The Vietnam myth that gave us all those ‘Rambo’ movies

For decades, conspiracy theorists have clung to the fiction that thousands of soldiers are being held captive in Asia.

The Vietnam myth that gave us all those ‘Rambo’ movies

For decades, conspiracy theorists have clung to the fiction that thousands of soldiers are being held captive in Asia.

At least six days out of every calendar year, an unassuming flag flies over American military bases, state capitals, post offices, and even Guantanamo Bay, right below the Stars and Stripes. The intimidating, pitch-black rectangle holds a white oval in the center containing the sullen silhouette of an unknown soldier, flanked by a distant watch-tower and a barbed wire fence. The letters “POW” and “MIA” sit above the figure, with a star in between; below it are the words “You are not forgotten.”

This flag, officially called the National League of Families POW/MIA Flag, is the only other flag to flap above the White House and hang in the Capitol rotunda. The “unknown” soldier at its center is based off Jim Heisley, the son of flag designer Newt Heisley, who was home sick from Marine Basic Training when his father was commissioned to design the flag. Newt thought his son, frail due to hepatitis, had the “gaunt look” of a prisoner of war, even though Jim was never imprisoned or missing in action. Today, decades after the last American troops left Vietnam, the outline of Jim Heisley’s face can be seen on bumper stickers alongside slogans like “POWs never have a nice day.” You can buy it on baseball caps, bandanas, and Zippo lighters; at the official Veterans of Foreign Wars online store, you can purchase POW/MIA dog tag earrings, or a vaguely hypebeast-looking tee with “POW/MIA” and “VFW” on the sleeves.

There’s another face that people associate with American prisoners of war in Vietnam: the beefy mug of Sylvester Stallone. This weekend sees the release of Rambo: Last Blood, the first Rambo movie in over a decade and, if the title is to be believed, presumably the last. This time, America’s longest-running lone wolf is taking on Mexican sex traffickers to the tune of “Old Town Road.”Last Blood is pretty much a Taken movie in Rambo’s clothing; it cares as much about the real victims of human trafficking as much as SESTA/FOSTA did. Like pretty much every Hollywood movie about America’s southern border, it feels designed to have its plot points tweeted out as news by President Trump, as happened last year with the Sicario sequel that pretty much nobody saw. It wouldn’t be the first time a sitting President has referenced Rambo; after seeing Rambo: First Blood Part II, Reagan remarked that he now knew what to do the “next time” a hostage crisis happened under his watch.

Thirty years ago, John Rambo was fighting a very different, if equally fictionalized and racialized menace, as the most public face of one of our country’s greatest delusions: the belief that thousands of live American servicemen were held captive throughout Southeast Asia after the official end of the Vietnam War. Prior to the Nixon administration, the armed forces had used a different classification for soldiers who could not be accounted for: KIA/BNR, or “killed in action/body not recovered.” This classification led with the greatest likelihood — if a soldier’s body could not be recovered, particularly in an unfamiliar environment like Vietnam, it was probably fair to assume they had been killed in combat — while still acknowledging those rarer cases in which an unrecovered body might not actually be a casualty. Though there had been a sporadic number of American servicemen held prisoner in Vietnam since the 1950s, the official position of previous administrations on the issue was to keep it “quiet.”

That all changed just a few months into Nixon’s first term, in a desperate ploy to stir up support at home for an unpopular conflict abroad, as outlined in H. Bruce Franklin’s M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America. As the many fictions necessary to sustain the war were exposed, Nixon and company needed a new approach — and a new lie. In a press conference on May 19, 1969, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced the existence of around 1,300 American soldiers now deemed “missing in action,” around half of whom were believed to be prisoners of war. The unaccounted for would now publically be described as “POW/MIA,” implying that any serviceperson missing in Vietnam could also be a prisoner of war. This transformed the war from a political issue into a humanitarian one, trading public support for sympathy. It didn’t matter why we were there in the first place: our boys were there, and by God were we going to do anything to get our boys home.

Suddenly, the public image of Vietnam looked very different. The very real footage of brutalized Vietnamese bodies, wailing children, and napalmed villages was traded for a fantasy — all of the violence that had been done in Uncle Sam’s name was now being done to him. The POW issue soon became a cause celebre. In the early 1970s, millions of “POW bracelets” were sold by a student group called VIVA (Voices in Vital America), each branded with the name of a missing American servicemen. These shiny nickel bracelets were spotted on the wrists of celebrities like Sonny and Cher and Sammy Davis Jr, and allegedly Princess Grace Kelly put in an order for two bracelets. The silver bracelets could even be spotted on the fashion runway, where models with an interest in political activism took to wearing them. A New York Times profile from the day quotes a model named Astrida Woods, who says she was ���dissatisfied” with her life as a model and felt the urge to give back. “I began to do some work with Ralph Nader, and now [wearing the bracelets]. It’s a way to contribute something.”

As the war ended and hundreds of American soldiers held in captivity returned home, the belief in so-called “live prisoners” warped from public cause to conspiracy theory. Much of the existing literature on the POW/MIA issue, books with sensational titles like Kiss the Boys Goodbye and A Nation Betrayed, is written by true believers utterly convinced, against all odds and evidence, that there are live prisoners throughout Southeast Asia.

When Franklin published M.I.A. in 1992, there were still 2,273 “unaccounted for” Americans from the Vietnam War; according to the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, there are still 1,587 unaccounted for as of this year. Even the original total of missing Americans in the Vietnam War is considerably smaller compared to previous conflicts; as of September 13, 2019, the Department of Defense still lists 72,661 persons as “POW/MIA” from World War II. And as Franklin points out, at least half of the unaccounted for at the time of publication were known to have been killed in action — it’s only because their bodies were not recovered or unidentifiable that they were classified as “missing.”

After the war, the POW/MIA issue became what writer Rick Perlstein described as “the right-wing variant of the Watergate-induced dread about whether anyone in Washington could be trusted.” It wasn’t just that American prisoners were being held throughout Southeast Asia; the most ardent devotees of the conspiracy theory believed the federal government was actively suppressing information about their existence. For those who wanted to believe, information was aplenty; in Southeast Asia, an entire industry emerged to sell false information about POWs to gullible Americans.

Like the unknown soldier on the POW/MIA flag, Rambo has a real-life analog: former Green Beret and Special Forces operative James Gordon “Bo” Gritz, one of the POW/MIA issue’s most passionate zealots (and also the inspiration for another action hero, Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith of TV’s The A-Team). Because of his numerous missions into Southeast Asia in search of American POWs, Gritz was called before Congress in 1983 to provide evidence of their existence, to which he responded: “I have the same evidence, sir, that might be presented by a clergyman to convince you that God exists.” Gritz genuinely seemed to believe he had been called by God to shepherd these poor soldiers, supposedly abandoned by their cruel government, back to the flock.

In 1982, armed with $30,000 from Clint Eastwood and $10,00 from William Shatner (in exchange for the rights to Gritz’s life), Gritz assembled a team of mercenaries to cross over from Thailand into Laos in search of American POWs. Gritz allegedly asked Eastwood to seek the approval of his close personal friend Ronald Reagan; when Gritz and his team arrived in Thailand, they found a telegram from an associate, who claimed that Reagan promised to “start World War III to get the rest out” if the team found evidence of just one POW. It’s unknown whether or not Reagan ever really said those words, but it was enough for Gritz, who forged ahead into Laos and, unsurprisingly, got his ass handed to him. H. Bruce Franklin writes:

“Almost as soon as they arrived in Laos they were ambushed, routed, and forced to flee as fast as they could back to Thailand. The ambushers, contrary to their initial assumptions, were not even treacherous Communists but a rival anti-Communist Laotian group whom Gritz’s men had offended in Thailand and to whom Gritz, ironically enough, reportedly had to pay $17,500 ransom to recover a capured American teammate. The raiders of course encountered no POWs.”

This mission, albeit a more successful version of it, is basically the plot of Rambo: First Blood Part II. Rambo is sent to a secret American military base in Thailand, where he is given the equipment he needs to wage a one-man re-invasion of Vietnam in search of POWs. Against all odds and the best efforts of a deep state suit who wants to cover the whole thing up, Rambo recovers an entire platoon of Unknown Soldiers and dispenses righteous fury upon his Communist enemies, but not before being erotically tortured and symbolically crucified by a Soviet officer.

Gritz, whose life is profiled most compellingly in the 2017 documentary Erase and Forget, would fade into the strange margins of American history following his Vietnam adventures. Over the next twenty years, he joined the Mormon church, starred in a truly god-awful soft-core direct-to-video Charlie’s Angels knockoff called Rescue Force, ran for Vice President as running mate to David Duke, ran for President under the slogan “God, Guns, and Gritz,” was excommunicated from the Mormon church for refusing to pay his taxes, successfully negotiated the end of the standoff between the FBI and white supremacist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, started a far-right survivalist compound called Almost Heaven, made friendly with all kinds of anti-semites and white nationalists, and attempted suicide via gunshot to the chest. (He survived.)

Stallone wasn’t the only Hollywood action hero making the trip back to Vietnam; POW-sploitation was a veritable subgenre in the 1980s, from Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action franchise, to the slightly more serious-minded Uncommon Valor with Gene Hackman, to complete exploitation trash like the David Carradine vehicle P.O.W.: The Escape. There were POW/MIA themed video games like Konami’s Green Beret arcade cabinet series and P.O.W.: Prisoners of War for the NES. In American media, Vietnam was no longer an imperialist adventure with unclear causes — it became a highly moral rescue mission.

Though the POW/MIA theory may have less potency as a political force today, Vietnam hero worship is still an active part of life across the country. The documentary Erase and Forget follows an elderly Gritz on a speaking tour of gun shows and Boy Scout jamborees. I never got my Eagle, but I made it all the way through Cub Scouts and up to Life Scout, the second-highest status in Scouting. Honor and respect toward veterans is one of the core values of Scouting, and the POW/MIA flag is not an uncommon sight at flag displays put on by the Scouts. I was a Boy Scout because I grew up Mormon, the one-time church of Gritz; until 2018, after the Scouts announced plans to become more gender-inclusive, the LDS church was one of the Boy Scout’s biggest partners, and every church congregation had its own accompanying Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops.

I come from a family with a long history of service in the armed forces, but the military man with the greatest impact on my early life was outside the home. There was a man my family went to church with, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran that I’ll refer to as The Colonel. He’d been paralyzed while jumping out of a helicopter in Vietnam and was a highly decorated soldier, with multiple Purple Hearts and various commendations for bravery. The Colonel also happened to manage an Arby’s franchise, and every week I’d scarf down a half-pound of roast beef and a side of curly fries in his back office while he regaled me with war stories. The Colonel was my very own Bo Gritz — I’d make my dad give me crew cuts so I could wear my hair like his, and until at least second grade I had the deluded ambition that maybe someday I’d be Special Forces or a Green Beret. Military merchandise covered the walls of the Colonel’s home, including POW/MIA-related flags and trinkets.

These kinds of myths — the POW/MIA issue, the narrative I constructed around The Colonel’s life — succeed because they reduce complicated issues and imperialist adventures into the stories of brave individuals.

If I knew the Colonel later in my life, I imagine I would have tangled with him a little more. I remember he drove a car with a bumper sticker that said “Get U.S. out of the U.N.,” an isolationist and reactionary political position that I was not able to critically assess at eight years old. By then, another symbol of support for America’s boys had become very popular: the yellow “Support the Troops” ribbon that became omnipresent as a bumper sticker during Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the POW/MIA flag, the ribbon turns a contentious issue into a relatively vague one. The ribbon asks us not to support the war, but to support the troops; the POW/MIA flag is a promise that we won’t forget the American soldiers in Vietnam, but it says nothing about the broken reasons they were there in the first place.

I revered The Colonel because he was the kind of hero I’d been sold by Rambo movies, video games, and green plastic army men. He was a hero because he had fired automatic weapons into jungles and jumped out of helicopters, not because he fought for a cause that was especially heroic. These kinds of myths — the POW/MIA issue, the narrative I constructed around The Colonel’s life — succeed because they reduce complicated issues and imperialist adventures into the stories of brave individuals. Focusing on the thousands of American servicemen who didn’t make it back to their families is just another way of obfuscating the reasons for their absence.

The POW/MIA myth endures to this day, at Boy Scout events, Flag Day Parades, military surplus stores, and even Etsy shops, where you can buy vintage POW/MIA bracelets or have a new “remembrance cuff” made with the name of a relative on it. Every year since 1988, thousands of motorcyclists have descended upon Washington D.C. for the “Rolling Thunder Run,” a demonstration meant to “bring awareness and accountability for POWs and MIAs left behind.” The new Rambo movie isn’t about American POWs in Vietnam, but it ends — without giving too much away — with a homecoming for Rambo, which feels a little like a figurative homecoming for all those fictional soldiers Stallone saved decades ago.

The black POW/MIA flag still flies high, and Rambo endures as an icon; both are a testament to America’s simultaneous desire to seek violent revenge while also playing the victim. I imagine that mentality — the idea that those pesky Communists took our boys prisoners and we never got them back — framed our approach in future wars, as both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan were sold as necessary, defensive measures to right unclear injustices, not as the offensive invasions they really were. But what do the facts matter? What does the passage of time matter? If you squint it all makes a vague sense, and besides, waiting to be proven right means never having to admit you were wrong. It’s the American way.

Born in Texas but raised on the Internet, Nathan Smith is a Brooklyn-based writer, scholar, and DJ. He previously wrote about the Chucky movies for The Outline.