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Viet Nam The Wound That Will Not Heal

5 minute read
John Greenwald

Once again U.S. jeeps rolled through the rugged countryside of Viet Nam last week, but on a very different mission from that of 15 years ago. Accompanied by Vietnamese officials, two teams of Americans visited several sites north of Hanoi for clues to the fate of U.S. flyers missing in action in the Viet Nam War. The investigators were armed with metal detectors and a rare diplomatic privilege: for the first time, Americans were allowed to interview peasants and villagers who may have seen plane crashes or the captures of airmen during the war.

The intense search reflected the anguish of American families who still cannot be certain whether their missing loved ones are alive or dead. With a persistence born from desperation, they continue to demand a full accounting of the 2,393 servicemen listed as missing in action in Southeast Asia, 1,757 of whom were lost in Viet Nam.* “The driving force is the uncertainty,” says Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. “We are determined to seek answers.”

But after 15 years, the remains of only 190 Americans have been returned, and both Viet Nam and the Reagan Administration seem reluctant to admit outright that most of those missing may never be accounted for. Yet the issue remains politically and diplomatically alive for both sides. Reagan took office with an apparent belief that some MIAs might still be living; at the same time, the President was critical of previous Administrations for what he considered their neglect of the question. In 1981 the White House created a Washington-based task force of more than 100 investigators to probe reports of servicemen missing in Southeast Asia. For its part, Hanoi views the MIA issue as its strongest lever for establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. and thereby gaining desperately needed economic aid. “What else do we have?” asks a Foreign Ministry official.

The U.S. tacitly refuses to recognize Viet Nam until all questions about missing Americans have been satisfactorily resolved. Meantime, U.S. experts have met Vietnamese officials 21 times in Hanoi since 1982 to discuss the recovery of American remains. The meetings have led to two joint searches and a list of 40 U.S. servicemen who died in captivity.

Vietnamese officials have long believed that Hanoi was misled by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into expecting at least $3 billion in U.S. assistance after the war. The Politburo may now hope to squeeze some of that money out of the U.S. by alternately cooperating and dragging its feet on the MIA issue. Viet Nam seemed to be following that cynical strategy last July when it abruptly halted plans for a joint excavation of crash sites. The move may have been provoked by Washington’s refusal to agree to low-level diplomatic ties until Viet Nam completes the withdrawal of an estimated 100,000 troops from Kampuchea.

Yet Hanoi has also shown a willingness to cooperate. Viet Nam has returned some 70 sets of remains so far this year, in contrast to only eight for all of 1987. When examined, though, just 18 of the remains gathered over the past two years have so far been identified as those of Americans. The rest belonged to Asians or were unidentifiable. The discrepancy could indicate that Hanoi hastily collected and sent the remains to show its desire for improved relations with Washington.

Most missing U.S. soldiers were lost during battles in what was then South Viet Nam, where the heaviest ground fighting took place. But the U.S. seemingly squandered a chance to gain valuable information when it failed to pursue the MIA issue between the time of the cease-fire in 1973 and the fall of South Viet Nam in 1975. In the north, where many airmen vanished, mountainous terrain continues to hamper searches, and the highly acidic soil quickly erodes remains. Search operations are time consuming and expensive for impoverished Hanoi. “The Vietnamese haven’t got much incentive to make searches,” says a U.S. official in Southeast Asia. “I mean, how much is in it for them, other than finding the remains of a dead American?”

Hanoi denies holding any American POWs, and foreign diplomats in the capital tend to believe it. On a visit to Viet Nam earlier this year, TIME correspondent William Stewart asked a group of recently freed Vietnamese political prisoners whether they had seen or heard of American captives. All said they had not. One senior Vietnamese official said that while he had heard occasional reports of Americans in the countryside, he believed that any actual sightings were of deserters or mixed-race children of U.S. servicemen.

Yet reported sightings continue to foster hope in the U.S. “We believe Americans are still alive in Indochina,” says Griffiths. According to her group, 11% of 1,084 sightings of Americans reported since 1975 cannot be dismissed as fabrications or otherwise explained away. The National League believes that more than 60 sightings may have been of prisoners of war. In Washington officials will only say that the possibility of live Americans in Southeast Asia “cannot be ruled out.”

That sort of comment raises the hopes of families such as that of Lieut. Colonel Anthony Shine, who vanished in 1972 while piloting an Air Force reconnaissance jet near the border of Laos and Viet Nam. Shine has been listed as missing in action ever since. “It’s not knowing for sure that makes it tough,” says Colleen Shine, 24, the flyer’s daughter. “There’s always the chance that he might walk into this room.” For Colleen Shine and thousands like her, that uncertainty remains more terrible than accepting the death of a loved one.

FOOTNOTE: *The remainder: 547 MIAs in Laos, 83 in Kampuchea and six in China.

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