The Phantom Menace

Are American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia?

Moreover, the majority of Vietnam War-era MIA cases involved U.S. pilots known to have been shot down over the South China Sea or whose planes disappeared over the jungles of Laos, Cambodia or North Vietnam. "They were lost over triple-canopy rain forest or the limestone mountains of Laos," said Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, who wrote about the POW-MIA phenomenon in his 1992 book, M.I.A., or Myth-Making in America.

As Franklin points out, the fate of at least some of those MIAs can be deduced through the following hypothetical scenario: if a plane carrying six people explodes in midair and eyewitnesses see only one parachute, all six crewmen must be listed as MIA, as opposed to KIA (killed in action), until the identity of the single survivor can be ascertained.

If that survivor is never located or if his remains are never identified, then the plane's entire crew will remain categorized as MIA, despite the fact that there was only one potential survivor. "What do people think happens to a high-speed plane loaded with ordnance that gets hit by a missile?" asked Franklin. "You're not going to find a human body."

Nearly three decades after the end of the Vietnam War—and five years after the U.S. and Vietnam began normalizing relations—not one U.S. prisoner has been found in Southeast Asia. However, a CNN/Time poll earlier this decade found that 64 percent of Americans believe that the Vietnamese are still holding American POWs. A subsequent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll put the figure at 69 percent.

Among many Vietnam veterans, who grapple daily with Veterans Affairs cutbacks, chronic unemployment and homelessness, the numbers are even higher: 84 percent, according to the Time poll. Faith in the existence of POWs—especially among veterans—takes on a tragic dimension considering the fact that tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans are locked behind bars not in Southeast Asia, but within the U.S. prison system.

Of course, a majority of Americans also believe quite fervently in the existence of extraterrestrial spaceships and guardian angels, the physical evidence of which is also notably lacking. Yet the near-religious fervor held by "true believers" in the existence of POWs continues to influence U.S. foreign policy, explaining why such politicians as Sanchez still go to such lengths—like a two-hour jeep ride to a clearing in Cu Chi—to appear dedicated to the cause.

"What we're dealing with is a myth of imprisonment that has much more to do with the alienation and feelings of helplessness in American society than it has to do with Vietnam," explained Franklin. "This has become a Frankenstein's monster. If there were live POWs kept by Vietnam after the war, the U.S. government would have to know about it, given all the interrogation of high-level defectors from Vietnam, our satellite technology and our agents there. So the true believers have quite logically come to the conclusion that a U.S. government conspiracy is afoot to conceal the existence of live POWs."

Maintaining the illusion that Americans are still being held prisoner in Southeast Asia has become especially tricky since 1994, when Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. The country that threw out four successive foreign powers—the Chinese, French, Japanese and Americans—has now been open to Western tourists for more than a decade. More to the point, Vietnam has gone to great lengths to cooperate with U.S. efforts to locate the remains of missing American soldiers.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, 523 American servicemen have already been identified since the end of the war, thanks to cooperative efforts with the Vietnamese government, including projects involving both Vietnamese and Laotian authorities. "We continue to recover remains virtually every month," said Larry Greer, a spokesperson for the Defense Department's POW-Missing Personnel Office, which he said was "in almost daily contact" with the Vietnamese Office of Seeking Missing Persons. Greer added that the Defense Department has already received the written summary of cases Vietnam promised Sanchez it would relinquish. "There was new information on two of the cases that we had no information on, which is going to enable us to pursue those cases," Greer said.

But does the Pentagon believe Hanoi may still be holding on to live American prisoners? "Whenever we get reports relating to live Americans, the investigation of those reports gets the highest priority because there may be lives at stake," responded Greer. "But a detailed investigation of all these reports shows that there is no credible evidence that Americans are being held against their will in Southeast Asia or Korea. Most of these reports, and we're talking about a high 99 percent here, are not firsthand. They are that 'so and so' in another village said that an American used to live in the village. If you're not dealing with firsthand reports, the trails are very difficult to follow."

That's not to say the U.S. government hasn't tried. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Defense Department says it has investigated 21,412 reported live sightings of Americans in Southeast Asia. Many of those sightings were hoaxes, as was one that was accompanied by a grainy black-and-white photograph, purportedly of three American POWs being held at a prison camp in Laos.

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