What Remains Cover

What Remains

Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War

Sarah E. Wagner

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019, 304 pages

Book Review published on: August 14, 2020

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA), there are still over seventy-nine thousand U.S. service members who remain unaccounted for from every major conflict since World War II. Although the U.S government spends approximately “$130 million annually” resourcing a massive accounting and recovery program, the impacts of these wars continue to manifest themselves, shaping the lives of generations of families with relatives still listed as missing in action (MIA).

In What Remains: Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War, Sarah E. Wagner, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Art and Science, explores aspects of the government’s efforts to recover, identify, and return the remains of service members MIA during the Vietnam War. Unlike other previously published works on MIA accounting, Wagner skillfully blends a range of disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, forensics, war, and memory studies to tell a human-interest story from the perspective of the Vietnam War’s collateral victims—the families of service members MIA. Using a combination of documents including academic literature, historical records, investigative and field reports, case files, personal interviews, and observations, Wagner exposes the layers and challenges of MIA accounting and posits that advances in forensic science have changed MIA accounting expectations, continues to influence America’s exceptional policy of care, and how American communities honor and remember service members killed in war.

The book is organized into two parts. The first part provides a brief history on the evolution of America’s obligation of care for its war dead and missing and shows how advances in science have raised the expectations of American politicians and citizens regarding the return and disposition of the remains of service members killed or missing in war. Wagner’s insights on the implications of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 and the efforts of the League of Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Families on the accounting standards and quotas for missing persons and expanding the mission beyond Southeast Asia to include World War II and Persian Gulf service members is compelling. The second part, perhaps the most important, places you in the jungles of Vietnam as part of a recovery team’s daily operations to locate the remains and the subsequent recovery, identification, repatriation, and memorialization of these individuals. Wagner’s interactions, observations, and relationships with family members, friends, and associates of repatriated service members killed in Vietnam illustrates the lingering “tolls and legacies of war” that continue to shape communities throughout the United States.

What Remains is well crafted, extensively researched, and thought provoking. Wagner clearly shows that forensic science is not a panacea for all the challenges of accounting for missing persons; however, it does provide a means for the U.S. government to fulfill its obligations to the families of service members killed or missing in war. The book includes useful maps, forty pages of notes, and numerous pictures enabling the reader to connect the faces and names of deceased service members and their families. I highly recommend this poignant book to anyone interested in learning about the challenges and politics of accounting for the dead and missing in the aftermath of war and how we honor and remember our dead. American policy makers and senior- to mid-grade military officers would benefit from reading this book to remind them that the costs of going to war continue well after the battlefields are silent.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas