In modern times, a more personal, compassionate way is used to give the awful news, consisting of a personal visit by two officers, one of whom is a chaplain (1).
Perhaps even worse than the news that a loved one has given the last full measure of devotion is the revelation that he or she has gone missing in action. That means that the military is unsure what happened to the service member.
He or she could have been killed, with the body either missing or unrecognizable, taken prisoner, or even have become a deserter. Many MIAs are military pilots who crashed in remote locations or sailors who went down with their ships. Some reside in mass graves dug where they fell or with headstones that give no identification. The not knowing what happened can gnaw on families for years, even decades.
The unit that deals with searching for and identifying MIAs is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (2). Following the practice that has been established since the end of the Second World War, the Agency seeks to find and recover the bodies of MIAs in the conflict zones where they went missing.
The unit also uses forensic techniques to try to identify the bodies so that they can be buried under their own names and that surviving family members can at last have closure.
Recovering and Identifying MIAs
The issue of recovering and identifying MIAs became acute after the end of the Vietnam War. The conspiracy theory that the American government deliberately left American servicemen behind in Southeast Asia became so pervasive that it became the theme of a number of movies, including “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” starring Sylvester Stallone and “Missing in Action” starring Chuck Norris (3).
No evidence has ever come to light that supports this theory, however. In any case, warming relations between the United States and Vietnam allowed for the introduction of joint American/Vietnamese military teams which explored battlefields and crash sites looking for MIAs from both sides.
World War II generated the most missing in action, some 73,515 out of a total of 83,098. Of this total, 41,000 were lost at sea due to ship sinkings or aircraft crashes and are presumed to be unrecoverable. The search for MIAs who went missing on land dating back to World War II and continuing through current conflicts continues, with the American military coordinating with hundreds of countries and municipalities.
The identification of bodies recovered is accomplished by a number of forensic means. Unfortunately, an article in Defense One suggests the process is proceeding at a glacial pace (4). Some 70 bodies of missing servicemen and women are identified each year out of the approximately 35,000 who have either been recovered or yet may be recovered.
A Slow Pace
The reason for this slow pace of identification appears to be attributable to military bureaucracy.
For one thing, the military does not prioritize DNA matching, preferring to use older forensic techniques, such as dental records. This practice is the exact opposite of what happens in the civilian world, which uses DNA matching techniques from the start.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been mandated to increase the rate of identification of MIAs to 200 a year. Even this pace will eliminate the backlog in 175 years, not counting anyone who might go missing in future conflicts.
Even so, the numbers of servicemen and women who go missing have steadily declined, from the over 73,000 in World War II to the roughly six that have gone missing and unaccounted for in the current conflict, including the War in Iraq.
Fewer people are engaged in fighting wars in the 21st century, and modern technology allows for the rapid recovering of bodies and their identification.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Spouse Buzz
(3) TSW: What Secrets Could Be Hidden in the Classified John McCain POW Files
(4) Defense One