I did not know what to make of all this. It sounded like the ruse of a charlatan, except that I talked to people in the room who had come back to thank Lien. They had followed his instructions and found their rela¬tives. Over time I talked to eight or nine others who also had found MIAs with the help of psychics. Even Nguyen Ngoc Hung, the univer-sity professor, had ended a twenty-five-year search for his brother, Cuong, with the help of a psychic, who drew an A’to mark the site of un¬claimed bodies and said, “Before you dig, stick a chopstick in the earth. If an egg balances on it, your brother will be below.” He was.
Perhaps the psychics simply identified gravesites they knew. Perhaps in their grief families settled for bones, any bones, and convinced themselves they had found their loved ones. Or perhaps the psychics did have special powers. Maybe it didn’t matter. What did matter was that the families had found peace and the souls of their loved ones had come home. Each time it happened, another chapter of war closed.
“My surviving brother is an engineer,” Hung said, “and without scien¬tific evidence he has doubts about anything. He can’t quite believe we found Cuong with a psychic and an egg and chopsticks. But it people feel hopeless, if they’re desperate enough, they will reach out, like I did, to su¬perstition. Whether you’re a communist or not, if you’re Vietnamese, you’re a very superstitious person.”
ARTICLE 8 OF THE PARIS PEACE AGREEMENT ending America’s di¬rect combat role in the war, signed on January 27,1973, stated: “The return of captured military personnel and foreign civilians shall be carried out si¬multaneously with . . . the troop withdrawal. … I he parties shall help each other to get information about those military personnel and foreign civilians of the parties missing in action, to determine the location and take care of the graves of the dead so as to facilitate the exhumation and repatriation of the remains.”
North Vietnam released 591 American POWs (South Vietnam held about 40,000 communist prisoners at the time), and in March President Richard Nixon announced that “all our American POWs arc on their way home.” Skeptics had their doubts. Hanoi was believed to have held about 1,325 POWs in 1969. The number Nixon accepted seemed low. Had hun-dreds of POWs been murdered? Had Hanoi held back POWs as bar¬gaining chips? On the first question, there has never been a satisfactory answer. On the second, various congressional studies concluded in 1977 there was no credible evidence any American MIAs were still alive. Pres¬ident Jimmy Carter reclassified more than 1,000 POW/MIAs to K1A/BNR (killed in action, body not recovered), or definitely dead. But for reasons motivated by genuine concern, sell-promotion, anticommu¬nism, and sometimes greed, a lot of people didn’t want the issue to go away. Under pressure from the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia and some veterans groups, the KIA/BNR classification was changed back to POW/MIA. That raised the false hopes of families that some MIAs were still alive and ensured that the controversy would not die, sidetracking moves toward reconcilia¬tion—just as anti-Vietnam groups in the United States wanted. It led to the most extensive and expensive search for MIAs in military history.
“To a large extent, the whole MIA issue was manufactured,” said Michael Leaveck, associate director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Washington, D.C. “The Reagan administration used it for political purposes; the Bush administration perpetuated it; a cottage in¬dustry profited from it; some political forces used it as leverage for a broader agenda. I would never deny the importance of putting a family’s pain to rest, and I know there are a lot of unresolved feelings, but at some point you have to say there is nothing left we can do that will produce alive—returned Americans. You have to accept a certain number of unre¬solved missing cases whenever you go to war.”
I caught up with Pete Peterson in Danang. The U.S. ambassador boarded a Russian-made helicopter piloted by a Vietnamese major. We headed for an unnamed hill where two American pilots—a captain and a lieutenant—had been shot down in 1969 while on a bombing run in sup¬port of U.S. Marines battling North Vietnamese regulars. Witnesses saw the napalm drop that August morning, saw the F-4 Phantom shudder as the pilots tried to pull the jet out of its dive, saw the fiery crash. For two days Marines swept the hill-laced branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail but in the end withdrew empty-handed, with neither the airmen’s bodies nor confirmation of their deaths. For thirty years the crash site had lain as undisturbed as a ghost town’s cemetery.
The ambassador stared silently out of the chopper’s porthole windows, chin in the palm of his left hand. Triple-canopy jungle and an occasional isolated village whisked by below us. Had life taken a different twist, he knew, he coidd have been the one that the task force was excavating for on this day. His helicopter circled twice and landed in a whirl of dust on what was a replica of the fire support bases I had seen so often in the war—a small clearing in the jungle, cut by hand, on the slopes of a hill a million miles from nowhere.