The Real Meaning of the POW/MIA Flag

The real meaning of the POW/MIA Flag
A POW-MIA flag flies at graveside during a full honors burial service for seven U.S. Vietnam era military members at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia March 21, 2014. Gary Cameron/Reuters

It's been hard to miss recent news reports about the many flags and other historical artifacts coming under attack as symbolizing messages of racial hate and bigotry. What few expected to see was the flag that represents American troops missing in action and prisoners of war being put in this category.

Rick Perlstein, in a post for the Washington Spectator, a self-styled "progressive" media outlet, opined over what he called the inappropriate display of the POW/MIA flag in an op-ed titled, lacking no subtlety, "It's Time to Haul Down Another Flag of Racist Hate." The piece, which was picked up by Newsweek, caused a bit of a firestorm, stirring up the ire of veterans not just of the Vietnam era, but of all, it seemed, who have access to a working Internet connection.

The article attracted commentary decrying it as everything from an attack on the veteran community, a sensationalist's attempt to attract attention to his own book and an outdated rant against modern conservatives that was relevant only because it was riding waves of progressive energy surrounding the recent debate over flying the Confederate flag. While Perlstein presented many interesting thoughts and perhaps a new perspective on the history behind the POW/MIA flag's origin, many agree that his essay failed to deliver on the fundamental argument: that the flag represents any form of racism or that it needs to be removed.

What Perlstein's piece did manage to do, unfailingly, was to gain the attention of many who felt they were unfairly put on the defensive for decades of work. Ann Mills-Griffiths, the chairman of the board for the National League of POW/MIA Families (and the sister of CDR James B. Mills, USNR, MIA 9-21-66) offered a response published by Newsweek that spoke to the legacy and mission of the organization called out by Perlstein's opinion piece.

"Those who took the time and made the effort, both in Washington, DC, and in Hanoi, knew the importance. Following relatively feeble US attention post-war, the National League of POW/MIA Families, supported by our Nation's major national Veteran organizations, worked to sustain public interest in and support for the principles most Americans hold dear—standing behind those who serve our country—including making every reasonable effort to return them to their families and our country—alive or dead."

Perlstein's article also attracted the attention of military veteran writers, such as myself, who then wanted to share their views on the place of the POW/MIA flag in our nation today. Readers should know that I'm not a veteran of the Vietnam War. During that conflict, I was a decade away from being born. My war came much later: In 2005 and 2007, I deployed with the United States Marine Corps to Al Anbar Province in Iraq. I was honorably discharged in 2008 as a sergeant, and now serve as a teacher and freelance writer specializing in military history and veterans affairs. What I understand of warfare came from this era, while my understanding of Vietnam was very vague for most of my life.

My father, a Green Beret, served during that time, but we never talked about it. My uncle, an Army lieutenant, was wounded in action and sent home; we never talked about that either. Vietnam was a never-broached subject in the Davis household, and whatever feelings my father held back then, he took them with him to the grave when I was still very young. Because we didn't talk about such things when I was growing up, it was only recently that I even knew the POW/MIA flag came about as a response to the sufferings of veterans of that war and not some earlier conflict, such as to commemorate the survivors of the Bataan Death March of WWII.

Of course, once you join the military community, being unaware of the POW/MIA emblem is almost impossible. Though not an official standard of the United States government, as I understand, it can be seen across most bases and has a subtle place in the background of daily life. Once you leave the service, its presence is even more powerful, as you are welcomed by the old guard, the Vietnam vets, as the new generation of warfighters. With them, the flag has far more meaning than a simple reminder of the tragedy endured by 1,000 American families almost half a century ago.

Regardless of Perlstein's beliefs, the flag has little to do with racism toward the North Vietnamese or anyone else. It's true, I am sure, that if you polled a sample of those with POW bumper stickers and an equal number of random individuals, you will find more in the former group who look unfavorably toward the people of South East Asia. As a veteran of war, I understand this: It's very difficult to go through years of your life surrounded by an entire people with looks of hatred in their eyes and be unaffected.

That said, everything this community and the POW/MIA flag represent cannot be boiled down to a default classification of racism. As one who for so many years didn't even realize the conflict the POW/MIA flag represented most, I stand as evidence that racism is not the legacy of that banner, but that it's something much deeper and universal.

The flag is a powerful image. It features a solemn figure on a field of black watched over by a distant tower and a barbed wire fence, with the message, "You are not forgotten." The white on black contrast conveys a hopelessness and loss felt for each of these men—now assuredly, as Perlstein so unmercifully points out, lost to all of us forever.

What I see in looking at other veterans who value the POW flag is a deep longing to express something important about themselves and their comrades more than just to defend the flag itself. Beyond the pain of lost brothers in arms, Vietnam veterans who continue to showcase the flag, I feel, identify with it for a different reason. They see in its desperation and hopelessness a small means to communicate their own suffering—a suffering endured in a dangerous and faraway place while fighting a war that seemed impossible to win, a suffering for which they wouldn't even be appreciated upon returning. Some came home to such a wretched welcome that they continued to suffer for years after the conflict ended.

For men like this, a part of me wonders if the flag serves as a silent metaphor for a generation of warriors a nation rejected and who are lost forever. There is a question often asked of those of us who have been "over there," wherever there is: whether people ever really come back from war, or is a part of them always left behind. I can't answer that honestly, but I know that no one returns home unchanged.

Upon returning, we long to quietly communicate to others what the wars meant to us and why, though few of us ever admit as much, we need for you to understand. Icons such as the POW/MIA flag are bold and powerful testaments to this idea, representing not just the ongoing suffering of an unfortunate few but binding a silent community of those who perpetually suffer the aftershocks of an endless war.

This sort of spiritual bonding with an image wouldn't be a first. Even now, another icon is serving a similar purpose for a new generation. Surely, you've seen this emblem, representing the Wounded Warrior Project.

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Members of a Wounded Warrior Project team take part in a Tough Mudder obstacle course. Tough Mudder

The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-governmental organization established to ensure that aid, benefits and transition support are provided to warriors wounded in action of all eras, but specifically in response to modern conflicts. As early as 2006, the organization had earned enough support that it collaborated with the Marines in the creation of the Wounded Warriors Barracks at Camp Pendleton, California, which I had the honor of visiting while stationed there. They have also done spectacular work in bringing many of these issues to the surface, like getting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the respect and attention it deserves in the medical community and raising a call to arms against the numerous failings in the Department of Veteran's Affairs over the course of current administration.

Their noble mission isn't without its downsides. I've written for Newsweek about how the Wounded Warrior Project's efforts have inadvertently done some harm to the veteran community. Their efforts to bring awareness could be viewed as a catastrophic success, leaving many civilians with a skewed understanding of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, believing all of us to be disproportionately affected by and probably suffering some debilitating mental disease or physical deformity. This belief among civilian hiring managers has left many of us unable to find work and unable to adapt to society after conflict.

The mixed successes of campaigns like the Wounded Warrior Project aside, the design of the WWP emblem holds a striking resemblance to its POW/MIA predecessor and evokes strong emotions in those who participated in the conflicts that necessitated it. This surely is not coincidence. The logo can be seen on shirts given away at events sponsored by the WWP and it is becoming as common as the POW flag itself, following a path to awareness not unlike the path, as outlined by Perlstein, taken by the National League of POW/MIA Families many years ago.

While the flags bear remarkable physical and historical similarities, they hold another thing in common: The WWP emblem has grown to symbolize for many veterans of my era much of the same pain and loss felt by those from years past who have a strong relationship with the POW/MIA flag. For many of us, it represents the wounds that many of us feel when returning home from war. For many more, it represents the very real losses of combat casualties that almost all of us know firsthand.

One thing must be said in favor of the continuing presence of that POW/MIA flag, something that, as far as I have seen, has gone unmentioned. Without disputing any of the facts Perlstein states to be true, the impact its legacy continues to have on the lives of modern warfighters is equally or perhaps more important than whatever history the varying political adversaries wish to place on it. The presence of the POW/MIA flag on U.S. military bases across the world has, in my mind, contributed to a phenomenally positive change in the way America fights wars. While there remain around 1,200 unaccounted-for American warriors of Vietnam, the number of American prisoners of war still stands at less than 20 for the entire conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2001 to today.

It seems obvious to me that the POW/MIA flag has been a warning that was never far from the thoughts of officers and NCOs in planning meetings long before any battle took place. Though they will never realize it, the flag's very existence saved lives. No greater legacy can exist than that of a difficult lesson learned.

For that reason alone, the histories of the MIA/POW flag or that of the Wounded Warriors or of any other similar emblem of servicemen's struggle really don't matter. The truth is they no longer belong just to the people of the conflicts that brought about their creation. Their meanings continue to evolve. They now symbolize something different, something deep within our culture and something that will continue to be a part of our military heritage for many years to come. We will share history, and share lessons, and continue to preserve the memory of people who matter and to save lives of future warriors. What matters to the people who still wave these banners proudly is the legacy they leave for today's acting servicemen, the messages they wish to be understood by civilians and the sense of comradery they hold for fellow veterans.

No part of this message that remains is a message of racism. It is simply, as the flag itself states, a message of remembrance. Hopefully, no time in history will see us so foolish as to cause these banners to stop waving.

Jon Davis is a writer and blogger supported by follower contributions made possible through the arts and media crowdsourcing platform Patreon. He writes on the topics of military and Middle Eastern affairs at Quora. To read more about Davis and his work for veterans, please visit his Patreon support site.