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MIA defense spending — a crucial cost of war

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The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 is making its way through Congress. Though ensnared in partisan battles, there’s a 58-year track record that tells us it will likely pass. Buried deep in the line items is a little-known but prized forensic program: the U.S. military’s efforts to account for its missing war dead.

The United States government spends upward of $140 million per year to recover and identify the remains of the 81,000 unaccounted-for service members from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. Teams of military and scientific personnel from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency are sent to scour the earth in search of the missing — from the jungles in Southeast Asia to atolls in the South Pacific to forest floors in Western Europe.

In the $718 billion proposed defense spending for 2020, the MIA accounting budget may seem a drop in the bucket. Nevertheless, it invites the question: should we be investing in the dead in this way?

For most members of the military, past and present, the answer is unequivocally yes — the nation has an obligation to care for the remains of those who died fighting on its behalf. But for civilians, most of whom don’t even know the program exists, the answer is less clear. Their responses vary from surprise to skepticism.

Because I have spent the last decade studying the MIA accounting effort, I’m often asked whether I think it’s worth pouring all this money and effort into recovering and identifying these war dead. Sometimes the question comes from people who in the same breath insist they wouldn’t care what happened to their own body after death. Sometimes it’s from people who find this nation’s reverence for its military over the top, another example of the deference civilians are expected to show the military. Sometimes it’s from people who wonder whether the funds would be better spent on caring for those who came back from war but still bear its mental and physical scars. And sometimes I am asked why families would even want that tiny scrap of bone or that single tooth — whatever minuscule fraction is left of their missing father, uncle, brother, or husband.

These issues merit discussion. We should be asking fundamental questions whether we want tax dollars spent on this mission and, if so, how much. That debate also needs to focus on realistic goals and how the accounting efforts will someday come to a close. With 81,000 unaccounted for, slogans such as “Until They Are Home” or “Fulfilling Our Nation’s Promise” set unrealistic expectations about what is possible. At the current rate of 200 identifications per year, it would take 200 years to identify the 40,000 individual service members who are not classified as “unrecoverable” (for example, those lost at sea).

Recovering and identifying the dead does not have to come at the expense of providing proper support to our veterans and their families. It’s not a zero-sum game: these efforts make clear the steep human costs of war.

Finally, for those who wonder why families would want a handful of bones returned to them, I can only relay what relatives have shared with me, over and over. To them, the return of remains is never just symbolic. As a brother of a Vietnam War MIA explained, “I was thrilled if one bone chip came home; I knew it was my brother, I finally knew his fate, and he was coming home.”

Searching for the missing war dead acknowledges these families’ protracted grief and the sacrifice their relatives made. It’s a debt we should honor.

Sarah Wagner is an associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University and author of What Remains: Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War. Follow her on Twitter @sarahedwagner.

Tags National Defense Authorization Act POW/MIA

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