You Are Not Forgotten

Joel Holub


I'm both engaged and held in a kind of abeyance by a project dealing with the POW/MIA flag. It was the graphic aesthetic of this black and white image in tandem with its social history that drew me towards the desire to create a critical intervention with the flag. This has now become the ubiquitous second official flag of the United States due to the passage of Public Law105-85 (18Nov97 sec 1082/note 36 USC 189a, which made it a requirement for the previously unofficial POW/MIA Flag be flown on all Federal buildings during six specified days each year). Now the flag can be viewed yearlong throughout the entire U.S. The POW/MIA flag in particular is an emblem of a scenario - the soldier - victim forever missing and never dead - for which there can be no closure. The flag represents the heavy psychic burden of the guilt of survivors and the fear of not remembering. It is the standard representing the trauma of the war in VietnamIt not only owes its existence to the families of the missing or captured servicemen; but to the conspiracies and myths in popular American culture. In short, the flag in part owes its existence to the pop-catharsis films of Chuck Norris (Missing In Action), and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo: First Blood Part II). My initial response to the flag was a desire to alter its' drastic starkness; its' overbearing gloom. I wanted to find a way that the materiality of the flag would resonate with its own historical impetus. I began by bleaching different sizes of POW/MIA flags to various degrees of whiteness and making them a white flag---almost. To create a flag of surrender,,, A flag of faded memory. The bleach process reacts differently with the inks and fabric of each flag creating unique patterns and color shifts. A random beauty neither the flags originators, nor I could have intended or controlled. In addition to the lightening and color changes brought on by the bleach, an ironic "tie dye" effect also has occurred in some flags.


There are approximately 2,250 unaccounted for POW/MIAs. I do not wish to diminish the value of these human lives, but it strikes one as a small number in relation to the death and destruction brought on by the Vietnam War. It is through the multiplication of these numbers; the families, the friends of the missing, and the veterans who have felt betrayed by a nation,,, this freezes me in my steps with fear. I face a giant angry "patriotic" mass, which has accumulated around these numbers. Here the notion of this project frightens me with it's potential to draw political rage. This forces me to confront my own snideness toward the dichotomy of the patriotic and the unpatriotic. It would seem that the argument on the surface of this gesture places me in some position of defense of the U.S. flag. The U.S. flag has had a legacy of representing sacrifice until the existence of the POW/MIA flag. My aesthetic intervention with the POW/MIA flag is not merely an issue of redesign, it begs the question; when and how did the U.S. flag cease to sufficiently represent the nations veterans and war dead? It uncomfortably places my interests in the mythic space American flag inhabited before the Vietnam War.

To put this another way,,, The U.S. flag has inherently represented the KIA (Killed In Action) of all wars. With this in mind another question arises: who believes the POW/MIA's are alive? Or, what is the special status of these dead servicemen? The graphic symbolism of the flag does not really answer these questions. It represents a social consciousness trapped in the two dimensional limbo of a prison camp. The motto emblazoned on the bottom of the POW/MIA flag is YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN . I believe it really means to say something different: YOU HAVE NOT BEEN ACCOUNTED FOR, and with this a section of the public's belief in a governmental conspiracy and cover-up.


With my stated fears, finding supporters and collaborators will remain a difficult process. It seems presently unlikely that cultural institutions could muster the courage that I myself lack. Now the basic parts (bleached flags) of this project are in place. I remain not entirely satisfied with returning the flags to their flying positions on poles. I have considered both guerilla actions ( replacing preexisting flags with my altered flags) and displaying the flags in an abundant glut on one flag pole (see mockup image). I have considered everything from making the flags into tents to simply exhibiting them on walls. So in the mean time, I continue to wait, think, and sketch out situations for this project to arrive at.