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: firstname.lastname@example.org.