This week's letter column gives pride of place to H. Bruce Franklin, a historian who wrote a debunking expose of POW-MIA conspiracy theories. As Franklin puts it, his book "exposed the true history of this fraudulent issue [with] meticulously documented facts and analysis." He is "profoundly shocked" that The Nation allowed Schanberg to air a "recycled and thoroughly discredited right-wing fantasy." This gets to what bugs liberal readers about the whole controversy. As Franklin sums up:
The POW/MIA myth is still an essential component of the culture that supports our current, and likely future, wars. If we resurrect the true history of our genocidal war against Vietnam, we would no longer see Americans as the victims of Vietnam and all the countries we have bombed and invaded since. And the Vietnam POW, personified in John McCain, might then be seen not as the main victim of that war and hence America's iconic war hero.
Schanberg is no conservative, and The Nation is even less a conservative magazine. Their naked intent was simply to stir up a whispering campaign against the Republican candidate. Franklin doesn't acknowledge this as the magazine's motive, but other readers are uncomfortable with liberals giving credence to a theory or "myth" identified with the political Right.
"I feel no less a desire than The Nation to ensure that McCain is not our next president," writes John McAuliff, "but such an article is Swiftboat revisionism with the endorsement of the country's leading progressive publication." David Hunt was "horrified" by the story, again because he identifies POW-MIA concerns as a fantasy "concocted by the Nixon administration to justify its stonewalling during the Paris peace negotiations" and because the whole idea reflects poorly on the Vietnamese.
The magazine gives Schanberg the last word. He and Franklin have clearly been feuding for a while before this outbreak, since his tone toward the historian is bitter. "He says, ridiculously, that he alone owns the franchise on the POW story and therefore will not deign to address any of the detailed evidence in my 8,000-investigative article." Even though Franklin claims that all of Schanberg's claims were refuted long ago, the journalist says "It is clear he cannot refute [them]."
In a strange, unintentional echo of Governor Palin, Schanberg thanks Christopher May, the one letter writer who praised his work, for "reading my piece with no ideological filter." He then asks McAuliff and Hunt to "remove any filters for an hour and read the full version of my article [which is what I've linked to], which is more detailed and has additional documentary evidence." While the critics might argue that the only filter they employ is critical thinking itself, Schanberg is probably right in his implication that liberals want to avoid the issue because they believe it can only benefit conservative nationalists.
Without a copy of Franklin's book within reach (it's called M.I.A., Or, Mythmaking in America), it's impossible to compare the two versions of events. But I'm inclined to accept Schanberg's argument that "my article is not about who was right or wrong about the Vietnam War. It is about the missing men and the suppression of their files and John McCain's central role in burying those files." The timing of his article clearly isn't meant to benefit any conservatives, but it is also obviously true that there's more to its appearance than Schanberg's concern with our boys left behind.
For some people, the notion of MIAs left behind still conjures up memories of Rambo and other bad movies of the 1980s, but by now we're probably past the point where anybody wants to start another war in Vietnam. The Communists there have gone the way of China and happily trade with us. Objectively speaking, McCain's efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were probably a good thing. Unfortunately, it seems characteristic of the man that he comes to hate those who get in the way of his goals. That probably explains his hostility toward the MIA advocates, at least in part, and that hostility has been repaid with conspiratorial suspicions about his ulterior motives. As a result, there most likely won't be a final reckoning on the subject until McCain is dead, or until it becomes purely a historical question rather than a political one.