They're Dead. God Rest Their Souls


December 29, 1992|By W.D. EHRHART

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia. -- Trying to prove what happened to U.S servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War is like trying to prove how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It can't be done. In the end, it's a question of faith.

Logic dictates that no MIA survived. Ugly things happen to human bodies in modern war. Napalm reduces corpses to the size and consistency of burned-out campfires. Box mines leave not enough to fill a shoebox. White phosphorus melts everything.

Add to that the fact that 81 percent of the missing were pilots or air crew, most of whom went down in remote tropical terrain where human remains vanish utterly in weeks, and even steel and aluminum are swallowed by jungle growth in a few months.

Add to that the fact that 1,101 of the 2,273 missing Americans were known to have died at the time they were reported missing, and were listed as missing only because their bodies were not recovered. (It's tough to recover a body from the wreckage of an F4-C Phantom fighter-bomber that collides with the earth at 400 miles per hour in the middle of nowhere.)

Then consider that the Second World War left 78,750 Americans missing (19.4 per cent of total fatalities) and the Korean War left 8,177 Americans missing (15 per cent of total fatalities), while only 1,172 Americans remain missing from the Vietnam War (roughly 2.5 per cent of total fatalities).

Given the awful confusion of battle, the effect of combining high explosives with high technology, and the intractability of the geography, it is nothing short of a wonder that so few U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War remain unaccounted for.

As for the Vietnamese who are said to be holding our missing men in secret captivity to use as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from the U.S. government, can you imagine the effect it would have if the Vietnamese finally tried to cash in that bargaining chip after denying the existence of these men for the past 20 years? Whatever your opinion of the Vietnamese, they are not that stupid.

On the contrary, the Vietnamese have repeatedly assisted U.S. recovery teams over the past 10 years. In one instance in the mid-1980s, an entire Vietnamese hamlet was bulldozed at Vietnamese expense to excavate a crash site. What few bone fragments were found could not be positively identified even as being human. That's what happens to human bodies in modern war.

Now imagine what you would think if the Vietnamese demanded accounting from us for their own missing soldiers, estimated at 200,000 to 250,000. What you imagine is what the Vietnamese think of our demands. They have no more idea what happened to our men than we have of what happened to theirs.

Most compelling of all, in spite of the years of rumors and headlines, in spite of the standing million-dollar reward for live Americans or even hard evidence of live Americans, in spite of several actual rescue attempts, not one American serviceman missing in action in Southeast Asia has turned up alive.

What we have is what we've always had: rumors and headlines. Twenty years is a long time. A million dollars is a lot of money. Logic dictates that no one has collected the reward because there is nothing and no one to find. But logic has no place in the hearts of those who believe an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is perhaps the saddest legacy of our saddest war.

Therein, I think, lies the secret to the terrible power of the myth of U.S. MIA's in Southeast Asia. Those missing men represent the fate of a generation, or at least that part of my generation that went to Vietnam believing in the rightness and invincibility of our country, our government and our leaders only to find all three wanting. We were asked to fight a dirty little war that had no discernible point except to heap unspeakable misery upon the people we were supposed to be saving, a war that transformed us from bright-eyed teen-agers into hollow-eyed survivors.

Neither our nation nor our government has ever accepted responsibility for what happened to us when we were young and vulnerable. Instead, we've gotten excuses: The liberal press lost the war; the meddling politicians lost the war; the anti-war movement lost the war. Everybody's been pointing fingers every which way since even before the war ended. And we got left holding the bag. It hurt then, and it still hurts. And no stone wall with the names of our dead buddies carved into it, no parade, no Rambo movie can ever make that hurt go away.

But it's damned hard to stare into the mirror and accept the fact that your country and your government and your leaders just plain screwed up, and don't care enough about you to admit it, and never will.

Some people won't or can't take that kind of hurt. If what we suffered -- and I include here the families of the missing -- wasn't for something worthwhile, wasn't an act of sacrifice for a higher cause, then what was all that suffering for? That's too much hurt for some people to bear.

So they go on fighting the war, refusing to abandon their missing comrades as they themselves have been abandoned, holding on because there is nothing else left to hold onto. They believe that someday they'll be vindicated, someday they'll prove the justice of their cause.

I mean no disrespect to them or to their missing comrades, but it's time and long since time for the rest of us to come to terms with reality: Those American servicemen missing in action in Southeast Asia are dead. God rest their souls, and the souls of those who mourn for them.

W. D. Ehrhart received a Purple Heart, two Presidential Unit Citations, and the Cross of Gallantry while serving as an enlisted Marine in Vietnam.

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