Trump vs. McCain: an American Horror Story

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Why is Donald Trump deliberately picking a fight with the ghost of John McCain? It might seem he has nothing to gain and much to lose from this battle.  Therefore many believe this is just more evidence of his narcissism, impulsiveness, and thoroughly nasty personality.  Beware of underestimating Trump’s skillful and devious political acumen.  As often, the president is speaking in coded language to his base, which regards McCain as the Judas who betrayed all those thousands of American POWs left behind in Vietnam.

In public culture, especially in the corporate media and on the national political stage, John McCain is almost universally acclaimed as a great “American hero.”  Why?  Traditional American heroes in our wars engaged in some heroic combat action.  Sergeant Alvin York, the most celebrated American of the First World War, saved his squad from German machine gunners, personally killing twenty enemy soldiers, including six he shot with his .45 pistol when they charged with bayonets.  The most decorated American of the Second World War was Audie Murphy, who at the age of 19 single-handedly held off an entire company of Nazi soldiers for an hour and led a counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.  Growing up in World War II, I knew the names of these heroes.  Do you know the name of any authentic American hero of the Vietnam War?   How about Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who landed his helicopter in My Lai, ordered his gunners to shoot any American soldiers who continued to fire, and personally saved a number of Vietnamese jumbled with the mass of dead villagers in a ditch?

As for John McCain, he was shot down by a missile while bombing the thermal power plant responsible for providing electricity to the Hanoi civilian neighborhood in which it was located.  McCain was and is hailed as a great hero not for any of his actions in combat but for what he claimed he endured during his captivity as a prisoner of war.  There are two groups of American heretics who do not revere McCain.  One remembers him as the senator who never saw a war he did not favor.  The other despises him for pretending that America did not abandon many POWs in Vietnam after the war.

Before going any further, let’s get one thing straight.  Only one U.S. POW was left behind in Vietnam: Robert Garwood, who had defected and become an officer on the other side.  Those who still believe otherwise should read my M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America.

The United States of America in the 21st century has two national flags. One is the colorful red, white, and blue banner created during the American Revolution, with stars that represent, in the words of the 1777 Continental Congress, “a new constellation.” The other is the black and white POW/MIA flag, America’s emblem of the Vietnam War.

The POW/MIA flag is the only one besides the Star-Spangled Banner that has ever flown over the White House, where it has fluttered yearly since 1982. As visitors from around the world stream through the Rotunda of the US Capitol, they pass another giant POW/MIA flag, the only flag that has ever been displayed amid the epic paintings and heroic statues, a position of honor granted in 1987 by Congress and the president of the United States. The POW/MIA flag flies over every US post office, thanks to a law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1997. During the 1980s and 1990s, the legislatures and governors of each of the 50 states issued laws mandating the display of this flag over public facilities such as state offices, municipal buildings, toll plazas, and police headquarters. The POW/MIA flag also hangs over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and waves at countless corporate headquarters, shopping malls, union halls, and small businesses. It is sewn into the right sleeve of the official Ku Klux Klan white robe and adorns millions of bumper stickers, buttons, home windows, motorcycle jackets, watches, post cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and Christmas-tree ornaments. Much of my speaking in the 21st century has been to saltwater fishing clubs meeting at the local headquarters of the VFW, Elks, American Legion, and Knights of Columbus, and over each of these buildings flies the POW/MIA flag.

The flag displays our nation’s veneration of its central image, a handsome American prisoner of war, his silhouetted head slightly bowed to reveal behind him the ominous shape of a looming guard tower. A strand of barbed wire cuts across just below his firm chin. Underneath runs the motto: YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.

This flag has flown and still flies as America’s understanding of the meaning of the Vietnam War. In 1991, that meaning shifted dramatically, as it came to symbolize America as a heroic warrior, victimized by “Vietnam,” but reemerging as Rambo unbound. Those black and white flags had been transformed into symbols of American pride, not shame. This is what George H. W. Bush meant on March 1st, 1991, when he proclaimed “a proud day for America” because, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” How many people knew back then that Bush was really celebrating the beginning of our epoch of the Forever War?

A month after Bush’s proclamation, Jane Franklin and I were on our way to Japan, where I was to teach American Studies for a few weeks as a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Meiji University. I had just finished the manuscript for M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America, a history of how Richard Nixon created the “POW/MIA” category and used it to prolong the war, and how and why the preposterous belief in POWs in postwar Vietnam came to possess our nation. I thought I understood everything about the history and meaning of the POW/MIA myth, but I was wrong. And I was about to learn something crucial about American culture and culture in general.

Where does a society’s culture exist? Obviously in the artifacts, cultural productions, and discourse of the society, and of course inside the minds of the people who constitute that society. That’s why sometimes it can be hard to understand or even see what is most peculiar or even bizarre about one’s own culture; it’s inside one’s own head. Learning that in Anthropology 101 is one thing. Discovering how that works in your self is something else.

One night several Japanese scholars of American Studies, from Meiji and other universities, expressed their keen interest in the POW/MIA myth. They said that, on some levels, they understood it, that from their study of POW movies and other cultural artifacts they saw that the prisoner of war was functioning in American society as an icon of militarism. “But,” one said, “that’s what we find so puzzling. When militarism was dominant in Japan, the last person who would have been used as an icon of militarism was the POW. What did he do that was heroic? He didn’t fight to the death. He surrendered.” I was flabbergasted and totally flummoxed. Here I had been studying the POW/MIA myth for years and I had missed its most essential and revealing aspect.

After we got home, I had to look once again at the cultural artifacts vital to the POW/MIA myth.  Because the postwar POWs are imaginary beings, elaborating the POW/MIA myth and implanting it deep in America’s collective imagination has been the job of art forms specializing in imaginary beings: novels, comic books, TV soaps, video games, and, of course, movies.  Although the story of American prisoners abandoned in Southeast Asia could not become a major American myth until the dream factory geared up its assembly line for mass production of the essential images, Hollywood was actually involved in creating bits of the history that its POW rescue movies would soon fantasize.  President Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood jointly sponsored raids in Southeast Asia by retired Colonel Bo Gritz, a would-be POW rescuer.

The first POW rescue movie began shooting amid the media hoopla about the Gritz raids.  Starring Gene Hackman as a thinly-veiled counterpart of Gritz, Uncommon Valor made it to the screen for the Christmas season of 1983.  Reviewers, who at first dismissed it as a “grind actioner” and “bore” with “comic-strip-level heroism,” were soon trying to comprehend the startling audience response to what turned out to be the “biggest movie surprise” of the 1983-84 season.  The best explanation seemed to come from “an ordinary moviegoer who said with satisfaction of the bloody ending in which dozens of the enemy are mowed down by the Americans, ‘We get to win the Vietnam War.'”  The film presents a tableau of a nation run by bureaucrats, politicians, and shadowy secret agents in business suits who revile and betray its true warrior heroes.  The idealism, virility, martial powers, and heroism of men who dedicate their lives to rescuing their abandoned comrades, sons, and fathers are presented as the alternative to a weak, decadent America subjugated by materialism, hedonism, and feminism.  Hackman reestablishes patriarchal order by recruiting a team composed of Vietnam veterans who have all been victimized by an American society that castrates military and manly virtue.  Their rescue mission also rescues themselves from the corrupting and degrading bonds of civilian life, and their most revealing salvations are of team members liberated from emasculating women.

The following year came Missing in Action, with Chuck Norris as retired Special Forces Colonel James Braddock, a fantasized version of Colonel James “Bo” Gritz.  Here the myth took more potent shape, with Norris as lone superhero‑-incarnate in a fetishized male body‑-replacing Hackman’s buddy-buddy team of manly warriors and graphically dramatizing how much more erotically exciting it is to make war, not love.  There is no secret about the meaning and tremendous popular allure of Missing in Action, which were expressed in full-page ads showing Chuck Norris, headband half-restraining his savage locks, sleeves rolled up to reveal bulging biceps, and a huge machine gun seeming to rise from his crotch.

The fully mythic Rambo arrived in 1985.  As he is set free from the American prison, he asks his famous question: “Do we get to win this time?”  Rambo’s superhuman powers come from America’s glorious past.  He despises modern technology and science.  His weapons are bow, arrows, knife.  His final victory comes when, after rescuing the POWs, Rambo hurls himself on top of the prostrate Murdock–the arch bureaucrat who embodies feminized, devious, emasculating civil society–and forces this fake man to whimper and moan in terror of our hero’s gigantic phallic knife.  Thus Rambo projects a fantasy in which the audience gets to violate the enemies of everyday life, the boss and his computerized control over work life, the bureaucrats and politicians who conspire to emasculate America’s virility and betray the American dream.

Only after looking at these and the other POW/MIA films once again did I comprehend this myth of imprisonment, a myth that draws deep emotional power by displacing onto Vietnam the imprisonment, helplessness, and alienation felt by many Americans in an epoch when alien economic, technological, and bureaucratic forces control much of their lives. The man on that flag is American manhood itself, beset by all those bureaucratic and feminine forces seeking to emasculate him. The man incarnates that once great America, now an imprisoned victim, waiting to be rescued by a great man who has contempt for anyone or anything seeking to restrain him.  Someone named, say, John Rambo or Donald Trump.

To understand the roles of the myth in American culture and politics, one needs to look at its history.  For the first fifteen years of U.S. covert and overt combat in Vietnam‑-that is, from 1954 to 1969‑-there was not even a POW/MIA concept.  Its seeds were sown in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, including President Johnson’s withdrawal from the election campaign, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the tidal wave of urban rebellions, the opening of peace negotiations in Paris, and the nomination of Richard Nixon as the Republican peace candidate.  Remember that in his acceptance speech Nixon declared that “as we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” and then vowed that “if the war is not ended when the people choose in November,” “I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next Administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”

Richard Nixon had no intention of ending the Vietnam War without preserving a U.S. client government in Saigon.  But how many Americans in 1968 could have predicted that he would be able to continue the war year after bloody year until 1973? Perhaps even fewer than those who remembered that back in 1954 as Vice President he had been the first Administration official to advocate sending American troops to fight in Vietnam because, as he put it, “the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war by themselves or govern themselves.”  Nixon, however, had several formidable problems. Negotiations had already opened in Paris.  The Tet Offensive had convinced most Americans and even much of his own Defense Department that the war was unwinnable.  The antiwar movement was growing ever more powerful, domestically and within the armed forces.  There was certainly no enthusiasm for the war.  What could he do?

What he needed was something to wreck the negotiations, shift the apparent goal of the war, counter the antiwar movement, and generate some zeal for continued combat.  Soon after his inauguration, Nixon and an enterprising businessman named H. Ross Perot solved his problem by concocting a brand new issue: demanding a “full accounting” for Americans missing in action and the release of American prisoners of war as a precondition of any peace accord.  This was truly a brilliant, albeit demonic, strategy.

This issue created, for the first time, sizable emotional support for the war.  It deadlocked the Paris negotiations for four years.  It counteracted the antiwar movement. It even provided a basis for continuing economic and political warfare against Vietnam for decades after the United States had conceded defeat.  The POW/MIA issue also neutralized another White House and Pentagon problem that had been building throughout 1968: American revulsion at the torture and murder of the prisoners of U.S. and Saigon forces.

Domestically, the issue was a masterful stroke.  After all, how else could any deeply emotional support for the war be generated?  Certainly not by holding out the old discredited promises of military victory. And who would be willing to fight and die for the notoriously corrupt generals ruling Saigon?  But supporting our own prisoners of war and missing in action was something no loyal American would dare oppose.  It also seemed easy to understand, requiring no knowledge of the history of Vietnam and the war.  Before the end of the war, fifty million POW/MIA bumper stickers had been sold and ten million Americans were wearing POW/MIA bracelets 24 hours every day.

Perot was put in charge of building mass support, and he was soon rewarded.  Thanks to White House intervention, his EDS corporation got 90 percent of the computer work on Medicare claims, enabling Perot to become what one writer in 1971 dubbed “the first welfare billionaire.”

Perot was to buy “full-page ads in the nation’s 100 largest newspapers” and run “United We Stand,” a heart-wrenching program about POWs on TV stations in 59 cities.  Perot himself appeared on the top TV interview shows.  Perot’s United We Stand on November 9 ran full-page advertisements featuring the picture of two small children praying “Bring our Daddy home safe, sound and soon.”  Headlined THE MAJORITY SPEAKS: RELEASE THE PRISONERS, the ads demanded the immediate release of all U.S. POWs.  In December, the Senate and House unanimously passed an outlandish resolution demanding the immediate release of all U.S. POWs.

Nixon used the POW/MIA issue to deadlock the peace negotiations until 1973, when he finally accepted the terms, mostly word for word, which he had been offered when he took office in 1969.

In 1980, while running for president, Ronald Reagan coined the term “noble cause” to describe the Vietnam War, and it was during his presidency that the POW/MIA issue evolved into a full-blown cultural myth exerting enormous political power.  His successor was to bear some of the consequences.

In 1992, while the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was conducting hearings amid a flurry of phony pictures of purported POWs, President George H. W. Bush was fighting for his political life. The very man who had boasted that his war had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” was trying to win reelection by turning what Bill Clinton had or hadn’t done during the Vietnam War into a major campaign issue.  Meanwhile Ross Perot was campaigning for the White House as the wartime champion of the POWs and as a Rambo who would finally rescue all those still alive–as well as the nation itself.

Unlike Bush and Clinton, Perot had no national party apparatus.  What he used as an effective substitute was a ready-made national infrastructure, a network of activists motivated by religious fervor and coordinated by grassroots organizations: the POW/MIA movement.  Perot chose ex-POW James Stockdale as his running mate and ex-POW Orson Swindle as his campaign manager.  At his typical rally, Perot sat with former POWs and family members on a stage bedecked with POW flags.  POW activists and organizations were central to the petition campaigns that got Perot on the ballot in every state.

Portraying himself as the lone outsider from Texas ready to ride into Washington to save us from its sleazy bureaucrats and politicians who had betrayed the POWs and the American people, Perot cut deeply into President Bush’s constituency.  In the national debates, Perot aimed almost all his fire on Bush and Bush’s Iraq war. Without Perot’s deft undermining of Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton would probably not have gotten to reside in the White House.  And Perot’s national organization would prove to be the incubator of the Tea Party and other organized forces that would take over the Republican Party and elect Donald Trump as America’s savior.

The POW/MIA myth was deployed as a weapon in each of the first three presidential elections of the 21st century.  In each case, the candidate targeted by the weapon lost.

In 2000, John McCain, running as America’s late 20th-century iconic hero—the Vietnam POW—overwhelmed his four Republican opponents in the New Hampshire primary, crushing runner-up George W. Bush by 19 points.  But in the next primary, in South Carolina, his “Straight Talk Express” was derailed by an explosive charge:  that as a member of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs he had viciously betrayed those hundreds or thousands of his fellow POWs left behind in Vietnam.  The main ingredients for the charge came from a 1992 article by Ted Sampley, “John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate,” which claimed that he had been brainwashed by the Vietnamese and might very well be acting as their secret agent.  McCain’s campaign never recovered from the defeat and shattered image inflicted in South Carolina.

In 2004, the defeat of Senator John Kerry by incumbent President George W. Bush was widely attributed to the heavily bankrolled “swiftboating” by “Swift Vets and POWs for Truth,” an assault that torpedoed Kerry’s status as a heroic Vietnam veteran.  But even earlier, the campaign to use the POW/MIA issue to destroy Kerry’s Vietnam credentials was launched by Sidney Schanberg, one of the most fanatical of the POW/MIA cultists.  Using long discredited “evidence” that after the war Vietnam held “many” American POWs to be used “as future bargaining chips,” Schanberg’s “When John Kerry’s Courage Went M.I.A” appeared on February 24th in the Village Voice and was soon widely disseminated. Schanberg claimed that as chair of the Senate Select Committee, Kerry had deliberately “covered up voluminous evidence” of “perhaps hundreds” of these left-behind POWs.

In 2008, Schanberg recycled his anti-Kerry article, plus other articles that he had been reissuing for decades, as “McCain and the POW Cover-up,” an especially vitriolic assault on John McCain, who was then in what seemed to be a tight presidential race with Barack Obama.  As he had done in earlier articles, Schanberg drew heavily on Ted Sampley’s 1992 article about “The Manchurian Candidate.” There was nothing surprising or even new in Schanberg’s piece.  But what some people found startling, indeed shocking, was where it was published: in the Nation, one of America’s leading liberal and anti-Vietnam War journals.

Even more appalling, liberal and progressive media responded by deliriously ballyhooing Schanberg’s POW/MIA fantasy. ran excerpts from and links to the Nation article, along with ads for POW/MIA flags, pins, and bracelets.    Daily Kos, Huffington Post,, and many others reprinted the Nation piece, some adorning it with large images of the POW/MIA flag.  Democracy Now, the nationally syndicated progressive radio and TV show, on October 23 ran a long adulatory interview with Schanberg and linked on its web site to a longer version of his article published online by The Nation Institute. Scattered protests from some historians, antiwar activists, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War were drowned out by denunciations—from right, left, and center—of McCain as a betrayer of all those POWs abandoned in Vietnam.

By then, some observers of the American cultural and political scene were becoming aware of a visible ultra-right movement, growing directly out of the POW/MIA fetish.  A spectacular manifestation of the movement had burst into view in 1988 as the first Rolling Thunder motorcade roared into Washington.  Thousands of bikers, flying the black POW/MIA flag along with the stars and stripes and an assortment of white-nationalist, misogynist, and jingoist insignia, then encamped for two days of heavily lubricated demonstrating for the rescue of the POWs.  In 2018, half a million bikers participated in Rolling Thunder.

When Trump says, “”I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” he is sending a message, very lightly coded, to this movement.   These are the “second amendment people” he threatened to unleash during the 2016 presidential debates.  When he picks a fight with McCain’s ghost, he revels in the responses from the corporate press and the political establishment because these responses are proof that they don’t know the code language that Trump shares with his most devoted followers.

Remember when the election of 2016 was going to be a showdown between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton?  Well of course Donald Trump deftly disposed of the Bushes and Clintons.  Now he evidently thinks that the ghost of John McCain is interfering with his consolidation of power.  Why? To answer that question, we need to understand why the black and white POW/MIA flags still fly all over America.