The often painful stories behind the recovery of American dead left behind during wars, with an emphasis on the nearly 1,600 still missing in Vietnam.
Wagner (Anthropology/George Washington Univ.; To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing, 2008, etc.) reminds readers that America’s compulsion to bring home battlefield dead—unique among nations—began with the Civil War, during which a small army of embalmers followed the troops. After World War I, bereaved families had the option of burial in France or repatriation; 70 percent chose the latter. Beginning in the Korean War, all recovered bodies were returned. Peace accords signed by North Vietnam in 1973 contained a clause requiring cooperation in recovering those still unaccounted for, and POW/MIA activist groups continue to pressure the U.S. government over Americans still missing. “That demand…has given rise to a forensic enterprise, which, in its attempts to order facts and bodies, has spanned decades, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and returned thousands of absent American war dead to their surviving families and to the nation,” writes the author. Traveling widely, Wagner chronicles her encounters with individuals and communities dealing with tragic losses. She also visited labs to describe the tedious but often imaginative work that can tease out an identity from a fragment of bone. DNA analysis has been a major advance, but, informed by TV crime shows where DNA solves all problems, journalists and legislatures regularly denounce the labs—unfairly, according to Wagner—as a haven for stick-in-the-mud scientists and time-serving bureaucrats. The response has been shakeups and a congressionally mandated, vastly increased yearly quota of identifications. Ironically, this obsession with “body count” has reduced Vietnam recoveries to less than 10 percent. Few sites, mostly plane crashes, remain in Southeast Asia but earlier wars have left cemeteries, battlefields, and tiny Pacific islands with innumerable unidentified remains available to fill the quota.
An expert account of a little-known but massive forensic program.