THE MISSING 5

Peterson stepped out. On the ground a company-sized unit of Ameri¬cans and Vietnamese—some civilian, some military—had been at work for three weeks, eight hours a day, trying to find clues that would confirm the pilots’ fate. They had torn up the hillside, digging long, narrow trenches, sifting dirt through screens, in their search for a tooth or bone or belt buckle. They used tape measures and pegs to stake off sections of the site. Not a trace remained of the jet bomber, which probably had been disassembled by villagers decades ago and carted off piece by piece to be sold as scrap. The joint task force included a U.S. anthropologist, a mor¬tuary technician, and a photographer. So far they hadn’t found much—a small patch of a flightsuit, a pocket knife, a chunk of a pilot’s helmet, a boot sole. It was not enough to bring closure to Case No. 1474. By the time the evacuation site would be abandoned in a week or two, the bill for the mission would total $1 million.
“How can you put a value on an effort like this that is unprecedented in history?” Peterson asked the men who gathered around him. “You know, sometimes people ask how many dollars it cost to look for our MIAs. Well, I think we should tell them proudly how much money we’re spending.”
“Were you ever in Vietnam during the war, sir?” asked a GI, who had been born a year or two after it ended. “Yes, for quite a while,” the former pilot replied, without adding that his entire six-year tour on the ground had been spent in a prison.
Through excavations like the one for the Air Force captain and lieu¬tenant, 431; U.S. servicemen have been accounted for and confirmed dead in Vietnam. Just under 1,500 men (including 21 civilians) remain offi¬cially unaccounted for, although in all but a handful of cases the details and whereabouts of their deaths were known. I had no doubt that the search for the missing was an honorable mission of which the United States should be proud. It brought closure to bereaved families and re¬minded serving military personnel that their commanders would spare no effort on their behalf if they were ever among the missing. But I had no idea what a hornet’s nest the MIA issue was until I returned to Hanoi and wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about my trip with Peterson.
In the article I mentioned that 78,000 GIs from World War II and 8,000 from the Korean War were still listed as MIA and wrote that in Vietnam nature had set a deadline: Bones disappear in thirty years or less in acidic soil. Of all the body parts that can be used for identification, only teeth have an indefinite life span—and, in the new-growth tangle of thick jungle where MIA sites are located, teeth were increasingly impos¬sible to find. Then I included two paragraphs:
Some U.S. officials and veterans groups are privately raising a question no politician would dare ask publicly: At what point should the United States say it has done everything possible to account for its missing and start winding down a campaign that is costing millions of dollars?
Although the MIAs are a mantra for every member of Congress visit¬ing Vietnam—the issue, each is quick to point out in news conferences, is the first topic raised with Vietnamese officials—the fact is that MIA groups no longer have the access they once did on Capitol Hill. And, U.S. diplomats say, the issue is gradually being relegated to a less prominent po¬sition on the agenda of foreign affairs.
Normally newspaper articles I wrote didn’t get much reader response, maybe an e-mail or two at most. This time I was inundated with e-mails, letters, taxes, even a few long-distance phone calls. Among the readers’ complaints: I was un-American, ignorant, misinformed, inaccurate, pro¬communist, insensitive, a “chicken-shit coward” who had never heard a shot fired in anger, unprofessional, antimilitary, or, as one reader put it, “a god damn lying son of a bitch of a journalist, ’cause all you bastards have your own agenda.” So many telephone calls flooded the Times’s head¬quarters in Los Angeles, from the managing editor’s office down to the foreign desk, that I received a message from one editor, asking: “This is out of control. Isn’t there something you can do to call these guys off?” There wasn’t.
I had particularly incensed the group of readers mentally trapped in the distant past with a reference to Senator John McCain. After being re¬leased as a POW, McCain had written of his captors: “You get to hate them so bad that it gives you strength.” Like other POWs, McCain had broken under torture and supplied more than his name, rank, and serial number, as stipulated in the military Code of Conduct. (After the war, the code was rewritten to reflect the reality that every man has a breaking point.) But McCain had been a lot more courageous than I—and possi¬bly some of my readers—might have been in similar circumstances. Sev¬eral times his captors offered to release him. Each time he refused, be¬cause under military tradition those who had been imprisoned longer than he deserved to be released first. Each time he refused, he was tor¬tured more.

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