Should We Really Be Risking More Lives to Look for the Missing in Iraq?

News Abroad

Mr. Hawley is an assistant professor of government at Eastern Washington University. He is the author of The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted For in Southeast Asia (Duke University Press, 2005).

The search for three American soldiers recently abducted in Iraq is following a familiar and tragic pattern. In the thirty-five years since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has engaged in an extensive and costly search for service personnel killed in the conflict but whose remains were not recovered at the time of death. On April 7, 2001 a helicopter carrying a search team crashed in Vietnam, taking the lives of seven Americans and nine Vietnamese. Since the May 12, 2007 abduction of the three American soldiers south of Baghdad, two soldiers have been killed trying to find them.

The desire to free prisoners of war and to recover the remains of those killed is understandable. Families of the missing seek closure and the desire to know the fate of those missing is not unnatural in itself. But expending further lives in the process is symptomatic of an American tendency to value the dead and missing more than those of the living. This tendency becomes even more pronounced when the United States is involved in a losing effort on the battlefield, as was the case in Vietnam and is now true in Iraq. Dead and missing soldiers are effortlessly transformed into heroes, individuals for whom continued fighting is far more easily justified than official platitudes and never-realized political and military objectives. Consequently, some semblance of victory can be achieved when remains are recovered or when prisoners are freed. The highly choreographed and ultimately farcical “liberation” of Jessica Lynch in 2003 is a perverse case in point.

The statements of those charged with recovering the dead and missing reveal the logic at work here. Repeatedly since the end of the Vietnam War we have been told that the United States will do everything possible to ensure the return of America’s dead and missing. And so it goes in the current instance. According to Major General William Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, “We will never stop looking for our soldiers until their status is definitively determined, and we continue to pray for their safe return.” No goal, it seems, is more important than the recovery of an American service member once he or she goes missing. Winning the war, stabilizing the country, or ending the intervention that produces missing soldiers in the first place all take a back seat to tracking down the unaccounted for. What this means, in both Southeast Asia and Iraq, is that additional Vietnamese, American, and Iraqi deaths will be acceptable so long as they generate either a positive remains identification or the return of a prisoner of war.

Taken this far, the desire to recover the missing virtually ensures the continuation of the problem it’s supposed to solve. This is because the uncertainty generated by missing and/or unidentified service personnel is portrayed as somehow worse than the death, bloodshed, and suffering occasioned by searching for them. As a recent story in the New York Times put it, “in a war without front lines and goals that are hard to achieve, the search offer[s] the comfort of certainty, of a clear and noble goal. ‘If we find them, we accomplish something specific,’ Sergeant Byers said. ‘It’s not like trying to bring peace to the area then finding out later that you didn’t.’” Sadly, the “something specific” in this case is two more dead American soldiers.

As has been the case for over three decades in Southeast Asia, searching for the missing has become a surrogate for winning in Iraq. Yet we owe it to our servicemen and women to rethink this strange relationship. Why not, for example, try to negotiate the release of the missing rather than risk further lives trying to find them? Some will say this indicates weakness on our part. Yet perhaps the real weakness lies in our inability to ask, much less answer, “How far is too far? How many dead soldiers is too many for the recovery of three who are missing?”

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

What "enemy" ?
What "war" ?

There is no compelling need for nitpicking standard Pentagon procedures, as far from perfect as they are, but the clock is running out on the gullibility of the American people.

This bogus "war", in reality an ill-conceived, deceptively-launched, and ineptly implemented faux-nation-building misadventure, has severely weakened America's national security at a cost of many hundreds of billions of dollars. It is high time to call the guilty to account. Topping the list:

GW Bush
H Clinton

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"Betrayal fear and anguish" certainly might apply to the couch potatoes that are finally waking up to see the disaster fomented while they slept. Bin Laden could scarcely have hoped for a better dupe than W. This weekend we honor soldiers who sacrificed themselves in real wars that helped DEFEND America.

Vernon Clayson - 5/28/2007

Kidnapping? The soldiers were taken captive by people who are unlimited in cruelty and deviousness. Only the naive believe the captors are a few misquided religious zealots of low intellect, they are as cunning as any enemy we've ever faced. We have become soft and they know it, what other enemy has ever had the advantage that they have knowing that our media and our politicians will savor the incident because it brings problems to the current administration? If we didn't search with everything available to us the media and the opposing political factions would call it a failure on a scale heretofore unknown to the American people. It is a benefit to the Islamists whichever way we approach the incident.

DeWayne Edward Benson - 5/26/2007

I believe there is a glaring misconception that our Dept of Defense gives a least care about individual US servicemen. If this were the case they would not have allowed the murder of Navy personel on the USS Liberty, nor indescriminant use in large quantity of dangerous chemicals (Agent Orange) and radioactive (also heavy-metal) poisons like Depleted Uranium projectilrs, missiles and bunker busting bombs.
There is even a possibility that the true problem in Iraq is more the Iraqi-militia's trained by the US government, recorded as begun as far back as year 1999 at an old Russian base (near Kapsovar) in the nation of Hungry. These possibly being the mysterious militia's poping up, sometimes called Secret Police, and rarely controlled by the Dept of Defense.

Mal Gaffney - 5/25/2007

If I were to have been standing in the boots of any of the soldiers captured by Iraqi terrorists, how abandoned I should have felt in knowing that US military rules forbade American forces to engage in combat rescue-attempts. My feelings of betrayal, fear, and anguish would need a Homer-like figure to show to others the intensity of my despair.


Nancy REYES - 5/24/2007

You are very logical. And very practical. And very American. But not very wise.

To families the recovery of a body is a blessing that allows them closure. Our family still remembers a cousin tortured to death by the Japanese in WWII. If we were to find his body, we would be happy, and hold a burial service.

Nor is this belief merely found in Asians:

There is also the tradition in the armed services, that your buddies will "bring you back".This is true for the USMarines or the NYFD or Philippine OFWs who want to be buried in their home villages.

The desire to properly bury the dead is cross cultural, and most cultures celebrate in story those who risk their lives are doing so: Iphignia, Tobit, the Ropers rescuing Thomas Moore's head, the Native Americans suing museums to get their relatives buried properly, to Star Trek III, to Blackhawk Down--are part of every culture.

The need to rescue living hostages is furthur complicated in that rewarding kidnappers encourages more kidnapping, whether it be businessmen in Cali, Avon workers in Mindanao, or Italians in Baghdad.

You hate the war? Fine.
But if I'm kidnapped by the AbuSayef, I hope that someone will kick ass to get me back, not pay the bloody kidnappers a bribe so they can buy guns and boms to kill other innocent civilians.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/23/2007

The enemy knew he was not going to change the course of the war by the murder of three soldiers. The enemy's purpose was to get publicity which would tug at the heartstrings of millions of Americans in hopes of breaking our national resolve, which could indeed help to change the course of the war. And, as usual, the enemy succeeded again, thanks to his legions of accomplices in our media. Our principal efforts, from the first moment, ought to have been aimed at denying him publicity. The men should have been reported as "missing in action," without any hint of kidnapping.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/23/2007

At that point I thought you were going to say it encourages the enemy to kidnap and murder some more of our troops, which it does... You are quite correct, but I don't think the Pentagon is to be blamed harshly for making these costly searches. The pentagon is not stupid and does make cost-benefit judgments before it cuts orders. They probably feel the seditious U.S. media would brand them "callous" if they refrained from making such searches, causing worse damage to the war effort, and they are probably right. They may also feel there is a positive benefit to other troops, because it lets them feel our people would be looking for them if they were in the shoes of the kidnap victims.