Solidly detailed amalgam of military history and contemporary archaeology, tracing American attempts to recover fallen soldiers.
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot staff writer Swift’s debut chronicles from start to finish a recovery search by the military’s Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii (CILHI), an expensive initiative to find remains of soldiers deemed “missing in action” during far-flung WWII and Vietnam battles. The author depicts such efforts as an unwritten contract with the military’s soldiers, an observation with particular poignancy regarding the helicopter crew the search pursues, lost in southeastern Laos on a virtual suicide mission in 1971. In the present day, Swift arrives in remote, snake-infested territory with an elaborately provisioned US-Laotian team for a monthlong dig; he’d previously visited sites in Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. The success of such projects depends on the team’s unorthodox but skilled military specialists and anthropologists, but also, more troublingly, on the locals’ compromised recollections—Swift cites cash-strapped officials hoarding and recycling war relics and remains. The author alternates his exhaustive look at the recovery process, which yields many tantalizing helicopter fragments but no conclusive human remains, with a dramatic recreation of events leading to the final mission of the four doomed airmen. They had volunteered for a repeat sortie into a “hot LZ” as part of the war’s largest helicopter campaign, which attempted to assist besieged South Vietnamese forces but was turned by the Vietcong into a devastating shoot-down. This action adds some muscle to the relatively cerebral, though haunting account of the arduous, inconclusive recovery operation. Overall, Swift’s narrative demonstrates a firm grasp on the dark quirks of contemporary Southeast Asia and on the determined efforts in challenging circumstances made by the talented eccentrics of the CILHI, though he also discusses the prospect of CILHI being too costly and difficult to continue indefinitely.
An unusual tale of war and remembrance, with particular appeal—but perhaps disturbing undertones—for Vietnam and air-combat buffs.