And so I finally take up the thing that probably should have started this whole examination of the POW/MIA pop-culture phenomenon: the novel, Mission MIA, by JC Pollock. Now Pollock wrote a few other novels before apparently retiring, but none were as successful as this 1981 effort that plugged directly into the burgeoning interest in of the American public in the POW/MIA issue vis-à-vis the Vietnam War. It was just the right book at just the right time and people are still reading it today — witness this review, for example — though the material has become more than a little dated 31 years on.
Pollock opens the book with a quotation, an excerpt from an article about possible POWs still being held in Vietnam. It repeats the notion, heard many times over the next five or six years, that there were thousands of “live sightings” of Americans imprisoned by the Vietnamese. The book segues directly into the hell of a man who’s been trapped in Vietnam for the better part of a decade and whose hopes of escape are all gone.
It’s interesting to me to see how closely subsequent POW/MIA efforts hew to the model established by Mission MIA. The film Uncommon Valor, which I reviewed here before, is so close in content to Mission MIA that some people have stated the movie is an adaptation of the novel. This is not true, at least as far as I can tell, but it’s proof positive what an influence Mission MIA had.
I could actually cut and paste the plot description from Uncommon Valor into this review and you would hardly be able to tell the difference. When the family of the missing man gets evidence that he’s still alive, they go to a former comrade with one request: please get him the hell out of there. To this end, a team is assembled out of the POW’s former comrades and the mission commences, all bankrolled by a wealthy businessman. I really am serious about how close these two pieces of media are. There is even a character who is, for all intents and purposes, the character of “Sailor” from Uncommon Valor, played by Randall “Tex” Cobb.
There is training and various levels of preparation for the insertion and then it’s go time. Not before there’s some interference from the Powers That Be, of course. I mentioned before that these books and movies invariably depict the United States government as inherently hostile to the notion of rescuing POWs, and that all stems from Mission MIA. It’s less of a major plot point than in some of the stories that follow, but it’s still there nonetheless.
I speculated before that the POW/MIA books and movies played directly into the hopes and fears of the American populace. It’s very difficult for people born after the Vietnam War to understand exactly how corrosive that war was to the American discourse. Sure, we can watch documentaries and see protest footage and there have been plenty of movies made that show the brutality and futility of the war in sometimes gory detail, but that’s not the same as actually going through it. I am of the last generation of kids born during the Vietnam era and I had family members who went. Consequently I was directly exposed to the war’s aftermath, when the country was stuck in a paralyzed no man’s land between wanting to vent its ongoing frustration with what had happened and the very powerful need to get past it as soon as possible. In a way, these POW/MIA books and movies were a way of closing the books on the conflict, even if it was through fiction. The war was over for everyone in these things, now that they were finally home.
By the same token, the idea that there could still be men suffering in Vietnam kept the wounds fresh. This is the fear part, the idea that we could never be free of Vietnam’s clutches. All the more reason to go in there and bring the boys back home. But what if this set off another chain of events that led to a second war? America was so skittish about military action it would take close to 30 years before it would commit to an actual, all-out war, and then only because of the brutality of 9/11. It’s conceivable that we would still be reluctant to go to war if that day had never happened. I maintain that both would have been a good thing, but that particular box of misery has been opened and will never be closed again.
There are also the political factors involved. It’s clear from Pollock’s writing that he would not count himself among those for whom the Vietnam War was a pointless debacle. His leanings aren’t as stridently right-wing as some would be — see Rambo: First Blood, Part II — but they’re definitely there. Interestingly enough Uncommon Valor, which everyone sees as a carbon copy of Mission MIA, has decidedly ambivalent views about the righteousness of Vietnam, even as it celebrates the elevating nature of combat. Fighting a war, with men who become brothers through shared sacrifice, is a big deal in Uncommon Valor and Mission MIA, and is itself something of a right-wing point of view.
Like many action-thrillers of the ’70s and early ’80s, there’s actually precious little action to be found within the pages of Mission MIA. The bulk of the storyline is spent with the men of the team as they train and bond and mentally gird themselves for the trial ahead. Once things get rolling, however, the familiar outlines of “American fighting men are the best in the world” appear. The Vietnamese don’t have a prayer.
If I were to point out the two most realistic depictions of this admittedly fanciful subgenre, I would have to choose Uncommon Valor and Mission MIA. As I say, they are fantasy of a particular type, but they’re grounded in recognizable versions of the real world, with more or less identifiable characters. This counts for a lot, and probably explains why I still think fondly of Mission MIA three decades after I first read it.