Lost Souls: The Search for Vietnam's MIA

The segment airs daily on Vietnamese television, after the evening news. “Looking for Fellow Soldiers” it’s called. The announcer, wearing a crisp military uniform, begins by reading a list of names—all Vietnamese soldiers who went missing while fighting in the war against the Americans that officially ended with the Fall of Saigon in 1975—then concludes with a plea asking anyone with information about the possible location of any soldier’s body to please call the contact number on the bottom of the screen.

300,000 Vietnamese soldiers are estimated missing in action from the conflict that the Vietnamese refer to as The American War. For the relatives of these soldiers, the situation is urgent—in the Vietnamese belief system, the soul of the deceased will wander lost in the afterlife until their remains are returned to the family. The anguished search for the missing has been a constant theme in postwar Vietnamese society, but without the resources or the technology for major recovery operations, the effort has been limited mostly to amateur expeditions led by other veterans. Many families have also resorted to hiring psychics to help track down the remains, a practice that has led to several prominent cases of fraud.

In this project, Joseph Babcock writes about the history of the Vietnamese MIA issue, the disparity between funding for American and Vietnamese MIA recovery missions, and the increased urgency as time passes and local families become more and more desperate to find the remains of their loved ones.