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A Curious Trade: The Recovery and Repatriation of U.S. Missing In Action from the Vietnam War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2015

Sarah E. Wagner*
Anthropology, George Washington University


Amid its human and material tolls, the Vietnam War has given rise to a curious enterprise—the complex process of recovering and repatriating the remains of U.S. service members Missing In Action (MIA) and presumed dead. In this trade, the bones that “count” are American and the aims underwriting the forensic efforts to return them are rooted in an ideology of national belonging.The resultant exchange of both knowledge and physical remains has developed through two historically intertwined ventures: state-sponsored casualty resolution efforts; and the much smaller, informal trafficking of skeletal remains, identification media, and information about American MIAs. This article examines how these sought-after bones tack between roles as objects of recovery, sale, or barter, scientific study, ritual burial, and public commemoration. Through their mutable worth, MIA remains illustrate the dynamic symbolism of war dead that evokes differing sensibilities about familiar or foreign soil, about care and belonging. Like the reliquiae of medieval Christianity, remains of missing service members, even in the most fragmentary form, are replete with the suggestion of power. Their pursuit depends on reciprocity. Indeed, more than just powerful symbols, these bones manifest and confer power itself, as caring for war dead demonstrates authority, and such authority falls to those who control access to the desired object, whether through formal or informal channels. Furthermore, power requires authentication, and the remains of missing American war dead become, in this system of circulation and exchange, a means to demonstrate knowledge, perform certainty, or exploit ambiguity.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2014 

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