The Most Aggravating Part Of The POW/MIA Flag Story Is How Angry We All Got Over It

The POW/MIA flag flies over Schriever Air Force Base.
Photo by Dennis Rogers

Recently an article by the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent, Rick Perlstein, was published with the attention-grabbing headline: “It’s Time to Haul Down Another Flag of Racist Hate.” The article gained national attention when Newsweek picked it up on Aug. 11 and ignited a firestorm of resentment over its claim that the origin of the black and white POW/MIA flag is rooted in racism and hatred, rather than remembrance for the more than 80,000 men and women still waiting to come home.

The original story begins with a series of rhetorical questions, drawing links between the POW/MIA memorial flag and the Confederate flag.

“You know that racist flag? The one that supposedly honors history but actually spreads a pernicious myth? And is useful only to venal right-wing politicians who wish to exploit hatred by calling it heritage? It’s past time to pull it down,” writes Perlstein. “Oh, wait. You thought I was referring to the Confederate flag. Actually, I’m talking about this.”

The headline and lead make overt references to the Confederate flag, embroiled in a controversy of its own, but beyond that Perlstein doesn’t offer a real explanation for how the POW/MIA flag is racist or why it needs to be removed. It’s interesting that the word racism was taken out of the story, on Aug. 13, because it never should have made it through to publication. In the original story Perlstein mentioned racism briefly in the headline and the first sentence, and provided no detailed explanation for why it was there.

That’s it. He makes no attempt to explain why or how it was racist and even his apology fails to fully explain his decision-making process.

“I sincerely regret the use of the word ‘racist’ to describe how the POW/MIA flag distorts the history of the Vietnam War,” reads the apology. “The word was over the top and not called for.”

While Perlstein’s apology was a good start, I don’t buy it. The word “racist” was used to elicit an emotional, knee-jerk reaction. For many veterans, service members and their families, that flag represents America’s promise to its fighting men and women that every one of them will come home. Perlstein’s attack on the POW/MIA flag’s creation felt a lot like an unfounded attack on the idea it represents.

The apology from Perlstein’s editor at the Washington Spectator, Lou Dubose, was also lukewarm. He didn’t write that he regrets the story was infused with such a controversial racial component. Really, all Dubose does is apologize for causing a stir, which is a lot like saying he’s sorry that they got in trouble. His apology reads:

Nowhere is it suggested, nor do we imply, that individuals who remain devoted to the POW/MIA flag are racist. And it was neither Mr. Perlstein’s intent, nor ours, to dishonor those who served in Vietnam, although based on comments of readers, many were offended. A more careful editor would have moved the term ‘racist’ lower in the body of the story and kept it out of the headline, where it was an unintended red flag that provoked the understandable ire of many readers.

Instead of elaborating on the most cringeworthy elements of his headline and lead, Perlstein devoted the article to describing the POW/MIA classification as a product of the Nixon administration. He argues that the dramatized accounts of the North Vietnamese army’s treatment of American prisoners, as seen in movies like “Deer Hunter,” are in fact taken from the experiences of U.S. enemies at the hands of America’s South Vietnamese allies.

“During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them into a newly invented ‘Missing in Action’ column.That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up,” Perlstein writes. “He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions — the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane.”

If Perlstein wanted to make an argument about the flag, he could have picked less rocky ground than claiming the creation of the MIA/POW flag was meant to trick the American people by providing them a heroic narrative at the close of the Vietnam War. He might have had a better argument if he had tempered it with a bit of compassion. He might have been able to make a claim that it was a public relations move, at least in part. And if he really sold that, he might be able to claim that it was disingenuous on Nixon’s part. Maybe.

But, that’s not what Perlstein he did, instead he leaped from one exposed nerve to the next — lingering scars from the Vietnam War, racism, the human cost of war — and set off veterans service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who took to Twitter to challenge the article.

We were all caught up in rage-filled Facebook comments, blog posts, and news segments about an article that was inflammatory for the sake of being inflammatory. The result of all that anger? Website traffic.

And that’s the problem, not just with Perlstein’s piece, but with what we as members of the media do, or at least, occasionally do. There were many well-written pieces and counterpoints — like this one by Jon Davis —  about why Perlstein was out of line. But, there are questions that aren’t being asked: Why do we need to explain why this is wrong? Is the bar so low that we lack the ability to screen bullshit on our own? And when have you gone too far for page views or readership?

It’s important that editors consider what they’re doing when running a headline like the one attached to Perlstein’s original article. It may be an opinion piece — though that’s a bit unclear since the Spectator ran it under politics and Newsweek listed it as an op-ed — but deciding to run it says something about your publication. And no number of retractions, apologies, and addendums make that go away.

As veterans, we have incredible leveraging power, both politically and socially. And most of the time we throw our weight around for the right reasons, but I wonder if we should hold off on the social media outrage every once in a while. Not that it isn’t deserved in this case — I’m pissed, you’re pissed, we’re all rightfully pissed — but maybe Perlstein’s piece would have fizzled if we had just shrugged it off.

So, in closing:

You know that Newsweek article? The one that supposedly holds to journalistic standards, but actually incites outrage? And is useful only to desperate writers who wish to exploit anger by calling it news? It’s past time we stopped talking about it.

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