Recently I’ve noticed a small flag flying below the U.S. flag on top of the Multnomah County building on Southeast Hawthorne. I’ve tried to make out what it says, but am unable to. Can you help? —M.J.M.
Either you’re very young and thus don’t remember the POW/MIA flag, M.J., or you’re very old (i.e., my age) with failing eyesight that won’t let you see it. Since you’re a Willamette Week reader, I’m going with No. 2.
The flag in question is indeed the POW/MIA flag. As Multnomah County’s Mike Pullen notes, “State law encourages Oregon cities and counties to fly the POW flag at their main building on specific days of the year.” In fact, not only does state law encourage this, it requires it.
Of course, explaining what the flag represents is a little more complicated—I certainly don’t want to disrespect our veterans, and I especially don’t want to disrespect those who were taken prisoner in Vietnam, an experience so horrible it makes people feel sorry even for John McCain.
That said, by the 1980s the POW/MIA flag had become closely tied to a right-wing conspiracy theory which holds that hundreds of American GIs are, right now, still being held prisoner in Vietnam—and that every U.S. administration since that of Lyndon Johnson has conspired to conceal this fact.
Most people who aren’t Chuck Norris believe that the real number of current American POWs is one—an Idaho kid in Afghanistan named Bowe Bergdahl. We can say that the flag is in his honor, if we want. And I do hope he comes home soon.
But in 1999, when Oregon’s flag law was passed, the number was zero. One suspects that the flag was put there mostly to humor crazy right-wingers and their counterfactual beliefs. Still, I suppose we should feel nostalgic for the days when all such folks demanded was a flag.