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It's Not that Simple

Summary. The December 1998 issue of Harry Summers' magazine Vietnam carries an article by Bill Bell on the loss of Army PFC Donald Sparks.  In this article, Bell makes that case that the Vietnamese can tell us a lot more about Sparks's loss than they have to date.  Maybe, maybe not.  It's not that simple. ((Here are the bare-bones facts.  Spark's unit got into a firefight.  He was seen to be hit and fall; a medic went to check him out and was hit also.  Later, the unit swept the area and located the medic but Sparks could not be found.  Some time later, a PAVN unit was ambushed and on the body of one of the dead PAVN were found letters that Sparks had written to his parents from captivity.   Another piece of information came from a returned U. S. POW.  He told of having a PAVN guard who told him of an American POW named Don who was wounded and ill.   According to the returnee, the PAVN soldier told him that Don and another guard fell further and further behind once when they were moving camp and, finally, the other guard showed up without Don.  He (the PAVN soldier) assumed that Don had died or been killed.  Sparks died in captivity.  Could the Vietnamese tell us more about him?   Maybe even locate his remains?  Maybe so.))

I think Bill's article is too simplistic and disregards what has been learned over the past five to eight years.

Background

Some Indicators of Vietnamese Knowledge

Beginning with the first U. S. - North Vietnam contacts during the war, analysts in the Defense Intelligence Agency Special Office for POW-MIA Affairs believed that the Vietnamese knew more about the fates and conditions of missing Americans than they were telling us.  After the war, as the long process of accounting for and recovering our missing dragged on, this belief became an article of faith.  And, we saw evidence to support our view.  For example, from time to time,the Vietnamese would turn over to us the remains of missing men.  The remains had been out of the ground for a long time.  In many cases, the remains had been subjected to long-term preservation and storage.  Read my article on the Mortician for more details.

As if this were not enough, from time to time, they would return to us documents from missing men:  military ID cards; dog tags; photos and other items that a man would have had in his wallet or pocket; and the like. 

Wartime Practices

Furthermore, when we studied the wartime information collecting and reporting practices of North Vietnam's Peoples' Army of Vietnam (PAVN), it was clear to us that they did exactly as U. S. troops did; in fact, they did what any other army does.  When they capture enemy personnel, or when they find enemy dead on a battlefield, they send up through channels reports of these events, complete with identification of the enemy personnel.  For example, during the war, we intercepted radio communications of PAVN units informing their higher headquarters of American prisoners, dead Americans, and American prisoners who died in their hands.  Some of these intercepts even identify the American by name. 

What We Thought They Could Do

As a result of all this, we thought that the Vietnamese could provide us with detailed information on many of our missing men.  We did not, at any time and in any way, believe that they had a nice, full file on every missing man, complete with his ID card, dog tags, and a neat report of what happened to him, when, where, and how.  However, we did believe that they would have fairly complete information on some men, less on others, and nothing on others.  Our task was to get it out of them.

Enter GEN Vessey and Ted Schweitzer

When General Vessey was appointed by President Reagan to be Presidential Emissary to Vietnam for POW-MIA Affairs, he looked to us in DIA to tell him what he could expect and what things he should ask for.  We briefed GEN Vessey at length on our analytic conclusions as to what the Vietnamese may be able to tell us.  Although GEN Vessey was impressed with our briefing and supported our conclusions, he told us that he had to have something concrete that he could give the Vietnamese that they could not refute.   We just did not have this.

Enter Ted Schweitzer.  I will not repeat the story here but you need to read my review of Malcolm McConnell's book Inside Hanoi's Secret Archives for the full story.  Essentially, Schweitzer handed us what we needed for Vessey to use with the Vietnamese.  Schweitzer gave us the proof of what was in their archives.

The 1986 SNIE

Meanwhile, in 1986, the U. S. intelligence community -- principally CIA, DIA, and NSA -- put together a Special National Intelligence Estimate.  This  SNIE attempted to evaluate what the Vietnamese could tell us about missing Americans and how willing they might be to cooperate with us.  When we came to the part about stored remains (You have read the article about the Mortician?), I wrote into the SNIE words that I have lived to regret.  If we look at the mortician's story, and simply add up the numbers he gave us, we could estimate that, at the outside, at the very most, there may have been 600 American remains recovered, processed and stored by the Vietnamese.  And, if we took at face value some other reports that we had, it is possible that those remains were stored in two or more places.  That is what I wrote into the SNIE.  It was an outside number.  Since then, the MIA activists and folks who should know better have seized on this old SNIE with my far-out estimate and used it to bash the Vietnamese.

The argument goes like this.  (1)  The U. S. government published an intelligence estimate stating that the Vietnamese should be able to return 600-plus remains that they recovered, processed, and stored.  (2) The Vietnamese have returned less than one-third that many.  Therefore, (3) there are another 400 or so remains that they are hanging on to for some ghastly reason, we cannot trust them to assist with accounting for our missing, we should not have established diplomatic relations, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Fine, So What About Bill Bell's Article?

Okay, let's get back to the subject. 

I will not reproduce Bill's article here.  It is in the December 1998 issue of Vietnam magazine.  Bill does a good job of pulling together lots of loose ends in the Sparks case.  But, I believe that his conclusions as to what the Vietnamese can tell us is are a bit overstated and simplistic.

Categorical Problems

Here are some of the problems with the article.

bulletThe article lists Vietnamese units whose records should be searched for information about PFC Sparks.  This list is a veritable catalog of every major unit in the region where Sparks was lost.  Not every unit in a region would have a record of every captured US rifleman.
bulletBeginning in the late 1980s, we began to have access to Vietnamese records and to former PAVN personnel.  From this archival research and from interviews of our former adversaries, we have learned a lot about:
bulletThe types of records that PAVN units kept regarding US POWs and casualties;
bulletThe details that PAVN put into their records;
bulletType of details that were reported up the PAVN chain of command;
bulletHow high up the chain of command information was reported and the nature of information reported to various echelons. That is, no one should expect a general officer to receive detailed information about US POWs.  Instead, a general officer would have received summary information about numbers of US personnel killed or captured by PAVN units. On the other hand, PAVN intelligence or propaganda units would have details on US POWs.
bulletBell's article does not take any of this into account.  He seems to expect the Vietnamese to know all, to have written it all down, and to have it still stashed away.
bulletThe article does not allow for:
bulletThe "fog of war;"
bulletDeath of witnesses and destruction of records during the war;
bulletEffect of time and the elements on records, memories, and gravesites;
bulletBureaucratic ineptitude;
bulletNormal bureaucratic policies concerning the destruction, retention, etc., of files
bulletBill's suggestions for follow-up are unfocused.

Misleading

Bill writes a seriously misleading description of the results, to date, of investigations into the "discrepancy cases."  Quoting from the article:

"During the course of the investigations of the original 196 discrepancy cases, which the Vietnamese could reasonably expect to resolve, 148 names have been dropped from the priority list.  Unfortunately for the families of these MIAs, however, only 27 cases have been resolved through the recovery of identifiable remains.   In essence, 121 'last-known-alive' cases have been dropped based on circumstantial evidence.  The 48-name list of cases 'still under active investigation' includes PFC Sparks."

There are many discrepancies in this paragraph.

bullet"196 original discrepancy cases."  Yes, there were 196 loss incidents that were dubbed the priority discrepancy cases because we thought, based on what we knew at the time, that the Vietnamese should be able to provide information that would either (1) lead to the recovery of remains, or, (2) lead to a conclusion as to why remains could not be recovered. 
bulletAs time went on, as we worked in the field, dug through their archives, and interviewed former PAVN, we learned a lot about the case we were working on and about how they kept records. 
bulletThus, we started out believing that the Vietnamese knew or should know something about each case.  In some cases, we discovered that they did have helpful information, in others we found that they knew nothing more than we did.
bullet"121 'last-known-alive' cases have been dropped based on circumstantial evidence." Come on, Bill, you know better than that. 
bulletIn the first place, not all 196 cases were "last-known-alive."  I do not recall the number of last-known-alive cases but it was nowhere near 121.  Bill is mixing last-known-alive with discrepancy.  Yes, the last-known-alive cases were part of the discrepancy cases but not every discrepancy is a last-known-alive.
bulletNothing is "dropped based on circumstantial evidence."  In some cases, investigation leads to the recovery of remains; this has happened so far in 27 of the discrepancy cases.  But, in some cases -- 121 to date -- investigation has led to the conclusion that remains are not recoverable.  Does this mean that we give up?   No.  It means that we are no longer actively working on these cases because we have collected sufficient evidence to conclude (1) the man is dead and (2) his remains are unrecoverable.  If, in the course of further research, we uncover something that pertains to a loss that is no longer under active investigation, we follow that lead.   If remains turn up through whatever means, we identify those remains.

It's Not All Negative (in fact, things are overwhelmingly positive)

His references to the joint US-Vietnam efforts to account for missing Americans focus on the negative aspects, not the positive.  Is anyone surprised that some Vietnamese officials are not really happy about Americans tramping around their districts, interfering with planting and harvest, taking up valuable official time?   Is anyone surprised that some Vietnamese officials are less than forthcoming with US investigators?  It is quite easy to assign to the Vietnamese evil motives when cooperation is not to the levels that we would like.  It's a lot more difficult to try to see things from their point-of-view and patiently plow ahead.

Completely Bizarre

Finally, there are two items in Bill's article that are too bizarre for words. 

bulletBill states:  "Information associated with the well-known 'three amigos' photograph, circa 1991, indicated that Americans were being held after the war in a camp commanded by a general named Ngo Hau Phuoc."  The "three amigos" photograph was one of three completely bogus photographs that surfaced in 1991, claiming to be photos of US POWs in captivity.  What in the world does a bogus photograph, and the bogus story accompanying it, have to do with accounting for missing Americans? 
bulletBill claims that Vietnamese witnesses reported that Sparks had learned to speak Vietnamese.  I doubt it; Bill has his reports confused.  In fact,  one of the Vietnamese women who treated Sparks in the PAVN field hospital said she had problems communicating because he didn't speak the language

So What?

Okay, you say.  So what.  Sounds to me, Schlatter, as though you are jealous that no one has published your articles except you on your own web site that no one visits.

Unrealistic Expectations

No.  Here is the problem.  Anyone reading Bill Bell's article will find it convincing and logical.  The average reader has nothing else with which to compare the article and, for that reason, likely will accept Bill's view as gospel.  The result then will be that the Vietnamese will never be able to meet the expectations that are raised by such works as this article.  And, there will be families who will raise their expectations to completely unrealistic heights and some portion of official Washington will be taken in by this over-simplified view of things.

Of course, one could be unkind and say that this is exactly what some folks want to happen.  You see, there is a cabal that centers around Billy Hendon and Senator Bob Smith.  There are lots of strap-hangers whom they have co-opted and it is these folks who do the grunt work while Hendon and Smith can keep their hands clean.  This confederacy of dunces has one mission:  To constantly attack the credibility of the US government and its actions in the MIA issue.  Whatever it takes -- misleading families, abusing power, staging events -- anything is fair.

bulletWhy?  Because, as I have explained in articles about Hendon and Smith, they tried for years to prove that US POWs had been abandoned in SEAsia and the US government was covering up the fact.  However, every single incident, witness, report, claim they made was exposed to the light and withered away.  They cannot tolerate this erosion of their credibility so they strike back.
bulletHow?  Simple:  Use families, an occasional specialist,  and unsuspecting folks as a weapon. 
bulletThe Bill Bell article is an example.  A family confronted with an article like this -- written by an individual with a long history in the issue -- may well conclude that detailed answers as to the fate of their missing man are but a turn of the page away.   When the answer they get from the Pentagon is far less definitive, well, guess who is to blame for that.  And, once again, Hendon and Smith have a disgruntled family that they can parade around at hearings or before reporters.
bulletThe same thing works for individuals who picture themselves as world-class analysts.   Dig around through the archives for months, pile it all together into a book or a series of articles, conclude that men were abandoned.  Presto -- the Senator wants to see you.  That's big time stuff.  Just sit there at the witness table with the C-SPAN cameras rolling and let the Senator toss you a few softballs while you "prove" that the Pentagon analysts are dimwits.

As my old Granddaddy used to say, Hendon and Smith just love it.   No matter that nothing is being solved.  No matter that families are misled and false hopes are generated.

What do They Have in Common?

Please read this list of names and tell me what they have in common.

Bob Smith, Billy Hendon, Delores Alfond, Tracy Usry, Mark Smith (Major, USArmy, Retired), Mike Van Atta (who calls himself  Joyce Hunt when he is cross-dressing), Pat Plumadore, Earl Hopper, Steve Golding, Jerry Mooney, Todd Minarcin, Rich Daly, Chip Beck, Tim Castle, Dana Rohrabacher, Ted Sampley, Carol Hrdlicka, Monika Jensen, Bobby Garwood, "Lady Jen," "Operation Just Cause," Jack Bailey, Khambang Sebanhung, Judge Gayden, "Senator" Kirkpatrick, "Red" McDaniel, and more that I will add from time to time.

So, what do they have in common?  Here it is:  Of all the words this crowd has spoken, of all the actions they have taken, of all the claims they have made, not one of them has done a single thing that has resulted in the accounting for, the identification of, the return of a single missing American.  What they have accomplished is to waste analytic time with their phony stories, to perpetuate mythology, and to mislead families and the American public.  Period.

The only efforts that have gained real results, real accounting, are those of the folks from DIA, DPMO, JCRC, JTF-FA, and CILHI.  That's it, folks,  The rest is foolishness.