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An anthropologist offers compelling context for ongoing efforts to repatriate service members killed in Vietnam

What Remains: Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War

Sarah E. Wagner
Harvard University Press
304 pp.
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Since the U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan began in the early 2000s, there have been no unidentified war dead. The number of missing-in-action and unrecovered killed-in-action U.S. service members from the recent conflicts in the Middle East is also incredibly low—only three defense contractors captured in Iraq have not been recovered. Yet the idea of the “unknown soldier” continues to resonate strongly and is a perennial subject of Hollywood movies and popular history.

Every year, the U.S. Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Accounting Agency spends $130 million, nearly 70% of which is allocated to operations in Southeast Asia. Why does the United States spend considerable amounts of money and effort to identify and repatriate the remains of service members killed in action during overseas wars? Sarah Wagner’s book What Remains offers a compelling and thoughtful answer.

Wagner is an anthropologist who previously studied the forensic scientific efforts to identify the victims of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In What Remains, she provides an ethnographic window into the many facets of MIA recovery in Vietnam, including the experiences of American families who have had their loved ones repatriated, the work of forensic scientists who recover and identity human remains, and the bureaucratic wrangles of U.S. military personnel in the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Unlike many other previous books on MIA accounting that have focused on the political history of the issue during the Reagan era or that have chronicled a single individual’s efforts to recover a family member in Vietnam, Wagner seeks to understand the social context and meaning of MIA forensic accounting. In her view, forensic science is not merely empirical and objective, it also reflects social values: “The scientific pursuit of locating and naming the unaccounted for reveals the values the United States as a nation holds most dear—a moral commitment to reunite the individual and the homeland,” and a faith in the precision of science.

Because she is an anthropologist, Wagner immerses herself in her object of study. For this book, she visited the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, interviewed MIA families in their hometowns, and took part in a recovery mission in Vietnam, which required trekking “into the chaotic mess of vines and branches, slippery rocks and wet leaves.” During the mission, she watched as the forensic investigators and their local Vietnamese counterparts dug and sifted through the earth, uncovering a variety of unexploded munitions and eventually finding a human tooth. “On the surface,” Wagner notes, “teeth are not something we typically associate with someone’s individual identity, at least not in an era in which DNA, our genetic ‘fingerprint,’ dominates understandings of unique biological markers.” Yet in this particular recovery mission, a tooth eventually led to the identification of a soldier who had died 40 years earlier in a helicopter crash.

At every turn, Wagner’s book is thoughtful and objective, and it seeks to understand the deeper context in which forensic science takes place. In chapter 3, for example, she explores the recent public criticism of the U.S. military’s MIA accounting effort, which centered on poor leadership, outdated science, and the paucity of results. News reports painted a grim portrait of the forensic lab’s outdated scientific methods and its resistance to forensic genetics. The director was forced to step down, and in 2014, congressional and public pressure to increase the number of MIA identifications led to the restructuring of the military’s MIA accounting mission.

As Wagner points out, however, critics of the mission not only lacked any real understanding of forensic science but also represented just the most recent iteration of the long-held “skepticism regarding the federal government’s commitment to fulfill its obligation to missing war dead.” Criticism of the forensic scientific component of MIA accounting reflects 21st-century ideals about the U.S. military. An era of agile and precise warfare should be matched, many believe, by cutting-edge forensic science. However, as Wagner notes, “a militarism championing precision and efficacy left little room for the messy reality of war’s destruction.”

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, Naval War College, Newport, RI 02841, USA, and is the author of Military Anthropology (Oxford University Press, 2018).