Missing in Action: How America Forgets MIA Day

Presidential proclamation, along with decrees by state governors, have served to establish September 20 as a national day of recognition for thousands of American service personnel who remain missing in action. Since World War II, over 81,000 Americans who served in that war, along with missing veterans from Cold War conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, are among those for whom there is no final accounting. Indeed, this is nothing new, because since the dawn of history people have gone to war never to return—lost along with millions of civilians amid the debris of human conflicts from the Stone Age to the Information Age.

The recent POW/MIA Day went largely unnoticed amidst children marching in fear of global warming, politicians accusing other politicians of bad behavior, and the ravages of floods. Last week, police officers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Mandeville, Louisiana were added to the list of now 31 members of law enforcement killed since the first of the year. Amid the political hubbub and growing danger to law officers, there was scant notice of those still missing in action.

Most of America’s 81,000 missing in action are from World War II, for whom it is unlikely any accounting will ever be forthcoming, especially for those lost at sea or in remote areas in the Pacific. Missing soldiers from earlier wars going back to the American Revolution largely remain the purview of genealogists, archeologists, and history buffs. Globally, there are millions of soldiers and civilians unaccounted for in the debris of wars since 1900.

It was the war in Vietnam that focused attention on the plight of Americans as POWs and those for whom there was no final accounting. The growing unpopularity of that war and the unique nature of a lot of the MIA combined to raise awareness. Many, certainly not all, of American MIAs in Southeast Asia were aircrews, pilots, navigators, and aircrew in military aircraft lost over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In many cases, pilots and navigators, particularly in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fighter-bombers, were older, mostly college educated, and quite often family men with young children or newly married. The secret nature of combat operations, especially over Laos but also over the rest of Southeast Asia, added to the mystery because the U.S. government (including the respective military services) was not forthcoming as to the circumstances surrounding the losses. Parents, brothers, and sisters of missing fliers, along with mothers with children and newly married brides, raised a rightfully indignant ruckus that finally brought attention to the plight of men captured and missing.

Almost all the parents of those still missing from the Vietnam War are gone. So are many of their wives and siblings. The youngest children are now middle-age men and women who know their fathers only through photographs and stories. The oldest children are septuagenarians and will soon be gone. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the Pentagon office tasked with finding our missing in action, employs relatively few individuals working on thousands of cases. Unfortunately, being a generation removed from the wars in Korea and Vietnam, few if any of these civil servants bring to the search the subtleties of knowledge and understanding.

Furthermore, conflating history with polemics has changed how we view and study the past. The recent controversy over Civil War statues is a case in point. Note that Bolsheviks destroyed the records of an unpleasant Russian imperial past. German Nazis contrived a mythical Aryan past to validate their horrific vision for a racially pure future. Both conflated elements of respective versions of political correctness with history. Having no history, Bolshevism and Nazism also had no future.

We need to remember our past, even the parts that seem remote. We need to honor and respect the past because it is a reliable guide to the future. That means honoring everyone who has served our country, including our former prisoners of war and those for whom there is no accounting.


—Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.