Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Musings

My latest in the Guardian had thin-skinned posters proving all my points as usual!

It was an idyllic, sunny Memorial Day up in the Catskills region of upstate New York. At our local parade, the firefighters marched along the short Main Street to the firehouse in dress uniforms, the school choir sang the Star-Spangled Banner, and a boy scout recited the pledge of allegiance. The deputy sheriff, and the fire chief addressed the gathering and hoisted both the stars and stripes and the POW/MIA flag which also customarily flies from the local firehouse. Your average British fire-station is a hive of leftwing subversion if their union is anything to go by. That is not the case in the rural USA.

Even so, none of the speakers made partisan points about the current conflict, where sand and cities have replaced the jungles of Vietnam in a replay of pointless tragedy. Ironically, their orations were drowned out by aging bikers, of the kind who customarily wear POW/MIA insignia, as they revved their unmuffled hogs up the hill past the ceremony for a spin in the mountains.

Last weekend I re-read several Kurt Vonnegut novels, and the memory rippled through. That iconoclastic war veteran, survivor of Dresden and representative of another, more skeptical USA, described the national anthem as "gibberish interspersed with question marks." As a near-miss MIA himself, he had little time for vexillolatry. He could have ended up in dead in a ditch in the Battle of the Bulge, or a handful of cinders as a "friendly fire victim" in Dresden as the Allies did their best to recreate the Inferno on Earth. Flags were not to die for in Vonnegut's opus.

The POW/MIA cult seems to have ebbed from its height a decade or so ago, when so many fervently believed that the Pentagon and Hanoi were in cahoots to hide hundreds of imprisoned GIs. The conspiratorial rationale was that Hanoi hung on to hundreds of prisoners as bargaining chips to ensure payment of US reparations. But there could be no bargaining unless you disclose your chips, and reveal the hostages.

The fervour played to the best and worst of America simultaneously. There was a determination that the government could not reduce individual citizens to anonymous statistics in a faraway land - but there was also a complete insouciance about Indochinese casualties. One must wonder what the Vietnamese think when they help American teams scour for the remains of relative handful of US casualties in jungles strewn with the unmarked graves of up to five million Vietnamese, one-eighth of the country's population.

Nonetheless, faced with grieving relatives grasping at hope, Federal and state legislators in the 1990s succumbed and made the black flag of the movement quasi-official, sanctioning its hoisting alongside the stars and stripes.

Yet, both senators John McCain and John Kerry were united in the Senate committee report on the subject, that "while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." Ironically McCain, as an ex-POW himself, is getting heat for that from some of the last of the true believers.

Checking the previously fervently conspiratorial sites on the matter, the white heat of that earlier speculation is fading. The POW/MIA flag is becoming the insignia for all those lost in action, presumed dead. It would be a very brave legislator who moved to have it hauled down.

Yet, why support ill-founded conspiracies when there is clear evidence of a real one, the Bush/Cheney plot to send more GIs to die in a pointless struggle?

So it goes.

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