'Tender mercies' of MIA accounting [Commentary]

Public requests to speed up the process of identifying remains misunderstand the science

March 23, 2014|By Sarah Wagner

"Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will show you with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people."

When 19th century British statesman W. E. Gladstone supposedly staked this claim, the world knew nothing of DNA testing or of the extraordinary lengths a country might go to care for its service members missing in action (MIA) and presumed dead.

If Gladstone could visit the Central Identification Laboratory at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), responsible for recovering, repatriating and identifying U.S. war dead from the past century's conflicts, he would likely recognize the tender mercies at hand in the language of probability and the practice of scientific examination. That science is currently under intense scrutiny, with Secretary of Defense Hagel last month ordering the Pentagon to take stock of its entire MIA accounting process.

With the increased media attention on the subject — from a New York Times article to an NPR/ProPublica report this month — the public's understanding of the forensic efforts driving the accounting process is at stake. Too often, facile representations of the science, especially the use of DNA testing, feeds controversy and exploits the politics of memorializing the nation's unrecovered and unidentified war dead.

One of the critiques arising both in congressional hearings and recent media exposés is that attention to exactness — archival, mathematical and scientific — is somehow getting in the way of results. JPAC and, by extension, the nation are supposedly "failing" the missing because of "risk-averse" scientists insisting on adhering to standard operating procedures and, as some coverage suggests, not performing to the fictional standards of the laboratories of "CSI" or "Bones," where DNA testing is in-house, lightning fast, invariably conclusive and — conveniently — without a price tag.

Likewise overlooked in this debate is the decision by Congress in 2010 that the sole authorized means of "accounting" for MIAs was to be through science, by scientific personnel — that is, a "practitioner of an appropriate forensic science."

The problem thus lies both with inexact representations of scientific processes and a fundamental misunderstanding of the ethical obligations that underlie the act of identifying a missing person. There is no "tender mercy" in mistaken identifications or in disinterring the remains of unknown service members prematurely only to have those remains gather dust on shelves in a forensics lab because there is insufficient evidence to identify them.

There is also no "tender mercy" in asking families to bear the risks of rushed science. When Thomas Holland, the scientific director at JPAC's laboratory, speaks of going home each night burdened by his responsibility, he is talking about his deep-seated fear of betraying the trust placed in him by families.

Yet that is precisely what critics ignore when assessing the scientific practice and leadership at JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory. While scrutiny into the bureaucratic obstacles and institutional redundancy involved in MIA recovery and identification is important, writing off the exactness of science, including its burdens, in favor of expediency endangers the entire process. Furthermore, such a stance fails to recognize three critical points.

First, DNA is not the exclusive or definitive means for identifying remains and has its own myriad financial, scientific and logistical challenges. Some ask why JPAC eschews a DNA-led identification system. Setting aside the thorny bioethical issues raised by the U.S. government collecting and storing genetic profiles for tens of thousands of surviving kin, consider the costs. Who pays for it? What doesn't get paid for in its place? DNA is not always viable; other lines of evidence, such as dental records or JPAC's innovative radiographic comparison technique, can do the work as well, often at far less cost.

Second, not all missing-person identification efforts are the same. For example, comparing postwar Bosnia, specifically the Srebrenica genocide, with its mass graves full of highly commingled and partial remains, to U.S. accounting efforts is apples to oranges. Identification efforts have to respond to the specific circumstances of loss, needs of the surviving kin and the available resources.

Third, the risk of misidentifications cuts to the core of the entire enterprise: Identifying missing persons is about restoring human dignity, and that process must be an exacting one. The consequences and potential damage extend far beyond any one scientist's or laboratory's reputation, affecting the families of the missing and the nation as a whole.

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