The latest episode in the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl story has provided a stunning look at the hypocrisy of the right wing toward US Prisoners of War.
But this isn’t the first time flag-waving reactionaries have turned on actual POWs after bloviating about how much they love ‘em. Betrayal of POWs by the government and their subsequent denigration by the US media rest, it seems, at the heart of the hidden history of the Korean war.
First, come with me in the WABAC machine to the height of the McCarthy-era Red Scare. We’ll set the dials for Benham, Kentucky, September 12, 1953. Staff Sergeant Jack Flanary was returning to his hometown, population 3,500, from the Korean War. He had just been released in the massive Korean War–ending prisoner exchange after three years in a Chinese prison camp. A big parade was laid on and the governor was to address a “Welcome Home” rally of 5000. The VFW and American Legion vied for his affections with the latter promising him a $50 savings bond.
As the event was getting started, something unexpected happened. A rumor rippled through the crowd, and when it reached the speakers’ platform the organizers stepped down and went into a huddle. The tale was so troubling that they decided to halt presentations on the spot. The word was that while in prison camp, the sergeant had buddied up to the Chinese communists. He was a collaborator. The town leaders decided they could not risk honoring someone who might have given aid and comfort to the enemy. The governor’s staff may have prompted the decision—a town leader explained to the New York Times that “we just couldn’t take a chance on embarrassing the governor.” No one seemed to know where the rumor started, but the honor guard was sent home, the savings bond rescinded, and Flanary’s membership in the VFW put on hold.
The Bergdahl Parallel
The parallels with Sgt. Bergdahl’s story so far are stunning. The sergeant, known for expressing his disgust with an unjust and unjustifiable war, walks off base in Afghanistan, is captured by Taliban-associated fighters and held prisoner for five years, the only captive US troop there. Right wing pundits make a big deal of his captivity and loudly demand that the Obama administration do something to free him.
It does, freeing five top Taliban POWs held in the US prisoner of war camp at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl, part of complex negotiations to draw the Taliban into some kind of agreement that will let US troop withdrawal proceed with some face-saving.
Suddenly right wing commentators and politicians are in full cry, spinning 180 degrees to denounce the deal as a sell-out and “bargaining with terrorists” and, based on no new information whatsoever, blackguard Sgt Bergdahl as a deserter and a traitor who doesn’t deserve to be freed.
A welcome home rally planned for his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, population 8000, is suddenly cancelled as the mayor, the police chief and the Chamber of Commerce are inundated with hate messages and threats of disruption via phone, email and USPS.
Name, Rank + Serial Number
I learned about Sgt. Flanary in a fascinating new book from Oxford University Press, Name, Rank + Serial Number by Charles S. Young, the source of the block quote above. The only reason I don’t just call it “superb” is that I haven’t finished it yet (though it seems pretty unlikely that Young’s research, reasoning and writing will go south in the next 59 pages).
The book argues that the Korean truce talks, almost complete by December, 1951, were prolonged for two years by US efforts to win a propaganda victory in a military stalemate. After a year of savage see-saw combat that devastated the whole of Korean peninsula and left the combatants occupying essentially the same turf as before the war began, truce talks began in July, 1951. The major issues, even the touchy question of where the border between North and South Korea would lie, were settled.
But US negotiators decided to use the issue of POWs as “a substitute for victory.” Not US and allied POWs held by North Korea and China--they were left to rot in prison camps for two more years. Meanwhile "our" negotiators stalled, securing time to force a large number of Korean and Chinese POWs into refusing repatriation for a global propaganda coup to make up for the fact that the US had just failed to win its first war since 1776.
And to add insult to injury, blame for military failure was heaped on the troops, with the very POWs who spent two years in unnecessary and arduous confinement at the center of the bullseye. An anticommunist witch hunt for those who had done anything more than give their name, rank and service number (which encompassed pretty much everyone in the POW camps) was combined with a cheesy Freudian interpretation of their captivity. The men were Mama's boys, unlike earlier generations of manly American males and thus easy targets for commie brainwashing. Politicians like Dixiecrat Senator John Stennis of Mississippi and popular magazines like Look and the Saturday Evening Post jumped on the bandwagon.
Let me close on a lighter note. There's a happy ending to Sgt. Flanary's story. After the collapse of the homecoming ceremony, supporters passed the hat and collected $500 in place of the Legion's bond. Other civic groups gave him their planned gifts of clothing and luggage. The unofficial party rocked until 4:00 the next morning, causing Flanary to miss church.
We can only hope that decency is not dead and Bowe Bergdahl's friends and neighbors similarly defy the teahadists to welcome him home.