The war in Afghanistan ended with zero MIA

When the last US military cargo plane left Afghanistan in August, marking the end of America’s longest war, it also marked a largely ove...


When the last US military cargo plane left Afghanistan in August, marking the end of America’s longest war, it also marked a largely overlooked accomplishment. For the first time in the country’s history, a major conflict ended without the US military leaving any troops behind: no one is missing behind enemy lines, and no anonymous and unidentified bones will be left behind. solemnly buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

It is an astonishing change from previous wars which ended with thousands of soldiers lost forever, their families wondered what had happened to them.

Christopher Vanek, a retired colonel who commanded the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, spent a total of six and a half years deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and participated in a number of high profile search and rescue operations. He said rescues had become the priority. Even for low-ranking troops with little strategic importance, he said, the military spared no effort in locating the missing.

When two navy sailors were reported missing in 2010 in Logar province, south of Kabul, “all combat operations were abruptly stopped,” Vanek recalled. “We had 150 planes trying to find them. We put special operations in dangerous situations. We have refocused all of our efforts, from fighting and killing against Al Qaeda, to retrieving these men. “

The bodies of the two sailors were located and recovered several days later.

There are several reasons why no one was left behind this time around. In Afghanistan, the fighting smoldered more often than it ignited, and it lacked the full-scale chaos that has led to many casualties in the past. Modern DNA analysis can identify any military person from a sample of a few bone fragments. And unlike the jungles of Vietnam or the rugged beaches of Tarawa Atoll, it was just as difficult to lose sight of a comrade in the dry, open terrain of Afghanistan.

But the determining factor, experts say, is a military culture that has changed dramatically since conscription ended in the 1970s. This culture now makes the recovery of troops – dead or alive – one of the top priorities of the military. the army.

“It has become almost a sacred commitment of the nation to those who serve,” Mr. Vanek said. “It’s hard to overstate the amount of resources that have been committed to finding someone who has been lost.”

The mission to save sailors from the Navy in 2010, for example, was a repeat of the massive rush a year earlier after Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier, left his post and was captured by the taliban.

A number of soldiers were wounded looking for and trying to rescue Private Bergdahl. Mr Vanek said he asked the then commanding general if the cost of the effort to save a soldier was too high. He remembers the general telling him, “It is important that every serviceman here knows that the country will do everything in its power to ensure that it is never left on the battlefield.

Sending this message comes at real costs, which are largely borne by the military’s most elite special operations forces, who have been called upon repeatedly for hostage rescues and body recoveries. at high risk.

“Direct rescues are hard as hell because the enemy holds all the cards,” said Jimmy Hatch, who was part of the Navy’s premier hostage rescue group, SEAL Team Six, when he attempted to save Private Bergdahl in 2009. “You have to get close, and you have to be quick, because the enemy could kill the hostage.

This mission did not find Private Bergdahl – he was not recovered until five years later, in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. But that ended Mr. Hatch’s career. He was shot dead during the raid, underwent 18 operations to reconstruct a broken femur, and battled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Still, he said, trying to save the privacy was the right thing to do. When asked why, he paused and then simply said, “We are Americans. “

This thinking is a turnaround from how the United States once viewed the loss or capture of troops on the battlefield. For generations, they have been viewed as an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of war. In many cases, little has been done to save prisoners or return the dead to their families.

During the civil war, thousands of prisoners of war languished for years in dismal camps, where many died of malnutrition or disease. Soldiers who fell on the battlefield often died an anonymous death. Of those buried in military cemeteries, almost half are listed as “unknown”.

After this war, the task of sorting out the missing was taken over not by the War Department but by a single nurse, Clara Barton, who opened a private practice. Office of Missing Soldiers who identified more than 20,000 soldiers who disappeared between 1865 and 1867.

During World War I, all American troops were required to wear “dog tags” bearing their names, but troops killed in open ground were often left where they fell. “There isn’t much you can do about them” a private said at the time. “In most attacks, if they were killed, they just had to lie there until they disappeared in the mud. “

To this day, their bones are still occasionally found in farmers’ fields.

After this war, the United States consecrated the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery to honor thousands of lost people, and the military instituted new practices to better recover and identify combat casualties. But each new improvement was overwhelmed by the chaos of the next war.

WWII is gone 79,000 Americans missing in action. The Korean War, 8,000 more. Vietnam, 2,500 more. In Korea and Vietnam, rescue efforts were few and many American troops perished in prison, facing torture and other hardships.

After Vietnam, however, the nation’s attitude began to change, according to Mark Stephensen, whose father was a fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967.

Mr Stephensen was 12 when his father’s plane crashed, and his family received little information. Desperate for a resolution, the family banded together with others to form the National League of POW / MIA Families, lobbying politicians and generals buttoning up the halls of the Capitol to demand action. Over time, they have made their cause a essential bipartite question.

“Before that, people missing in action were not a priority,” said Stephensen, who is now vice-chairman of the group. “The Pentagon was a heavy bureaucracy with a lot of process and no results. But they soon realized that IAM was a handicap. Some generals would rather face a hail of bullets rather than the wrath of the league.

President Ronald Reagan became a vocal supporter and flew the black and white flag of the organization above the White House. Sympathetic politicians have finally made accounting for the missing a requirement for any normalization of relations with Vietnam.

The remains of Mr. Stephensen’s father were returned in 1988.

Credit…via Mark Stephensen

The families of missing soldiers remained a powerful political force, pushing for better science, more resources, and larger budgets for recovery efforts. The federal government spent $ 160 million in 2020 to recover and identify lost war dead.

The change also came from within the military, said Leonard Wong, a retired Army War College researcher who studied the increasing importance that the military is focusing on leaving no one behind.

When the military became a fully voluntary force in the 1970s, he said, conventional troops adopted many of the professional values ​​of elite forces like Green Berets, including a line of the Ranger Creed. : “I will never leave a fallen comrade. fall into the hands of the enemy.

“Instead of conscripts, soldiers became a profession, with professional standards,” Wong said. “Leaving no one behind has become what professionals do. “

He said the type of war that US troops have encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan has only strengthened that resolve. The general strategies of the generals often seemed confused to the base, and many troops wondered if they were doing any good.

“In these cases, leaving no man behind can substitute for a clear and useful mission,” Wong said. “In a morally ambiguous war, this becomes the only real mission anyone can agree on.”

He pointed out that almost all of the medals of honor awarded since 2001 have not been for achieving a tactical feat, but for risking life and physical integrity to save others.

Even so, Mr Hatch, the former operator of SEAL Team Six, warned that it would be a mistake for the military to congratulate themselves on bringing everyone home. Mr. Hatch, who is now a student at Yale University, said he struggled for years with the psychological fallout of war and knows many who have also felt trapped by their combat experiences.

“After I got home, there were a few 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 shattered and who will never be released. I would say they are still missing in action – they are prisoners of war. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: The war in Afghanistan ended with zero MIA
The war in Afghanistan ended with zero MIA
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