BY ANNOUNCING its intent to discuss normalizing relations with Vietnam, the United States has taken a significant first step toward healing a lingering national wound.
The wound that won't heal concerns prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. Occasionally, grainy pictures surface in the news, stoking the fires of public shame over servicemen allegedly still held prisoner 18 years after war's end. During that period, there has been no easy path to verifying these sightings. Now -- finally, mercifully -- we may have the opportunity to put the issue to rest.
Our nation's preoccupation with Vietnam POWs or those reported missing in action is not surprising. Just as some individuals continue to harbor grief for loved ones killed in any war, it is understandable that family members of soldiers missing in action (MIAs) might grasp the slim reed of hope that their son, husband or father still lives.
Yet the commotion caused by the Vietnam issue is disproportionately large when compared to other wars. The number of MIAs reported in the Vietnam episode is, in fact, far lower than the number in either World War II or Korea.
One might logically look at this evidence and conclude that the fog of war almost always results in soldiers listed as missing, just as some troops will be killed by friendly fire even in a war dominated by "smart" weapons. However, those who blindly champion the MIA issue are prepared to turn that logic on its head. For them, the evidence demonstrates that the American government has never made a good-faith effort to account for all of its soldiers at the end of the war.
This logic does not hold. If any president was to act on this issue, it was Ronald Reagan. Yet in eight years, the Reagan administration found no substantial evidence of live MIAs in Asia. And today, with talk of normalized relations at hand, the government of Vietnam has much to gain and little to lose by assisting American efforts to locate MIAs.
Even with these points in mind, suspicion remains. It has been created through a variety of actions, including Hanoi's reluctance to openly discuss the POW/MIA question since the war ended. But it also may stem from something buried deep in the American psyche.
There is a strong undercurrent of racism here, suggesting that an inscrutable Asian enemy subscribes to a form of torture that Westerners would eschew -- that behind that mask of stoicism, the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia draw on a peculiar reservoir of hate, holding American servicemen in virtual slavery years after the end of the war. This argument assumes that Western people would surely not subject their enemies to such physical and psychological abuse, especially after a war they have won.
Over time, this frustration over the POW/MIA question has hardened the emotions and hopes of many Americans. Some believe that Rambo-like rescue operations should liberate prisoners allegedly held and, in the process, destroy scores of Southeast Asian lives. Unfortunately, some Americans still want to win this war.
Normalizing relations between the U.S. and Vietnam would ease travel restrictions between the two countries, allowing public and private investigations to finally be satisfied. But even more important, full access to Vietnam will prove one tragic reality -- that the remains of some soldiers will not be accounted for at the end of any major war. By laying to rest our suspicions about Southeast Asian people, we will go a long way toward healing a national wound that has festered too long.
Kevin Byrne is a professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus 1/2 College in St. Peter, Minn. He is completing a book titled "One Year in Vietnam: The Life and Death of an American Soldier," which is based on letters sent home by a Minneapolis soldier who died in Vietnam in 1970.