MIA is not POW
"Hanoi: Give back our POW MIA's." I've seen that bumper sticker more than once, and while I understand the sentiment, it's misguided. It can't be done.
MIA is Missing In Action. POW is Prisoner Of War. I understand that no-one wants to hear of the death of a loved one, but even worse is for someone you love to go away and disappear without any trace. But it has to be understood that essentially all MIA's are not POW's. Simply because we don't know what became of them doesn't mean that they're alive and being kept captive. (The second Rambo movie was a good action flick but it was fiction.)
Part of the problem is that a lot of people don't really understand how the term MIA is used by the military. In almost all cases what it means is "dead, but no body was found". Here are some examples of where someone would be listed as MIA.
Being shelled is probably the single most scary thing that can happen to infantry. You're completely helpless; there's nothing you can do to stop the shelling or to increase your chances of survival besides crouching in a foxhole or trench and praying.
In the movies when a bomb goes off, stuntmen are thrown various directions and when they land, they lay still. Needless to say, in almost all war movies they don't show men being blown apart. So people pick up the incorrect impression that a shell can kill but not dismember. In actuality, when an HE (High Explosive) round goes off (mortar or artillery, both of which were very commonly used in Viet Nam against American troops), it forms a concussion in the air. It's an expanding sphere of very high pressure which moves at the speed of sound, followed by a very slightly smaller sphere of very low pressure. The two spheres will pass through anything which can conduct sound, which includes human bodies. The pressure differential between the two creates dramatic force in the body as it passes through, and if the unfortunate soldier is close enough to the center of the blast (so that the differential is closest to its maximum), it's enough to disrupt bone. The result is the same as if the body was passed through a meat grinder; the body is turned into mush and blasted in every direction, leaving no large pieces at all, not even bone.
While shelling is going on, no-one has time to watch their buddies, if for no other reason than because anyone who keeps their head up will die from the shells. So if a foxhole is hit square with a shell (one of dozens which land during the chaos) the men in that foxhole will be vaporized leaving nothing at all -- and no-one will see it happen. After the attack, dead bodies will be taken away, the wounded helped, and then there will be a roll-call. Anyone who can't be accounted for is listed as MIA. And the reason they are listed MIA is that there's nothing to find because they took a hit dead center and were vaporized. So there's nothing for the VietNamese to find now, either. If there was something to find, they'd have been found in the first minutes after the shelling ended. Men killed like this are listed MIA, and no trace exists for Hanoi to send back even if they wanted to.
Flying over North Viet Nam was not safe. Many planes were hit by SAMs and even more by antiaircraft artillery. In some cases a jet would be hit and be damaged but still be somewhat flyable. Or the damage might reduce flyability later. An example of that would be a hit on hydraulic systems, leading to a loss of hydraulic fluid. The plane might respond normally for up to a minute, and then all the major control surfaces would freeze.
Pilots might also be hit but decide to try to make it back to their carrier, flying in some cases with very severe wounds. Ideally, jets flew in pairs, but if one of the two was shot down, the other would be on his own. Or in the chaos of dodging missiles and AAA they can become separated. If two jets fly in different directions for as little as three seconds, they can be separated by a mile or more, and they may never locate each other.
A wounded pilot might black out and his jet crash. If this happens on land, it's hard enough to find him, since he could be nearly anywhere. If it happens over the water, the jet will sink taking the pilot with it, and there's nothing to find.
Planes crash in the state of California every year. Sometimes they're found, sometimes they're not. California is a big place and a lot of it is wild (National Forests and other places like that). In some cases the wrecks may be found years later, in others they may not be found for decades if ever. There's always a search, but many times they come up empty. People vanish this way every year in California.
Viet Nam is larger than California, and much of it is covered with jungle. Jungle has a way of covering up wreckage. The jungle, or its inhabitants, also has a way of consuming corpses. In many cases even if the wreckage is found there will be no bones or other biological remnants left because all the pieces will have been hauled away by wild animals. Or the pilot might have ejected from the plane, landed nowhere near where the jet crashed, and then might have died or have been killed by animals, and his body consumed by the jungle.
But even finding the wreckage is problematic. We can't locate all the planes lost in California despite our best efforts, so why should we expect the Viet Namese to find all the jets which were lost in their jungles?
It's not commonly talked about, but another reason someone might be MIA is because they deserted. This was not at all common; out of a million US soldiers it may have happened at most a few dozen times. A man who deserts might have been killed by the jungle or by enemy soldiers. But he might also have gotten away, probably to Thailand, and at this point if he's still alive he could be anywhere in the world. Indeed, he might be in the US living under an assumed name. The Viet Namese can'f find such a man because he's not in Viet Nam.
The least likely possibility is the one that the people with the bumper stickers seem to think is the case: that some of the MIA were POWs which the Viet Namese didn't give back when most of the POWs came home. That's what the Rambo movie showed, but why would it actually have happened? Why would the Viet Namese have wanted to keep them when they were getting from the US exactly what they wanted (a US pullout)?
The Viet Namese are not insane nor stupid. Indeed, throughout the war they showed enormous political and strategic intelligence. It is truly the case that they lost every battle except the last one, and that they won the war. What possible motivation could they have for a strategic blunder like keeping some POWs after hostilities with the US ceased?
Calling the MIA "POW MIAs" doesn't change the fact that nearly all of the MIAs are dead, nor the fact that most of them won't ever be found because there's nothing left to be found. I fully understand why people want closure on the lives or deaths of the people they know or love, but the fact that you want something doesn't mean that it's possible for you to get it.
Men are lost without a trace in every war, but it's become far more common since the beginning of the 20th century. War is a horrible thing, and human ingenuity has found many ways of killing people. Some of the ways are extraordinarily violent and leave nothing to find.
In France and Belgium, farmers unearth bones in their fields even now. They're skeletons left over from World War I, men who died in no man's land and were eaten by rats. In World War II, this became more common and the men listed as MIAs died all over the world. There are thousands of MIAs in Korea, too. The Viet Nam War is not unique in this regard.
What is unique about Viet Nam is that it's the longest war fought by the United States in its history, and the only one since 1812 which it lost. It left scars which are still not fully healed.
But to try to hold back the future because of the scars of the past is foolish. I've heard people say that Viet Nam should not be given diplomatic recognition by the US "until they account for every MIA." That can't be done.
What's more amazing is that many of the men making these demands are veterans who served there and who of all people should know better. We need to make sure not to let sentiment or feelings of revenge prevent us from acting in a reasonable fashion.
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