Traumatic Defeat

POWs, MIAs, and National Mythmaking

Patrick Gallagher

War breeds myths, especially those made up by the vanquished to explain or soften their loss. Occasionally the myths of the defeated center on prisoners of war (POWs) and those missing in action (MIAs) to justify the lost struggle, mute national guilt, and sometimes even reject the reality of defeat itself. Traumatic Defeat takes a close, comparative look at two cases of this kind of mythmaking—in West Germany in the wake of World War II and in the United States after the Vietnam War. The book examines a specific case of mythmaking that revolves around the ambiguity of missing men and the trauma resulting from their unresolved fates.

The “secret camp myth,” so called for the covert facilities where the missing supposedly survive, shared certain features in postwar Germany and America. Both nations suffered extreme trauma and struggled to find redemptive elements in their wartime experiences; both focused on POWs and MIAs to minimize their guilt and recast themselves as victims of wars they had started. Author Patrick Gallagher examines the similarities between West Germany’s myth aimed at men lost in the Soviet Union and America’s myth directed at those missing in Southeast Asia. The differences, however, are instructive, particularly the longevity of the American myth involving a few thousand soldiers compared with the relative short life of the more plausible German version involving millions. In search of the nature and meaning of these myths, Gallagher takes us into the wars themselves, the circumstances in which soldiers went missing, and the manner in which each nation framed its losses according to its own political, ideological, and historical needs.

“This bold and exciting book gives us an entirely new view of the myth that Vietnam retained large numbers of American POWs after the war. By comparing this myth with a similar myth in Germany after World War II, Gallagher provides important insights into the significance of these postwar myths, which claim that many missing soldiers are still being held by an enemy nation in secret prison camps.”

—H. Bruce Franklin, author of Vietnam and Other American Fantasies

“This intriguing study examines the development of the public myth that thousands of German war prisoners were held by the Russian government in secret camps during World War II, a myth promoted by war fever, anticommunist ideology, and Germanys need to picture its missing prisoners as victims rather than war criminals. The Soviet-German model is compared with the more contemporary public myth of unreturned American POWs following America’s lengthy involvement in the Vietnam War, providing an important contribution to our understanding of postwar trauma and public grief.”

—Arnold Krammer, author of Nazi Prisoners of War in America

Traumatic Defeat, the first in-depth comparative study of this phenomenon, reveals how myths conjured in the trauma of military defeat can distort and dominate national conversations on the history of warfare, aftermath, and loss.

About the Author

Patrick Gallagher is a military historian whose work has appeared in journals including Vermont History and the UVM History Review.