It's impossible not to feel sympathetic toward families who cling to the hope that fathers or brothers or sons who disappeared long ago in the Vietnam war may still, by some miracle, be alive. If sympathy is in order, though, so is a large dose of skepticism.
The "proof" of surviving POWs that has been produced over the years (often by the same people who have used the "missing-in-action" issue to collect thousands of dollars from families and other sympathetic contributors) remains flimsy and unpersuasive.
The same can be said about the logic by which promoters of the issue keep trying to make us believe not only that American prisoners are still held in Indochina, but that the American government has successfully conspired to suppress the truth for more than 18 years, through four administrations and numerous congressional investigations.
Even though past "evidence" has regularly proven unreliable, many Americans still seem ready to seize on any new offering -- the most recent example being a photograph released several weeks ago which shows three healthy, well-fed men holding a handwritten sign with the date "25-5-1990."
Relatives of three airmen who were shot down during the war said they are sure those are the three men shown in the photograph. (Two other families subsequently claimed that their missing relatives are shown.)
Newspapers across the country front-paged the photo, along with captions and news articles that gave almost no reasons to doubt the story.
In fact, there was ample reason for questions. The photo shows no barbed wire or guards or anything else indicating a prison. The three men look much healthier than would be likely if they had been prisoners for more than 20 years. The handwritten numerals on the sign they are holding, especially the ones and nines, are written in a European style which few Americans would use.
There is also a suspicious lack of information about where the photo came from and who took it. A Senate Intelligence Committee staff member said the committee is aware of some evidence the photo may have been fabricated and that the three men and the sign were actually cropped out of another photo that appears to have been taken somewhere in Eastern Europe, with a background showing snow on the ground.
The same source, asked what might be a consensus view among knowledgeable investigators as to the probability of the photo's authenticity, replied, "You hate to say zero percent, but I'd have to say it's a .0001 percent of a chance."
It also turns out that at least two of the three men said by their relatives to be shown in the photo were believed by witnesses to have died when they were first shot down.
According to the intelligence committee aide, records show that Air Force Col. John Leighton Robertson's weapons operator, who ejected and was captured, told the Air Force after he was freed that he did not think Colonel Robertson got out of his F-4 Phantom after it was shot down over North Vietnam in September 1966. An Air Force spokesman said Maj. Albro Lynn Lundy's parachute was seen by four other pilots falling with an empty harness after he radioed that he was ejecting from his damaged plane over Laos in 1970. The intelligence committee aide said the third officer, Navy Lt. Larry James Stevens, was in an A-4 that exploded in midair, also over Laos, in 1969.
(The records contain no explicit reference to witnesses, the aide said, but presumably the information must have come from someone who saw the explosion.)
Colonel Robertson and Lieutenant Stevens were officially listed as missing-in-action after they were shot down. Major Lundy, however, was classed as "killed-in-action, body not recovered" -- "KIA/BNR," in service shorthand. Though it is rarely mentioned, the KIA/BNR category accounted for nearly half of the Americans who have come to be carelessly referred to as "missing in action" during the Indochina war.
After the U.S.-Vietnam cease-fire agrement was signed in early 1973, beside the 595 POWs who came home from North Vietnamese prison camps, 1,350 U.S. servicemen were listed as missing -- not 2,500 as has commonly been said for years. Another 1,178 were in the KIA/BNR category.
It can't be proved that no mistakes occurred. But because the services were extremely reluctant to classify anyone as KIA without very strong evidence, in the absence of a body, it has to be assumed that all but a tiny handful of the KIA/BNR cases did not survive to be captured.