Skip to main content
×
Home

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

  • Sarah E. Wagner (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

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.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      A Curious Trade: The Recovery and Repatriation of U.S. Missing In Action from the Vietnam War
      Available formats
      ×
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      A Curious Trade: The Recovery and Repatriation of U.S. Missing In Action from the Vietnam War
      Available formats
      ×
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      A Curious Trade: The Recovery and Repatriation of U.S. Missing In Action from the Vietnam War
      Available formats
      ×
Copyright
Corresponding author
sewagner@email.gwu.edu
References
Hide All
Allen Michael J. 2009. Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Allen Michael J. 2011. “Sacrilege of a Strange, Contemporary Kind”: The Unknown Soldier and the Imagined Community after the Vietnam War. History and Memory 23, 2: 90131.
Alneng Victor. 2002. “What the Fuck Is a Vietnam?”: Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War). Critique of Anthropology 22, 4: 461–89.
Anderson Benedict. 2006 [1983]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.
Appadurai Arjun. 1986. Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value. In Appadurai Arjun, ed., The Social Lives of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baldor Lolita and Jordan Bryant. 2012. US, Vietnam Return “War Trophies.” Military.com. At: http://www.military.com/daily-news/2012/06/05/us-vietnam-return-war-trophies.html (accessed 23 Mar. 2013).
Bank David. 1990. Vietnam Bone Brokers Hope for MIA Payoff. Chicago Tribune, 5 Apr.: N30.
Barbian Lenore, Sledzik Paul, and Reznick Jeffrey. 2012. Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Specimens. Museum History Journal 51: 728.
Berdahl Daphne. 1994. Voices at the Wall: Discourses of Self, History and National Identity at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. History and Memory 6, 2: 88124.
Bradley Mark Philip. 2001. Contests of Memory: Remembering and Forgetting War in the Contemporary Vietnamese Cinema. In Tai Hue-Tam Ho, ed., The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Branigin William. 1991. Vietnamese Find Profit in POW/MIA Hoaxes. Washington Post, 2 Oct.: A29.
Budreau Lisa M. 2010. Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919–1933. New York: New York University Press.
Clinton Hillary. 2011. America's Pacific Century. Foreign Policy 189: 5663.
Cole Paul M. 1994. POW/MIA Issues Volume 1: The Korean War. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND.
Corey Michael. 2010. The Vietnam War Zippo Lighter: An Entry Point for Examining Personal, Interpersonal, Collected and Collective Memory Making. PhD diss., New School for Social Research.
Curtis Paulette. 2003. Locating History: Vietnam Veterans and Their Return to the Battlefield, 1998–1999. PhD diss., Harvard University.
Curtis Paulette. 2011. Filling in the Blanks: Deriving Meaning from Objects in the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Collection. Practicing Anthropology 33, 2: 1115.
Dittmar Linda and Michaud Gene. 1990. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Faust Drew Gilpin. 2008. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Ferrándiz Francisco. 2013. Exhuming the Defeated: Civil War Mass Graves in 21st-Century Spain. American Ethnologist 40, 1: 3854.
Franklin H. Bruce. 1992. M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books.
Franklin H. Bruce. 2013. Missing in Action in the Twenty-first Century. In Laderman Scott and Martini Edwin A., eds., Four Decades On: Vietnam, the United States, and the Legacies of the Second Indochina War. Durham: Duke University Press.
Freeman Charles. 2011. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Greary Patrick. 1986. Sacred Commodities: The Circulation of Medieval Relics. In Appadurai Arjun, ed., The Social Lives of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gusterson Hugh. 1996. Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hagopian Patrick. 2009. The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Hawley Thomas M. 2005. The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hirschman Charles, Preston Samuel, and Loi Vu Manh. 1995. Vietnamese Casualties during the American War: A New Estimate. Population and Development Review 21, 4: 783812.
Ho Engseng. 2004. Empire through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat. Comparative Studies in Society and History 46, 2: 210–46.
Holland Thomas, Anderson Bruce, and Mann Robert. 1997. Human Variables in the Postmortem Alteration of Human Bone: Examples from U.S. War Casualties. In Haglund William D and Sorg Marcella H, eds., Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Kennedy Laurel and Williams Mary Rose. 2001. The Past Without the Pain: The Manufacture of Nostalgia in Vietnam's Tourism Industry. In Ho Hue-Tam Tai, ed., The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Knudsen John Christian. 1983. Boat People in Transit: Vietnamese in Refugee Camps in the Philippines, Hongkong, and Japan. Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.
Kopytoff Igor. 1986. The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. In Appadurai Arjun, ed., The Social Lives of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kumin Judith. 2008. Orderly Departure from Vietnam: Cold War Anomaly or Humanitarian Innovation? Refugee Survey Quarterly 27, 1: 104–17.
Kwon Heonik. 2006. After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kwon Heonik. 2008. Ghosts of War in Vietnam. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lair Meredith H. 2011. Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Lutz Catherine. 2001. Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century. Boston: Beacon Press.
Malarney Shaun. 2001. “The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice”: Commemorating War Dead in North Vietnam. In Tai Hue-Tam Ho, ed., The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Malkki Liisa H. 1995. Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mann Robert, Feather Melanie, Tumosa Charles, Holland Thomas, and Schneider Kim. 1998. A Blue Encrustation Found on Skeletal Remains of Americans Missing in Action in Vietnam. Forensic Science International 97, 2: 7986.
Mantz Jeffrey. 2008. Improvisational Economies: Coltan Production in the Eastern Congo. Social Anthropology 16, 1: 3450.
Martini Edwin A. 2007. Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975–2000. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Martini Edwin A. 2012. Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Mather Paul D. 1994. M.I.A.: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press.
Mauss Marcel. 2000 [1990]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Halls W. D., trans. New York: W. W. Norton.
Mosse George Lachmann. 1990. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Neff John R. 2005. Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Nordstrom Carolyn. 2004. Shadows of War Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Perlez Jane. 2012. Dispute Flares over Energy Exploration in South China Sea. New York Times, 5 Dec.: A12.
Piehler G. Kurt. 1995. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Rosenberg David. 2010. Governing the South China Sea: From Freedom of the Seas to Ocean Enclosure Movements. Harvard Asia Quarterly 12, 3/4: 412.
Rowe John Carlos and Berg Rick. 1991. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sant Cassia Paul. 2005. Bodies of Evidence: Burial, Memory and the Recovery of Missing Persons in Cyprus. New York: Berghahn Books.
Scheper-Hughes Nancy. 2005. The Last Commodity: Post-Human Ethics and the Global Traffic in “Fresh” Organs. In Ong Aihwa and Collier Stephen J, eds., Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Scheper-Hughes Nancy and Wacquant Loïc J. D.. 2005. Commodity Fetishism in Organs Trafficking. In Scheper-Hughes Nancy and Wacquant Loïc J. D., eds., Commodifying Bodies. London: Sage Publications (published in association with Theory, Culture & Society).
Schwenkel Christina. 2008. Exhibiting War, Reconciling Pasts: Photographic Representation and Transnational Commemoration in Contemporary Vietnam. Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 1: 3677.
Schwenkel Christina. 2009a. The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Schwenkel Christina. 2009b. From John McCain to Abu Ghraib: Tortured Bodies and Historical Unaccountability of U.S. Empire. American Anthropologist 111, 1: 3042.
Sharp Lesley A. 2007. Bodies, Commodities, and Biotechnologies: Death, Mourning, and Scientific Desire in the Realm of Human Organ Transfer. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sledge Michael. 2005. Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sledzik Paul and Ousley Steve. 1991. Analysis of Six Vietnamese Trophy Skulls. Journal of Forensic Sciences 36, 2: 520–30.
Sturken Marita. 1991. The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Representations 35: 118–42.
Sturken Marita. 1997. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tai Hue-Tam Ho. 2001. The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tatum James. 1996. Memorials of the America War in Vietnam. Critical Inquiry 22, 4: 634–78.
Tatum James. 2004. The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Trout Steven. 2010. On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2000. The State of The World's Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. At: http://www.unhcr.org/3ebf9bad0.html (accessed 30 Mar. 2013).
Verdery Katherine. 1999. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wagner Sarah. 2008. To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica's Missing. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wagner Sarah. 2013. The Making and Unmaking of an Unknown Soldier. Social Studies of Science 43, 5: 631–56.
Walters Ian. 1997. Vietnam Zippos. Journal of Material Culture 2, 1: 6175.
Walters Ian. 1999. Where the Action Was: Tourism and War Memorabilia from Vietnam. In Forshee Jill, Fink Christina, and Cate Sandra, eds., Converging Interests: Traders, Travelers, and Tourists in Southeast Asia. Berkeley: International and Area Studies, University of California at Berkeley.
Wan William. 2012. Panetta, in Speech in Singapore, Seeks to Lend Heft to U.S. Pivot to Asia. Washington Post, 7 June. At: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/panetta-arrives-in-singapore-for-conference-with-asian-leaders/2012/06/01/gJQAxdul6U_story_1.html (accessed 21 Mar. 2013).
Wharton Annabel Jane. 2006. Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Winter Jay. 1998. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 7
Total number of PDF views: 46 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 274 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.