The American military’s commitment to “leave no man behind” is unmatched in the world. Few countries make an organized effort to find the remains of their long-lost troops, and on battlefields like Peleliu, an island in the Pacific, the skeletons of Japanese soldiers still crouch at the mouths of caves with their helmets and boots half-buried in seven decades of mud. Yet since World War I, our military has worked to locate every fallen service member and to bring their remains — along with some closure — back home to mourning families.
That effort is led by JPAC: the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. In any given year, the members of a JPAC field team can expect to spend five or 10 months overseas, often in the dank, dark jungles of Southeast Asia, huddling through the rainy season below a canvas fly sheet while sifting through a mountain of mud for tiny shards of bone. With some 83,000 troops still listed as Missing in Action, largely from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the challenge is vast.
Recently we learned of an internal report, authorized but then suppressed by JPAC’s leaders, that says JPAC is not up to the task. According to an account in the Associated Press, the review has found that it spends too much time on each investigation with too few results, and is encumbered by a glacial bureaucracy that inflates its own results. The missions are described as “boondoggles,” the work as “military tourism,” and the unit as being in danger of moving from “dysfunction to total failure.”
While some of the report’s specific complaints are valid, the conclusions are wildly off-base.
I have spent the past five years writing a book about JPAC’s work and have gone to the far side of the world with JPAC recovery teams. Along the way, I, too, have been frustrated at times by the unit’s lumbering bureaucracy. JPAC commanders are often hidebound by a convoluted set of rules that can be unnecessarily cautious and lead to slow work.
I’ve also seen firsthand the effect that bureaucracy can have on the families of the missing. It can take years for commanders to reveal what their field teams have found on a wreck site. Even the most obvious discovery, like a dog tag, is often kept under wraps until every other piece of evidence has been collected, processed and analyzed, including by DNA sampling. Sometimes, by the time a man’s remains have been thoroughly vetted and identified, the parents and siblings who have waited patiently for news are no longer alive to receive it.
Still, it is flat-out wrong to dismiss the work of JPAC as a failure. For every instance in which the unit moves more slowly than it could, there are many cases where JPAC field teams have delivered answers to a family that would otherwise be lost forever.
Families that experience a Missing in Action loss know how precious this work is. With no clear explanation for what has happened to their sons, fathers, husbands and brothers, they experience a distinct form of grief known as “ambiguous loss.” Only a few experts have looked closely at the special trauma of M.I.A. families, and the way their suffering passes from generation to generation. In many cases, these families nurture hope that the man has somehow survived — that he’s lost or captive or suffering from amnesia, even though these fates might be worse than death. I have met young men and women who are consumed by the loss of a grandparent they never knew, because his disappearance has loomed over their families for decades.
For these M.I.A. families, there can be no real closure without a credible search for answers. Conducting that search, and providing those answers, falls to JPAC alone. Although the unit is military in nature, its mission is humanitarian — and has less to do with war, per se, than its lasting psychic toll.
I once sat in the living room of a man whose father’s remains had recently been discovered by JPAC. Unit commanders had not yet informed him, and did not plan to for several months, but I felt no obligation to keep the facts secret. When I explained that a discrete collection of bones had been uncovered with his father’s dog tags, tears streamed down his face and he smiled with relief. The news eliminated any hope that his father might have survived, but it also freed him from the painful duty to keep that hope alive. When he caught his breath, he asked, “Why am I the lucky one?” The answer was JPAC.
Wil S. Hylton, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, is the author of the forthcoming book “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.