The POW-MIA Metaphor

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My writing group, The Pen and the Sword, considers topics related to any war, but the Vietnam War in particular. Our theme at the moment is After War—the ways in which cultures, communities, individuals leave war behind and transition to peace time. We are discovering, of course, the numerous ways in which war is not left behind, but continues to play a shadow role in decision-making, motivations, and anxieties. With this in mind, then, we wrote about what we remembered (Googling not allowed) about the POW-MIA phenomenon. The following was my response.

It is hard to distinguish now between what I remember and what I have since read. When the prisoners were released, for me it was all happening in the background, just another event in the half-life of the war’s end. It did not capture my imagination; I just saw it. And I thought—if I thought anything at all—that that would be an end to it.

When stories began to appear of captives still in Vietnam I thought—if I thought anything at all—that it was possible. Not likely, but possible. There were emotional speeches and fundraising campaigns and people wearing bracelets, none of which made any impact on me. I did notice that if any of the touted rescue missions took place, no rescued prisoners ever appeared.

Over the years the sightings—a bedraggled man, three purported pilots—did begin to capture my interest. Ten years, twenty years later and grainy pictures were still showing up and multiple families were still claiming them as their loved ones. Nothing ever came of it, but new reports were not met with skepticism. I hated to think of the agony the families were enduring and wondered why they and the various entities exploiting the issue could not accept the reality that if a plane exploded there were be no pilot to recover and hold prisoner. And if the rationale was that the Vietnamese were holding hundreds, by some reports thousands, of prisoners to use in negotiations, why weren’t they doing so?

Because something else was going on.

I had been close to it in Seeking Quan Am when I talked about my reasons for going to Hanoi in 2011: “I had left something of myself there [during the war] and I had to go to Vietnam to get it back.” Since writing that I have pondered what I meant. Had I been simply growing up, with the accompanying loss of innocence and illusions, or was there something more, something particular to that war?

Then I read Arnold Isaacs’ chapter (in Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy) on the POW-MIA issue in which he suggests that the whole thing—the supposed sightings, the distraught families, the fundraising, the bogus rescue missions, and the Congressional hearings—all of it was an extended metaphor. “We had lost something in the jungles of Vietnam,” Isaacs says, “and we desperately wanted it back.”

What had we lost, apart from the war itself? We lost innocence, belief in government, confidence in American goodness. We also lost faith in American might and that elusive, very American quality—swagger. (In Seeking Quan Am Mark quotes an unnamed historian as saying, “The British walk the earth as though they own it. The Americans walk the earth as though they don’t care who owns it.”)

How do you get swagger back when it has been taken from you in a foreign country? You declare it held captive and make a great show of going back there to get it. Whether you succeed or not is beside the point, which is to declare that it is lost! And someone else has it!

But this quest could be never-ending. The military has said there are no more POWs in Vietnam. There are, however, many MIAs, which stands to reason: they are unaccounted for. That means only that their bodies have not been recovered—they have been lost or buried in the jungle or blown to bits over the East China Sea.* But the human mind, working the way human minds work, easily hears that as “still out there somewhere.”

They are missing and we must get them back and as they are metaphors, this process will go on and on, in one form or another, until we have named the actual loss … and grieved it.

* We called it the South China Sea then but now that name recognizes China’s claim so, in solidarity with Vietnam, I use their name.

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