Farewell to the Unknown Soldier

Only one soldier was listed as missing in action from the entire first Gulf War. How can that be?

U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher.
U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher

Marines discovered the remains over the weekend of a Navy pilot whose plane was shot down in 1991, during the first Gulf War. According to the New York Times, the pilot was the only American listed as missing in action from that war. Only one missing soldier? Don’t our troops go MIA anymore?

Yes, but the numbers for both Iraq conflicts are nothing like those from previous wars. Seven Americans were listed as MIA at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, and since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 12 military personnel have been on the missing or captured list at one time or another. (Only one soldier, Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, is still missing.) By contrast, the United States listed about 1,350 Americans as either MIA or prisoners of war after Vietnam, 8,177 after Korea, and 78,750 after World War II.

The radical decline in missing service personnel is in part a matter of scale. Some battles in the Second World War involved tens of thousands of soldiers, and identifying remains wasn’t a top priority for survivors. As a result, many of those who had almost certainly been killed while fighting were technically unaccounted for. During the Korean War, when casualty rates were quite high—there were nearly 34,000 deaths in battle—it’s estimated that 2,000 soldiers were buried in the Demilitarized Zone without prior identification. In Iraq, deaths are relatively few and far between, so much more attention can be given to properly identifying, and then accounting for, fallen soldiers.

The MIA variance is also the result of tactical differences. A large majority (about 80 percent) of those who went missing during Vietnam were pilots shot down over North Vietnam and Laos, where it was impossible to confirm deaths or recover remains. In Iraq, there is no equivalent “enemy territory”: The entire country is occupied, and there are no large swaths of land off-limits to ground troops. Likewise, whereas the North Vietnamese controlled enough territory to set up POW camps for survivors, the Iraqi insurgency is more fractured and could not build such facilities without attracting notice.

Also, tracking technology is far more advanced now than it was during previous conflicts. In Vietnam, operation centers kept tabs of unit locations through radio and often jotted down the data on a clipboard. Today, operation centers are more like the Counter Terrorist Unit headquarters as depicted on 24. With GPS and computers to aggregate data, liaison officers have a far more precise idea of what’s going on where, and to whom.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bruce Franklin of Rutgers University and Robert Lyon of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Thanks also to reader Duane Cooper for asking the question.