Why Americans are obsessed with our POWs.

The history behind current events.
April 1 2003 10:41 AM

The POW in the American Imagination

Why we're obsessed with American soldiers captured by the enemy.

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Hungry for a story line that cast American soldiers as heroic victims, not oppressors, a large segment of the public took up the POW/MIA cause. Families of the unaccounted-for soldiers formed groups to lobby the government to retrieve the missing—waging their campaigns long after the war ended and Nixon resigned. Spreading the fiction that American servicemen remained imprisoned in Southeast Asia, the cause won legions of adherents and managed to get the now-familiar black-and-white POW/MIA flag to fly over the White House once a year, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day—the only flag other than Old Glory given that honor.

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Despite the findings of congressional committees, historians, and other investigative efforts that refuted the claims, an almost religious belief in the existence of unreturned POWs in Vietnam took hold in the '80s and '90s. The belief reflected a desire to redeem the Vietnam War. A spate of popular movies such as Rambo and Missing in Action, in which former Vietnam POWs returned to the jungles to free forgotten comrades, reflected and reinforced a new mythology of the war, which is in effect won—or at least redeemed—the second time around. In these films, the hypermasculine Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, brimming with patriotism, loyalty, and pectorals, make short work of their feeble Vietnamese enemies, save their forsaken buddies, and give the lost war a victorious end. This romance of the POW, it should be added, wasn't only a Hollywood concern: The cult of John McCain owes much to his inspiring story of refusing to use connections to escape the brutal suffering of the Hanoi Hilton.

The glamorizing of the Vietnam POW, like that of the hostages taken captive in Iran in 1979 who became celebrities upon their release, marked an effort to replace weakness and defeat with heroism and redemption. But the Vietnam-era image of the POW may now, like so much else in this new Gulf War, be in flux—its masculine imagery no longer adequate for an Army touting virtues of flexibility and mobility and featuring women on the front lines.

Indeed, the developing story line about the Iraq POWs focuses on the sole female soldier captured, Spc. Shoshana Johnson. Like Army Maj. Rhonda Cornum, a POW in the first Gulf War who was sexually assaulted while in custody, Johnson, although a trained soldier, is cast in the role of the innocent maiden of the Indian captivity tales, her purity threatened in unspeakable ways. As with Colonial captivity tales, a prurient interest accompanies the expressions of fear and concern about her well-being. It's too soon to say, but perhaps the image of the POW to emerge from this war will be poignant rather than inspiring, more feminine than masculine, more tragic than heroic—a figure who, not unlike the society that sent her to battle, was unprepared for the animosities awaiting.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.