Summary. For too long, actions by and information from the U. S. government and from MIA activists have fed the mythology that U. S. personnel were abandoned in captivity at the end of the Vietnam War. The facts are straightforward: No U. S. personnel were held in captivity after the end of Operation Homecoming in Spring, 1973.
As in all wars, there are men who were lost and who will never be recovered. The
This proposal, if adopted, will go a long way to doing just that. Many who read this proposal will become angry with me, including some old friends. Popularity is not the purpose here. The purpose is to restore good sense and reason, to end the kabuki theater that has characterized this issue for too long, and to still honor the sacrifice made by brave men.
1. No More Inquiries
It is past time to stop the official and unofficial inquiries and investigations. They do nothing but feed the mythology. The public perception is: If there are no men alive, if all POWs were returned in 1973, why are we spending taxpayers' money to conduct yet another investigation?
The ink was hardly dry on the signatures to the Senate Select Committee Report in 1993 when Senator Bob Smith was calling for more investigations. At this writing (December 1997), there is legislation pending in the House of Representatives that would establish yet another special investigating committee.
(UPDATE. Here we go again. As of March 2, 1999, Rep. King of NY has introduced H. Res. 16, a bill to establish a Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs.)
2. Get Real With the Numbers
At the time of this writing (December 1997), the U. S. government lists over 2,000 Americans as missing in Indochina.
This figure is shamefully misleading and it should no longer be used.
Yes, over 2,000 men did not return from Vietnam. But, this in no way translates to 2,000 men who were or could have been captured and never released. In fact, at the end of the war, the number of missing was about half the current 2,000 figure. In the late 1970s, the government caved in to pressure from a family lobby and added to the approximately 1,200 missing another nearly 1,200 who were listed as Killed In Action - Body Not Recovered, thereby overnight doubling the number of "missing men."
Findings of Death
One man, USAF Captain Charles Shelton, continued to be carried in a POW status as a purely symbolic gesture. This was done is spite of the fact that evidence from camp guards indicated that Shelton had died of a combination of illness and malnutrition.
Re-examination of the Loss Evidence
Beginning in the early 1990s, the Vietnamese opened their country to U. S. search teams
and to U. S. analysts searching through their archives. From these efforts is
emerging previously unknown information about lost Americans and their fates. Some
of the information being turned up includes:
In every case investigated to date for which archival or eyewitness information has been developed, that information corroborates what we already knew about the missing men. None survived. Yes, we have developed a number of cases in which we believe there is a high likelihood that remains can be recovered or that there may be more evidence in Vietnamese archives. In no case has any information been developed to indicate that men remained alive in captivity after 1973.
Some Will Never Be Recovered
Most of the 2,000 will never be recovered. Over 400 men were lost at
sea. Another 400-plus are "off-the-scope" -- they went on a mission and
were never heard from again. Others died in aircraft explosions or crashes and their
bodies were shredded at the time of loss. Some were buried by enemy troops in
battlefield graves that will never be discovered.
3. State That They Are All Dead
The U. S. government, not just the Department of Defense,
should state that all missing men are dead, that they died in or shortly after their loss
incidents, that a small number died in captivity, but that no one was left behind in
4. Stop the Extraordinary Observances
The attention being paid to prisoners and missing from Vietnam feeds the mythology and keeps wounds open.
Stop POW Recognition Day
Continuing POW Recognition Day only supports the view that there must be something out there if the government is paying it this much attention. Veterans' Day and Memorial Day provide adequate opportunity to recognize and honor the sacrifices made by veterans -- living, dead, former prisoners, and still missing.
Lower the Flag
The ubiquitous black-and-white POW flag needs to be seen less. There is now legislation requiring the flag to be flown over all federal buildings on certain holidays. Stop it. The national flag is the one that American soldiers have fought under since our founding. Use it if you need to honor anyone with a flag.
5. Publicize What Is Being Done
Most Americans, even many family members, do not know of the full extent of the work
that is being done to determine the fates of missing men. U. S. personnel are
stationed permanently in the countries of Indochina for the sole purpose of seeking out
details on loss incidents and on the fates of missing men. This effort is
unprecedented in our history and in the entire history of warfare. This story needs
to be told.
6. Terminate "COIN ASSIST"
During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese, their allies and supporters (including pro-Vietnamese "peace" groups in the U. S.) used the matter of American POWs as propaganda and negotiating leverage. Families of POWs and missing men were subjected to false and misleading information appearing in the media. Some were even approached directly by various "peace" groups with information about their family member; this information was sometimes true, often not true, but always painful.
To counter this information, the U. S. government mounted an intense effort of keeping families informed. On the front lines of this effort were the military service casualty offices. These offices maintained contact with families, providing them with accurate, verified information on their missing man and on the issue in general.
Another action the U. S. government took was to initiate annual briefings in Washington where families could come to a central location, hear reports from officials, see their missing man's file, talk with casualty officers, and meet with each other for mutual support. Recognizing that many families could not afford the air fare, the Department of Defense initiated a program called "COIN ASSIST" -- "Counter-Intelligence Assistance." Under this program, families had only to report to one of several designated Air Force bases. There, they would be flown on regularly-scheduled Air Force aircraft to Washington, and be returned to the base of origin after the meetings in Washington were over.
This practice continues up to this day, with a slight modification. Beginning in 1996, families of missing men from the Vietnam War were given a commercial airline round-trip ticket for travel from their home to Washington, D.C., and back., not travel on USAF aircraft.
While this practice was necessary during the war, and possibly for a few years after the war, it has long outlived its need.
Continuing COIN ASSIST simply continues to feed the belief that there must be something out there because why else would the government do this.
7. Take a Bold Step
This issue neeeds a White Paper that:
I have no illusions that my proposal will be adopted in part or in whole. I am fully aware that the actions I have proposed here will upset many and positively anger some, including old friends. Others, however, will nod in agreement.
Acknowledging the facts will not cause a single missing man to be "abandoned" and will not cause a slackening of efforts to recover as many men as possible. To the contrary, stating the obvious will honor them far more than continuing to have them be objects of mythmakers and charlatans.
Update: For another statement on this matter, read this April 15, 2001, editorial from the Los Angeles Times.