW of ’91 war,” April 24, 2003), “Classified documents show that Speicher was seen years after being shot down.” As recently as early 2002, a host of unnamed, anonymous, yet “credible” sources declared Speicher to be alive and in Iraqi custody.

A faulty DNA test misidentified a body as that of Speicher’s and the case was considered closed. “His wife remarried, and she and her new husband, a former Navy pilot, had two children,” explained Spolar. When Speicher’s fighter plane was found, largely intact, in December 1993, everything changed. The Pentagon admitted the error and by 2000, President Bill Clinton publicly declared Speicher “might be alive” and “if he isSwe’re going to do everything to get him out.”

In reality, of course, little was done to secure Speicher’s release…but he was promoted twice and, dead or alive, is now a captain.

Besides highlighting U.S. military inefficiency and insensitivity, Speicher’s story evokes images of a soldier left behind to face inhuman torture in a hateful country. This image, along with more recent U.S. POWs like Jessica Lynch, resurrects a potent tool of wartime spin: The template of a dehumanized enemy victimizing the good guys (and girls) was forged during the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam.

“There are some fairly obvious needs being met by the images of American POWs tortured year after year by sadistic Asian communists,” states H. Bruce Franklin, author of MIA: Mythmaking in America. Considering the influence this fairy tale has wielded both in pop culture and in demonizing the Vietnamese, its veracity is remarkably tenuous. “It is unique,” Franklin says. “What distinguishes it is that this is an entirely manufactured issue.” It is also an emotional issue, an issue susceptible to spin. Spin-inspired emotion helps account for its durability; it helps explain how Americans have managed to ignore far greater numbers of MIAs in other wars. In WWII and the Korean War, between 20 and 25 percent of U.S. combat dead were never found. In Vietnam, it was 3.4 percent.

This is where the “manufactured” part comes into play. Upon his election in 1968, President Richard Nixon added an unusual precondition at the Paris Peace Talks with North Vietnam: Before the U.S. would agree to even discuss terms for ending the war, Hanoi and the southern insurgents must release all U.S. POWs. “This is totally crazy,” says Franklin. “This is not what belligerent nations do. They figure out the terms for ending the war and then they exchange POWs.” The New York Times, of course, did not agree. In 1969, the newspaper of record weighed in the POW/MIA debate, calling it a “a humanitarian, not a political issue,” before condemning “the Communist side” as “inhuman.” According to Franklin, “Nixon and Kissinger were manufacturing the belief that there might be POWs for very specific purposes: to renege of the $4 billion in aid and to keep the war going. There is irrefutable evidence that they were doing this and they were doing it consciously.” Wartime spin was once again called on to recast the enemy as a merciless villain and it worked. A pro-war group called Victory in Vietnam Association (VIVA) concocted a scheme to sell bracelets engraved with the names of POWS and MIAs to fund a campaign to raise awareness. Before the end of the war, more than 10 million Americans wore bracelets, including celebrities from Johnny Carson to Sonny and Cher to Nixon himself. Such lucrative mythmaking took root in a nation seeking to justify and explain its behavior and position. Celluloid POW-rescuers like Rambo and Chuck Norris exacted revenge not only on Vietnam but also on the U.S. government for its inaction. As late as 1991, 69 percent of Americans believed that POWs were still being held in Vietnam and 52 percent believed the U.S. government had not done enough to bring the POWs home.

With a handful of U.S. POWs having been held in the Gulf (and now destined for book deals and TV movies) and U.S. corporations poised to “rebuild” the post-Hussein Iraq, not much is said these days about those alleged POWs in Vietnam…where American sneaker companies now erect sweatshops and utilize impoverished Vietnamese as cheap labor.

So, how do you say “just do it” in Arabic?

MICKEY Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet and an editor at Wide Angle. He can be reached at: mzx2@earthlink.net.


Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.  

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxemburg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving