THE BLACK FLAG COMMEMORATING the nearly 1,500 Ameri¬cans listed as missing in action (MIA) in Vietnam is the second largest selling flag in the United States, outsold year after year only by the Stars and Stripes. Drawn by a U.S. Army pilot years ago, it shows a man’s head bowed in silhouette and a guard tower, below which are the words “You Are Not Forgotten.” The flag has flown at the Capi¬tol, the Super Bowl, and the New York Stock Exchange, and, since 1990, at the White House one day every year. All fifty states observe National POW/MIA Recognition Day in September. The U.S. Postal Service is¬sued a POW/MIA stamp. Flag historians say they know of no other ex¬ample of a sovereign nation requiring the flag of a political movement to be flown alongside its own.
Even though the flag symbolizes all POW/MIAs, not just those in Vietnam, its popularity remains a trademark of the emotional grip that the POW/MIA issue—and, by extension, the Vietnam War—exerts on a nation’s soul, a grip so firm that in 2000, twenty-five years after the war’s end, Congress passed the Bring ’Em Home Alive Bill, offering resettle-ment in the United States to “any national of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China or any of the independent states of the former Soviet Union who personally delivers into the custody of the USG [U.S. government] a liv¬ing American MIA or POW from the Vietnam War.” It was a cruel hoax that kept a flicker of hope alive among bereaved families. There were no living American MIAs or POWs from the Vietnam War.
The United States has spent more than $100 million searching for MIAs and has found the remains of several hundred. Not until I returned to Vietnam did it ever cross my mind that Vietnam might have MIAs as well. Did its people search, too? How many were there? Did mothers and widows still grieve?
PHAM KIM KY SAID THE WORDS IN A WHISPER: mat tick—“miss¬ing.” She covered her mouth with a small, delicate hand, as though its mere mention brought a stab of pain too terrible to bear. She paused to regain her composure. “Look here,” she said at last, opening her photo al¬bum to a grainy portrait of Ho Viet Dung, her son, fine-featured and bright-eyed, a seventeen-year-old headed off to a war from which he would not return. To all but Ky and her family, he was merely a statistic by the time I arrived in Hanoi—one of 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs.
Ky was a beautiful woman who carried her sixty-eight years well. Her gray hair was pulled back into a bun, her skin was as smooth as paper. She had tired, sad eyes. “How can I rest until I have found Dung?” she asked, as though I had an answer. “He was my eldest. Such a clever, kind boy. To think of him lying unknown, alone, in a distant field of killing is more than I can bear.”
So Ky had joined Vietnam’s wandering tribe of mourners—a collection of thousands of mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, and sisters whose lives were devoted, in whole or part, to crisscrossing the battlefields of what had been South Vietnam. They spent their time searching out witnesses, scouring military archives, digging up unmarked graves—all desperate for clues that would help them locate the remains of loved ones. Their search for closure was the final legacy of a war most other Vietnamese scarcely spoke of any more. As their numbers grew, along with the attendant pub¬licity in the Vietnamese media, veterans groups throughout the country began asking: Why has so much been made of America’s missing, and so little of Vietnam’s? Is our grief any less? Are our sons somehow less cherished?
“My Beloved Family,” Dung, then a twenty-year-old corporal, wrote his parents and younger brother, Thang, from the Central Highlands in January 1972:
I am very well, and you don’t have to be concerned about me. One and a half years on the front has made me strong, and I’ve gotten used to the hardships here. I suffered malaria, but my health is good now, maybe better than any time since I was in Hanoi. I carry with me every day your love. Thang, I want you to study hard so that you will be very smart when I come home.
Dung—his name translates as “brave” in Vietnamese—had been born into a family steeped in nationalistic struggle. His grandfather was a member of the resistance against the French in the 1930s and spent six years in France’s notorious prison on Con Dao Island. His father had been wounded at Dien Bien Phu. His uncle served as an army doctor in the American War. “It seems we were at war forever,” Dung’s mother said.
In 1969, the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president and Ho Chi Minh died, Dung volunteered for the North Vietnamese Army. He was a high school senior. He had drunk only an occasional glass of beer in his lifetime and never had a real girlfriend. He had never seen a movie, ridden in a car, or been more than twenty miles from Hanoi. His first six months in the army were spent training in the mountains with his two best friends, who had joined up the same day.
“What kind of boy was Dung?” I asked.
“Well, one thing, he had such a lovely singing voice. I can still hear it so clearly.” Ky spoke of Dung’s good looks that caught the eye of every girl-—he was too shy to ever ask for a date—and his kindness to Thang and his cousins. Her voice dropped again to a whisper. She pushed aside her teacup and reached into her purse.