After two decades of war, no American soldiers were missing in action, marking a major shift in military priorities.
When the last US military cargo jet took off from Afghanistan in August, marking the end of the United States’ longest war, it also signaled a largely overlooked achievement. For the first time in the nation’s history, a major conflict was ending without the US military leaving any soldiers: no one was missing in action behind enemy lines, and no unidentified, unidentified bones were cremated in the Tomb of the Unknown. was not interfered with.
It’s a surprising change from previous wars that ended with thousands of soldiers lost forever, their families left wondering what had happened to them.
Christopher Vanek, a retired colonel who commanded the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, spent six and a half years posted jointly in Iraq or Afghanistan, and participated in several high-profile search-and-rescue operations. He said rescue has become a priority. He said that even for the soldiers of less strategic importance, the army left no stone unturned in finding the missing.
When two navy sailors Missing in 2010 in Logar province, south of Kabul, “all combat operations came to a screeching halt,” Mr Vanek recalled. “We had 150 aircraft working trying to find him. We employ special ops in some dangerous situations. We refocused our entire effort from fighting and killing Al Qaeda to bringing these people back.”
The bodies of both sailors were recovered several days later.
There are many reasons why no one was left behind this time. In Afghanistan, fighting erupted more often than it used to, and largely lacked the chaos that has caused many losses in the past. Modern DNA analysis can identify any service member from a sample of a few pieces of bone. And unlike the jungles of Vietnam or the surf-pounded beaches of Tarawa Atoll, it was comparatively difficult to lose sight of a comrade in the arid, open terrain of Afghanistan.
But the driving factor, experts say, is a military culture that has changed significantly since the draft ended in the 1970s. That culture now makes the recovery of soldiers – dead or alive – one of the military’s top priorities.
“It has been seen as an almost sacred commitment on the part of the nation to those who serve,” Mr Vanek said. “It is difficult to overestimate the amount of resources committed to searching for someone who is lost.”
For example, the mission to rescue Navy sailors in 2010 was a repeat of the massive devastation of a year earlier, after Bowe Bergdahl, an Army privateer, walked away from his post and was captured by the Taliban. .
Several soldiers were injured while trying to try and save private Bergdahl. Mr Vanek said he had asked the commanding general at the time whether the cost of attempting to save a private was too high. “It is important that every service member here knows that the country will do anything in its power to ensure that they are never left on the battlefield,” he remembered the general.
Sending that message comes with real costs, heavily borne by the Army’s most elite special operations forces, who were repeatedly tapped for high-risk hostage rescue and body recovery.
Jimmy Hatch, who was part of SEAL Team Six, the Navy’s premier hostage rescue group, tried to rescue Private Bergdahl in 2009, saying, “Straight rescue is hard as hell because the enemy has all the cards.” Closer, and you have to be fast, because the enemy can kill the hostage. “
That mission did not find the private Bergdahl – he was not recovered until five years later, in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. But it ended Mr Hatch’s career. He was shot during the raid, underwent 18 operations to rebuild a broken femur, and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Still, he said, trying to save Private was the right thing to do. When asked why, he paused, then simply said, “We are Americans.”
This thinking almost faces the way the United States once considered the loss or capture of troops on the battlefield. For generations, they were seen as an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of war. In many cases, little effort was made to rescue those captured or to return the dead to their families.
During the Civil War, thousands of prisoners of war lived in hopeless camps for years, where many died of malnutrition or disease. Soldiers who fell on the battlefield often died an anonymous death. About half of those buried in military cemeteries are listed as “unknown”.
After that war, it was not the War Department but a nurse, Clara Barton, who opened a private hospital. missing soldier office It identified more than 20,000 missing soldiers between 1865 and 1867.
In World War I, all American soldiers were required to wear “dog tags” with their names on them, but soldiers killed in open ground were often left where they fell. “There’s not much you can do about them,” a personal said at that time. “In most attacks, if they were killed, they had to lie there until they disappeared in the mud.”
Even today their bones are sometimes found in farmers’ fields.
After that war, the United States dedicated tomb of the unknown Arlington National Cemetery to honor the thousands lost, and the military established new practices to identify and better recover battle casualties. But each new reform was overwhelmed by the chaos of the next war.
World War II left 79,000 US unaccounted for. Korean War, another 8,000. Vietnam, 2,500 more. In Korea and Vietnam, rescue efforts were few and many American soldiers were wasted in prison, suffering torture and other hardships.
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After Vietnam, however, the country’s attitude began to change, according to Mark Stephenson, whose father was a fighter pilot, who was shot down in North Vietnam in 1967.
Mr. Stephenson was 12 when his father’s jet crashed, and little information was given to his family. Desperate for resolution, the family joined with others to form the National League of POW/MIA Families, lobbying politicians and buttonholing generals in the halls of the Capitol to demand action. Over time, he made his cause a bipartisan issue with essential support.
“Previously, those who were missing in action were not a priority,” said Mr. Stephenson, who is now the group’s vice president. “The Pentagon was a difficult bureaucracy with lots of processes and no results. But they soon realized that the MIA was a liability. Few generals would rather face a barrage of bullets than the wrath of the League.”
President Ronald Reagan became a vocal supporter and flew black and white flag of the organization Above the White House. Sympathetic politicians eventually followed suit, accounting for the disappearance of a necessity for any normalization of relations with Vietnam.
The remains of Mr. Stephenson’s father were returned in 1988.
The families of missing soldiers remain a powerful political force, pushing for better science, more resources and bigger budgets for recovery efforts. The federal government spent $160 million in 2020 on recovering and identifying lost war casualties.
Change came from within the military as well, said Leonard Wong, a retired Army War College researcher. growing importance studied So that the army does not leave anyone behind.
When the military became an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, he said, traditional soldiers adopted many of the professional values of elite forces such as the Green Berets, including a line from Ranger Creed: “I’m a fallen comrade. I will never leave it to fall in the hands of the enemy.
“Instead of deputations, soldiers became a profession with professional standards,” Wong said. “Looking at what the pros do, leaving no one behind.”
He said the kind of wars American troops faced in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced that resolve. The generals’ broad strategies often appeared to be entangled in the rank and file, and many soldiers questioned whether they were doing any good.
“In those cases, leaving no one behind can serve as a replacement for a clear, meaningful mission,” Wong said. “In a morally ambiguous war, it becomes a true mission that everyone can agree on.”
He said that almost all the medals of honor awarded since 2001 are not for achieving any tactical achievement, but for risking life and limb to save others.
Still, Mr. Hatch, a former SEAL Team Six operator, cautioned that it would be a mistake for the military to congratulate itself on bringing everyone home. Mr Hatch, who is Now a student at Yale University, said he struggled for years with the psychological consequences of the war, and has known many people who felt trapped by their war experiences.
“After I came home, there were some years of my life where I was definitely a captive,” he said. “I needed a hostage rescue from my own living room. I know people whose lives are ruined, and who will never be released. I would argue that they are still missing in action – they are prisoners of war.” Huh.”