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Final Accountings: Expectations Have Changed

October 12, 1986|Josh Getlin

Whenever troops go off to war, some don't return. About 78,000 Americans who fought in World War II still have not been accounted for; 8,200 are missing from the Korean War.

Yet the far fewer Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War--2,434--have become a much bigger emotional and political issue. In fact, the MIA question has dominated U.S. policy in Southeast Asia since the war ended for the United States in 1973.

"Some people wonder why are we so much concerned," says Col. Howard Hill, the Pentagon's chief adviser on the issue. One reason, he and other officials say, is that the Vietnam War received more intensive and vivid news coverage than any previous American conflict, and generated controversy long after the last troops returned home.

Moreover, excavation and forensic science techniques that did not exist at the end of World War II and the Korean War have raised expectations that America can retrieve and accurately identify physical remains, Hill says.

Most important, the Vietnam casualty lists have become more personalized than those of previous conflicts, he says. While memorials for earlier wars usually honor a general or a small number of soldiers, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington lists the names of every American killed or missing in action.

"That's why these individual cases--each separate person missing--may be more of an issue than we saw in previous wars," Hill says.

Tran Trong Khang, second secretary to Vietnam's mission to the United Nations, has another theory. "The difference," he says, "is that those men missing from Vietnam are from the first war you lost."

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