- The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia
American military operations in Southeast Asia produced relatively few missing U.S. servicemen; the United States has nonetheless undertaken an extraordinary effort to account for its Vietnam War losses. In The Remains of War, political scientist Thomas Hawley relates this paradox to the country's ongoing struggle to understand the divisive conflict. Although the United States labored to find missing soldiers before Vietnam, Hawley shows [End Page 563] that the contemporary preoccupation with bodies began during the mid-1960s. Rather than territory occupied, the U.S. military's "body count" became the key measure of progress during the unconventional campaign in Vietnam. At the same time, wartime reporting practices described an unusually high percentage of U.S. casualties as "missing-in-action," with a host of attendant consequences. Then, the Richard Nixon administration tried to bolster public support for the war by dramatizing the ordeal of American prisoners of war. Senior government officials talked openly about winning the release of 1,500 captive U.S. servicemen. When only 591 American prisoners returned in 1973, critics accused the government of abandoning living servicemen. The search for lost Americans, Hawley writes, has since played an important part in the country's attempt to explain the Vietnam experience. He asserts that associated Department of Defense operations therefore involve more than finding missing soldiers. The recovery missions resolve lingering ambiguities, rebuild American masculinity (damaged in defeat), and restore confidence in national institutions.
Employing a postmodern approach to history, Hawley concentrates on showing how Americans construct truth. The Vietnam War, he argues, is not a fixed experience. Instead, its place in history is still being created through activities like the search for lost servicemen. Readers looking for a comprehensive treatment of the recovery, identification, and repatriation of the Vietnam War dead may therefore be disappointed. This innovative study, however, combines an original theoretical framework with a striking appreciation for complexity. Throughout, Hawley offers intelligent and provocative insights. The author contends that accounting work is most important because it promotes American exceptionalism; resolving the status of an individual serviceman matters less than making Americans feel better about the war; the government's assertion that the recovery of human remains is a "humanitarian" enterprise ignores the mission's political dimension; search and recovery operations too frequently inhibit the reconciliation they are designed to promote. Yet parts of this book are troublesome. Despite making good use of secondary literature and congressional records, the author ignores important archival sources. Hawley might have used the Nixon Presidential Materials and other manuscript collections to test his analytical conclusions. Also, his portrait of contemporary recovery and identification work, based on official sources, is extremely generous; in fact, current U.S. government exertions are neither orderly nor always professional. And, occasionally, Hawley drifts into dense theoretical digressions that distract from the expressed purpose of the book. But these shortcomings do not undermine the author's overall contribution. The Remains of War is a valuable addition to the growing literature on the American accounting effort. Its conclusions will influence related scholarship for the foreseeable future.