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The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted For in Southeast Asia

by Thomas Hawley. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2005, softcover $22.95.

This work makes a unique addition to the Politics, History, and Culture series sponsored by the International Institute at the University of Michigan. Hawley, an assistant professor at Eastern Washington University, uses what he calls “genealogical perspective” to analyze current U.S. policy regarding the recovery, identification and repatriation of remains performed in Southeast Asia by the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (more recently redesignated the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command— JPAC).

Extending backwards, the author seeks to discover how and why the effort to recover those unaccounted for has assumed significance that appears disproportional when compared to past military operations. He concludes that the recovered bodies have become “invested with the sole power of adjudicating…the contentious legacy” of the war. He also argues that the importance placed on the recovery of remains in Southeast Asia challenges the basic legal structure and status of those lost on the battlefield, as well as redefining evidentiary standards. These changes may have far-reaching implications for the recovery of remains from all future American military operations.

Hawley maintains that the policy of remains repatriation paralleled society’s efforts to recover from the trauma of the war and its polemic legacy. Initially, the United States’defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese resulted in a decidedly negative popular image of returning veterans. To reconcile those images with cultural perceptions, many Americans—prominent politicians among them—separated veterans from the missing, and rehabilitated the image of the latter. Yet political disunity remained as a painful consequence, and eventually most Americans considered both groups to be victims of U.S. government incompetence and the enemy’s malfeasance. Continued resentment of the Vietnamese victory fueled a desire for the full accounting.

Hawley’s study is provocative, yet raises important concerns. The work is often theoretical and written primarily for scholars. Still, there is much to recommend it to the lay reader. In particular, Chapter 2 contains a concise review of the definitions regarding the missing, and proposes plausible reasons for initial misunderstandings on the part of the U.S. military, the families who pressed for full accounting, and Vietnamese who often hoped to gain relief from their impoverished surroundings in exchange for information. The confusion, although understandable, had precedent-setting consequences. Chapter 3 explains the detailed process of recovery; Chapter 5 contains an especially interesting discussion of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the POW/MIA flag.

To show the complexity and difficulty of resolving these issues, Hawley presents recent repatriation cases and legislative attempts. His study does much to explain how impressions—whether or not well grounded in fact—when mixed with emotion, cultural practices and power politics, can become hardened policy.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here