Unearthing Unknowns

The Forensic Practice and Memory Politics of Korean War Disinterments

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Author:
Sarah WagnerProfessor of Anthropology, George Washington University, USA sewagner@email.gwu.edu

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Abstract

Over 7,500 American service members are unaccounted for from the Korean War, a legacy of the so-called forgotten war of the past century. But shifting political winds surrounding the US government's care for war dead have breathed new life into the fading memory of these particular unnamed. Through the development of a systematic disinterment programme aimed at meeting congressional goals for the US military's Missing In Action (MIA) accounting mission, the absent war dead from the Korean peninsula have ignited new debates over obligations to these missing combatants and their surviving kin. This article examines both the evolving forensic practice of the MIA accounting efforts as well as the bureaucratic attention now trained on the heretofore ‘forgotten’ missing. The commemorative and scientific interventions into the legacy of this past conflict reveal how the reappeared and returned dead become conscripted into projects of strategic national remembrance.

Dans l'héritage de ce que l'on appelle la guerre oubliée du siècle dernier, il y a 7 500 militaires américains de la guerre de Corée portés disparus. Mais l'évolution de la politique du gouvernement américain en matière de soins aux morts de la guerre a donné un nouveau souffle à la mémoire de ces inconnus. Grâce au développement d'un programme d'exhumation systématique visant à atteindre les objectifs du Congrès en matière de comptabilisation des personnes disparues au combat (MIA) par l'armée américaine, les morts de guerre absents de la péninsule coréenne ont suscité de nouveaux débats sur les obligations envers ces combattants disparus et leurs parents survivants. Cet article examine à la fois l'évolution de la pratique médico-légale des efforts de comptabilisation des MIA et l'attention bureaucratique désormais portée aux disparus jusqu'alors « oubliés ». Les interventions commémoratives et scientifiques sur l'héritage de ce conflit passé révèlent comment les morts réapparus et revenus au pays sont enrôlés dans des projets de commémoration nationale stratégique.

‘Camp Pendleton Marine MIA More Than 60 Years Identified’ – KPBS, San Diego, October 2, 2012

DPAA Press Release: The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Korean War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Marine Pfc. Richard S. Gzik, 19, of Toledo, Ohio, will be buried Sept. 28, at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

In 2012, analysts from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) re-examined the case records and determined that advances in technology could likely aid in the identification of the unknown remains as Gzik. Once the remains were exhumed, scientists from JPAC used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, including dental records and radiographs, to validate Gzik's identification.1

I first encountered Private First Class Richard Gzik as a set of nameless remains. Pulled from the earth and extracted from his coffin, he was one of the hundreds of unknown service members whose identity had eluded US military mortuary officials, forensic scientists and historical analysts since the end of Korean War. At the time of his disinterment in 2012, no one at the Defense Department's forensic laboratory on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam knew his name – or at least that his name belonged to those remains. He had, however, been a prime candidate for consideration. Culled from personnel files, historical and mortuary records, his name had appeared on a list of potential unidentified fallen whose circumstances of death and burial aligned with the unknown associated with the coffin interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (also known as the Punchbowl) in Honolulu. The files indicated that PFC Richard Gzik had been killed during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, a brutal 17-day campaign fought between Chinese and United Nation (US and South Korean) forces in the frigid winter conditions and rugged terrain of North Korea;2 that his body had been hastily buried in the frozen earth alongside the road; and that it was likely among those remains subsequently dug up, shipped to Japan for examination, and later transported to Hawaii for reburial in a military cemetery. There, for almost six decades, an unnamed, unidentified PFC Gzik rested beneath a simple gravestone, declaring him, ‘U.S. UNKNOWN KOREA’. Until, that is, contemporary demands for recognising national sacrifice resurfaced his memory and his material remains.

Gzik's case was one of the few Korean War unknowns I followed while conducting ethnographic research at the US military forensic laboratory from 2011 to 2018. I witnessed the disinterment of his coffin from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and helped disentangled his bones from the protective cotton batting and wool blanket inside. I washed debris from their surface and helped lay them out on the examination table. But it wasn't until several months later that I learned of his official identification. Invited by the historian who had worked on the case and had got to know the surviving family, I attended Gzik's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on 28 September 2012. It was a beautiful autumn day and a moving ceremony. Yet, amid the polish and precision of the military funeral, I couldn't help but think how much the customary rites – rifle salutes and folded flag – masked the highly unusual circumstances of the burial, the fact that Richard Gzik had been buried three times since his death. Repeatedly unsettled and resettled, the movement of his remains was a testament to a nationalist project pursuing the aims of an enduring war through the memory of its tolls – that is, to the political complexities of knowledge production, forensic practice and memory work that underwrite notions of valour and virtue in military death and thus a commitment to the military itself.

Forensic Care and War Dead Memory Politics

Dead body politics, as Katherine Verdery (1999) so eloquently demonstrated, are a fecund source for consolidating and contesting national memory and state authority. Expanding on this point, over the past two decades anthropological studies of exhumations, mass graves and missing persons have focused primarily on forensic modes of intervention in instances of human rights abuses, state-sponsored violence (e.g. Rojas-Perez 2017; Rosenblatt 2015; Ferrándiz and Robben 2015; Ferrándiz 2013; Crossland 2013; Wagner 2008; Sant Cassia 2005) and, more recently, on regimes of necropolitical exclusion that disappear the often already socio-politically invisible as they seek to cross borders in search of security (e.g. De León 2015; Reineke 2019; Zagaria 2019). The ‘forensic turn’ (Dziuban 2017; Anstett and Dreyfus 2015) has thus tracked the intersecting spheres of knowledge production at sites of conflict largely from the vantage point of victims and their forensic intercessors. Yet state-driven and state-funded forensic scientific efforts aimed at recovering military missing and unidentified war dead shed light on how the bodies and memories of combatants persevere as powerful conscripts to the nation long after arms are laid to rest.

With the First World War field recovery and graves registration operations as precedents (e.g. Winter 1995; Budreau 2010), armed conflicts of the past century have spawned multiple national bureaucracies for the forensic scientific identification of missing combatants, including, among them, Australia (Renshaw 2018; Scully 2014), the United States (Wagner 2019; Hawley 2005), Vietnam (Ngo 2021), Israel (Weiss 2002), Argentina (Panizo 2021) and South Korea. To varying degrees, these states seek to ‘care’ for their war dead through the specific acts of recovery and naming, the latter often driven by forensic genetics. Care in this sense entails a physical, operational response (‘care work’), a form of ethical engagement and, especially explicit in the case of military war dead, an assertion of political value.3 Post-mortem care of combatant remains in turn enables spectacles of reclamation – from ceremonial reburials with all the attendant military ritual to repatriation and individuated homecoming – that remind contemporary publics of past sacrifice on behalf of the nation. Through the identified remains of fallen service members, states cultivate an ethic of remembering one's own (Nguyen 2016: 23–46), making them ‘ciphers of memory’ (Laqueur 2011: 800) and underscoring obligations between civilian and military populations along the way. Recovered and reclaimed, these remains become ‘powerful symbols to rehabilitate or reanimate the memory of past wars for present and future use’ (Wagner 2019: 12).

With arguably the most extensive and robustly funded military bureaucracy of forensic care among countries that seek to recover and repatriate war dead remains, the United States’ efforts to account for its Missing In Action (MIA) present a particularly striking example of state power projected through the bodies of its fallen.4 Its mandate encompasses the major conflicts of the past century, as the US Department of Defense seeks the ‘fullest possible accounting’ for over 81,700 service members unrecovered or unidentified from the Second World War, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf Wars. Against the backdrop of this national enterprise of repatriation and identification, in this article, I examine the practice of disinterring American service members killed in the Korean War, whose unidentified remains were originally buried as ‘unknowns’ in the years immediately following the armed conflict.5 The story of their unearthing and attempts to identify them help illustrate the purposeful conscription of the dead into US national memory work. While constituting only a small fraction (approximately one-tenth) of the over 8,000 US service members originally unaccounted for from the international conflict on the Korean peninsula, these unknowns nevertheless have become increasingly vital players in the US military's narrative of ‘exceptional care’ – that is, the narrative that the Department of Defense spares no expense to return its missing war dead from foreign soil, performing its dedication to the fallen through its archival, operational and, above all, scientific capacity (Wagner 2019). Unlike the approximately 5,200 US service member remains yet-unrecovered from North Korean territory, which ‘[l]ike nuclear weapons and military provocations . . . have also been entangled in the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea's] attempt to establish reciprocal relations with the United States’, the memory work of disinterred unknowns targets a more domestic audience (Liu 2020: 36).6 ‘Material evidence’ of American loss but also forensic scientific ingenuity, the identified remains of these unearthed unknowns recall for the American public sacrifices made during a ‘forgotten war’ waged to resist and control Communism.7

The systematic disinterment of unknowns is a relatively new addition to the US military's accounting mission, which historically has depended on remains accessioned through its recovery missions or unilateral turnovers by third parties, including former enemy states such as Vietnam and North Korea. Having already been ‘repatriated’ to US soil in the 1950s (i.e. to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on Oahu, Hawai'i), beginning in the 2000s, the Korean War unknowns presented an untapped source of unaccounted-for remains – unidentifiable by 1950s standards but less so now because of late-twentieth-century advances in forensic sciences. Thus, formally codified by the Department of Defense in April 2015, the policy of unearthing coffins and attempting to identify their contents fit within a larger initiative to maximise capacity and accelerate forensic outputs (i.e. annual identifications) in the name of honouring military sacrifice. Unknowns soon gained new valence and urgency in their potential to enlist Korean War families and communities in long-delayed but much celebrated acts of national remembrance. In their example, we see how closely managing the corpse – part of governing the dead (Stepputat 2014; Vu 2021) – is tied to managing memory.

Disturbing the Unknown

The first set of Korean War disinterments I witnessed took place in spring 2011, before the formal programme had been established. As an early foray into a decade-long ethnographic and archival study of the US military's efforts to recover and identify unaccounted-for service members missing and presumed dead from the major conflicts of the twentieth century, I arrived to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, located at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Oahu, Hawai'i, to conduct fieldwork at the US military's forensic anthropology laboratory.8 Shadowing forensic scientists, attending routine briefings and ceremonial events, poring over case files, and meeting MIA families and service casualty officers visiting the lab, I sought to understand the interwoven strands of scientific knowledge production and the ‘ideological management’ of the intangible (Lindee 1998: 408). Both were on display with the Korean War unknowns.

The year 2011 was still relatively early days for the disinterment programme: not yet formally institutionalised practice, the disinterments took place irregularly, as internal battles within the Department of Defense (and especially among the service branches) were ongoing about the necessity and propriety of digging up remains that had been at rest in the ‘hallowed’ ground of national cemeteries for over a half-century. On two occasions that spring, I stood nearby as cemetery staff hauled up rusted coffins and rested them on the neatly trimmed lawn of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and as honour guard details covered them with American flags, preparing them for transport to the laboratory on base. Later, I looked on as the corroded containers rested on makeshift stands in the loading area behind the main laboratory building. They stood bare, the flags that had covered them already removed. Time and the elements had done their work: the coffins were extremely difficult to open. The lab staff tasked with prying apart the rusted structures worked in pairs, one wedging a crowbar against the bolt at the lip of the coffin, the other slamming a small sledgehammer against the crowbar's blunt end. The force of each blow – as much power as the one could deliver with the swing of his hammer – seemed to reverberate up the arm of his partner. One inch in the wrong direction, one missed blow, and an arm would be shattered. The teams worked slowly and precisely. Two or three swings and with a spray of rusty flakes the bolt would pop off, and they would move on to the next, six in total. Once through, the lab's evidence coordinator would step in with a screwdriver, wedging it between the coffin's lid and base until gradually he jimmied the two apart. Such was the indecorous first step in identifying the unknowns. In fact, I learned later that among the lab staff there had been some debate about how best to open the coffins. At issue wasn't efficiency or protection of the remains per se. The question was about respect: how to open them in as dignified manner as possible. Some staff were dismayed by the rudimentary tools and rough methods. For all the solemnity and pageantry that surround US military burials, the violence visited upon these coffins encapsulated an upended order at hand. And yet it made sense.

Disinterments are inherently disruptive. As a physical act, they re-break ground and disturb soil, piercing sepulchral seals of stone, wood, metal or cloth. Often the interruption is more than physical, as sacralised space and ritual order are unsettled, thrown into disarray, when remains return from the depths of a grave to the light of day. For some, disinterring means disturbing the dead themselves. Disinterment also entails a revisiting of the past, as bones are rarely removed from their original burial place without compelling reason – that is, without some need to reconsider the dead and their social significance in the present, whether through acts of reclamation, reconciliation or renewed disposal (Willis 2018: 553).

Among US military dead, unknowns have traditionally occupied a vaunted station within the national imaginary in that they themselves represent a disturbance to the expected order of war dead care: to be unknown represents the ultimate sacrifice to the nation, denied the specificity of individual memorialisation – part of what historian Thomas Laqueur terms ‘necronominalism’ or ‘the precise counting and marking of the dead’ that emerged in the nineteenth century and took firm root in the wake of the First World War (2015: 414, 417). Thus, to ‘“feel the force” of nationalism's modernity’, as Benedict Anderson has argued, ‘one has only to imagine the general reaction to the busybody who “discovered” the Unknown Soldier's name or insisted on filling the cenotaph with some real bones. Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind!’ (2006 [1983]: 9).9 And yet this ‘sacrilege’ is precisely what the US programme of disinterment purposefully courted: a new, potentially rich vein of national belonging to tap with the exhumed and identified unknowns of the past century's major conflicts – both the Second World War and the Korean War.

Why pull these unknowns out of the ground, removing them from national cemeteries such as the Punchbowl? Though disinterments took place on an ad hoc basis from the 1980s and a more formalised programme emerged in 2009, the majority of the exhumations occurred at the behest of activists and MIA families insisting the US military pursue individual cases (Liu 2020: 453–456). In 2011, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command established the Korean War Identification Project to address the yet-unidentified remains repatriated from both the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), as well as the disinterments from the Punchbowl. By 2012, as Zhaokun Liu notes, added incentive arose in response to stagnated US–Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DRPK) collaboration: the US formally announced that it was suspending negotiations with the North Koreans on the POW/MIA issue. ‘Investigating the bodies at the Punchbowl would demonstrate the military's commitment to accounting for its Korean War missing after the DPRK stopped sending bodies’ (2020: 456). Indeed, given the ‘perpetual North Korean–American discord . . . disinterring and identifying the Korean War unknowns presents an obvious way to address the social demand to send these casualties home to their families’ (Dolski 2016: 160).

The push to exhume and identify unknowns also stemmed from a more domestic pressure – namely, congressional concern in the mid-2000s that the MIA accounting mission needed to become more efficient and productive. In its 2010 defence budget legislation, the US Congress set new ‘goals’ for accounting to increase the annual identification rate from approximately 72 to 200 cases by 2015. With dwindling prospects for field recoveries from Southeast Asia (with the Vietnam War historically the mainstay conflict of the accounting mission), unknowns were the likeliest ‘path to 200’ (Wagner 2019: 213–215). Despite this pressure, it took several years before the Department of Defense began to coordinate efforts with the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a policy with explicit ‘thresholds for the disinterment of remains from any permanent US military cemetery’.10 On 14 April 2015, Pentagon officials issued a much-awaited memorandum regarding the specific task of disinterring remains of unknown service members buried at the Punchbowl, not only Korean War unknowns but also unidentified sailors from the USS Oklahoma struck during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stressing that the Department of Defense had for some time already been considering the ‘complexities’ of the decision, especially concerning the problem of commingled remains within group burials, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work laid out the rationale and necessity to act:

Recent advance in forensic science and technology, as well as family member assistance in providing genealogical information, have now made it possible to make individual identifications for many Service members long-buried in graves marked ‘unknown.’ I therefore direct the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to analyze all information pertaining to unknowns buried [at the Punchbowl] and when thresholds . . . are met, to disinter remains for the purpose of making individual identifications and returning these venerable heroes to their families for the honored burial they so richly deserve.11

Work's language made clear that recovered and individuated, the remains of these ‘venerable heroes’ simultaneously belonged to a family, a community and a nation, and their return offered a means to bind one to the other. At the same time, he also couched the rationale for the disinterment programme in the logic of advancing science and increasingly engaged family advocacy. Unmentioned are the complications of war that rendered the service members unknown in the first place. To appreciate those, we need to look beyond MIA accounting agencies’ contemporary policies and scientific practices to consider the conditions, decisions and states of knowledge (Jasanoff 2004) that characterised US attempts to care for its war dead during and immediately following the Korean War itself.

The Forgotten War and its Mortuary Legacy

The 866 unknowns from the Korean War buried in the Punchbowl arrived to the island of Oahu in the mid-1950s after first being recovered from the Korean peninsula and later repatriated from a US military mortuary facility in Japan (Liu 2020: 181–183; Coleman 2008). They are just one of many legacies of the international conflict that left the peninsula and its peoples divided to this day. Indeed, as Heonik Kwon notes, the Korean War has not ended, either as a political reality or a social experience. He emphasises the war's many different, entangled sites of clash and contestation – between international powers, between postcolonial states and among neighbouring villages in North and South Korea – particularly as they have shaped the memory of surviving families and their care for the dead. Through the untold, often agonising, stories of the Korean War among Korean families of the missing, he demonstrates how ‘the violence of the Korean War induced brutal and enduring effects into the milieu of communal and family relations’ (2020: 3).

On a smaller scale but along a similar timeline, American missing service members have left their mark. Their state of unrecognition persists, compelling surviving families and Korean War veterans over the years to demand more concerted efforts to recover and recall their missing loved ones (Liu 2020). As Rick Downes, president of the Coalition of Korean and Cold War POW/MIA Families, has argued, it has been ‘individual advocacy campaigns that ranted and raved, argued and debated, discussed and agreed upon’ that have forced Pentagon policy decisions such as the 2015 disinterment programme.12 But this insistence on remembrance goes against the cultural grain: that is, against the discourse of national commemoration that has relegated the Korean War – at least within the United States – to the status of the ‘Forgotten War’. It's an unfortunate label for many reasons, among them its myopic view of the conflict in exclusively American terms, which inherently narrows the scope of death and its reckoning, both that of civilians and combatants. Though overshadowed by the alternately triumphant and contentious narratives of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the conflict was hardly unremarkable in its scale of human destruction: an estimated 2.5 million civilians died and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in battle among North Korean, South Korean, Chinese, British and US forces. In addition to the 33,651 killed in action, some 7,500 US service members are still missing from the conflict.

Within the context of these casualties, the Korean War signalled important changes in both the practice of remains repatriation and the geopolitical relations influencing ‘commemorative diplomacy’ (Edwards 2015), including the United States’ expanding role as a global power. Although it was a war waged under the aegis of the United Nations, the United States led the international military intervention on the peninsula and suffered significant casualties. Rather than let its dead be buried permanently where they fell or wait until the battles ceased,13 the US military adopted the practice of ‘concurrent return’ – that is, repatriating remains while the war was still unfolding (Liu 2020: 73–88; Dolski 2016; Coleman 2008). Spurred by public outcry of elitism at the news that the remains of a commanding officer, Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, had been shuttled home for swift burial at Arlington mid-conflict, the new policy was ‘motivated by disastrous public relations, battle conditions, and the lack of clear victories or ground gained’ (McElya 2016: 224). The abrupt departure from procedures during the previous world wars also reflected uncertainties about the conflict's outcome and whether access to US military cemeteries in the Republic of Korea could be guaranteed in the future (Piehler 1995: 155).

To support this policy of ‘concurrent return’, a temporary mortuary facility was set up in Kokura, Japan, where the American Graves Registration Services sought to identify and process remains for repatriation to the United States. When the war eventually ended, the United Nations negotiated ‘Operation Glory’, an enormous undertaking to facilitate the exchange of war dead. Together, the Kokura lab and the post-war exchange signalled deep-seated anxieties over foreign and specifically Asian enemy control of US remains. With the memory of Second World War casualties and prisoners of war in the Pacific theatre, many Americans feared that American remains would be vulnerable to desecration. ‘[R]eluctant to bury their war dead in Asia’, after 1950 the United States ‘would never willingly do so again’ (Allen 2009: 129).

From a forensic perspective, the efforts at Kokura responded to the chaotic conditions of the battlefield at the same time that they reflected the scientific expertise of the era. Of the 4,300 remains recovered through ‘Operation Glory’, the processing technicians in the Central Identification Unit (CIU) of the Kokura lab determined that some 2,900 were those of American service members. While the mortuary staff might be able determine which ‘side’ a set of nameless remains belonged to, there was no guarantee they could determine individual identity. Conditions of disposition and recovery often presented too many obstacles: some of the remains had been buried in temporary cemeteries, or recovered several days or weeks after death, and thus specific information about the condition of exhumations, transport, transfer and, most important of all, provenance was often incomplete, if not tenuous (Dolski 2016: 144–145). In the end, the staff at Kokura were left with 866 sets of remains that they could not identity, and US officials decided to inter them as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

We now know from archival records that processing remains at Kokura was a complicated affair, and the steps taken to examine, treat and identify remains have subsequently affected and, in many cases, hampered contemporary MIA accounting efforts. It is likely that CIU technicians, when dealing with partial and commingled remains, may have ended up exchanging skeletal elements as they attempted to disaggregate and piece together sets of bones. The remains that came through Kokura as unidentified were confounding cases, often the worst of the worst in terms of commingling, incompleteness and fragmentation. Furthermore, while at the lab, the remains also underwent chemical processing; they were treated with a compound containing formaldehyde, and some exposed to radiation (Liu 2020: 163–164, 448). The problematic conditions of the remains and the effects of 1950s mortuary practice thwarted early identification efforts and thus played a significant role in frustrating expectations about what twenty-first century forensic science could (and should) achieve.

Contemporary Practice

Within its contemporary forces, service members’ bodies are read and catalogued by DNA testing from the first days of boot camp. If a service member is killed in action, the military has the biometric data to recognise him or her, no matter how decimated the body. With past conflicts, however, the process is inherently more complicated. From the condition of recovered remains to the limits of science, the US military's expanding mission of MIA accounting has had to adapt to myriad temporal and environmental challenges. The disinterred Korean War unknowns required specific adaptations in post-mortem identification practice in order for the state to fulfil its obligations to the recovered but unnamed fallen. As historian Michael Dolski (2016) argues, that fact raises an interesting paradox surrounding the so-called forgotten war: although the conflict was the least commemorated among the three major wars of the second half of the twentieth century, it has been the catalyst for important innovations in the MIA accounting process. He is referring to the scientific advances developed in response to the Korean War unknowns, and especially those buried at the Punchbowl. Popular cultural imaginaries about forensic science tend to focus on innovations as principally related to forensic genetics – DNA as the ‘gold standard’ and ‘silver bullet’ in determining individual identity, assumed to be lightening quick and one hundred percent accurate (Lynch et al 2008). But the Korean War unknowns offer a counter-example, in which old technologies of knowing and seeing have augmented and at times superseded genetics as the definitive line of forensic evidence.14

Initially, DNA testing disappointed more often than it succeeded with the cases exhumed from the Punchbowl. Of the remains originally processed by the US military's Central Identification Unit at Kokura and disinterred decades later, most failed to yield amplifiable DNA for mitochondrial DNA sequencing. Scientists from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory explained that ‘[s]uspicion fell on mortuary practices that may have been applied to the remains, evidenced by a white powder found with the bones, and general records suggesting the use of formaldehyde-based stablizing agents’ (Koon et al 2008). Mortuary protocol of the 1950s had stymied one of the most powerful tools of twenty-first-century post-mortem identification. In response, the forensic staff at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command developed alternatives – innovations in practice. Beginning in 2009, they expanded their scope of forensic inquiry to include a systematic review of the historical record. Here, notably, they followed the lead not of scientific personnel but of Korean War veteran Ron Broward. Having survived the brutal battles of the Chosin Reservoir – unlike PFC Richard Gzik, one of the few to make it out alive – Broward pledged to himself that he would look for his fellow Marines who perished in North Korea and whose remains were never recovered, those of his best friend included. From 1999 to his death in 2014, Broward spent hundreds of hours combing through military personnel records, archives and historical accounts. He was convinced that it was feasible to come up with a ‘short list’ of possible candidates for individual unknowns buried in the Punchbowl. Guided by Broward's approach, the lab developed a methodical programme of historical analysis (Dolski 2016: 153–154).

This concentration on historical records yielded more than just a system for narrowing and excluding possible unknown candidates. It also gave rise to an innovative application of a decades-old technology: radiographic comparison. In 2008, after years of inquiring into the existence of military-related personnel records, the scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command were contacted by the National Archives and Records Administration. Archive staff were about to destroy an entire cache of Army and Air Force X-rays, including 7,500 X-rays belonging to soldiers or airmen missing from the Korean War. These were chest images used to screen service members for tuberculosis. Although the X-rays were of the lungs, the neck vertebrae and collarbones are also captured in each image. Capitalising on this new data set, the lab commissioned one of its scientists, an expert in facial superimposition imaging and comparison, to devise a means for radiographic comparison of the clavicles – specifically, of the disinterred unknowns against the 7,500 X-ray images.

Coupled with dental records and traditional forensic anthropological examination, the clavicle study proved to be a major breakthrough. Results flowed from the advance. As of July 2022, there have been over 501 disinterments of Korean War unknowns from the Punchbowl, resulting in 161 individual identifications, with more expected as the Department of Defense continues to disinter the remaining unknowns in seven phases over a five to seven-year period (DPAA 2022). While all disinterred remains undergo DNA analysis, until recent advances in sequencing strategies (e.g. next generation sequencers that target chemically modified or highly degraded bone samples), forensic genetics has served as the principal or definitive line of evidence in only a handful of cases. Rather, most of the identifications have derived from a combination of historical analysis, forensic anthropological and odontological data, DNA analysis when viable samples exist, and the clavicle radiographic comparisons – major achievements when one considers the chaotic circumstances of the conflict that produced the unknowns and the damage unwittingly done by earlier mortuary practice, from commingling to degraded DNA.

The slow pace of identifying the disinterred, limits of forensic practice and, more recently delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have also introduced a problem: Korean War unknowns have been exhumed from the Punchbowl but not yet identified. Because of the conditions of the remains, the lack of information surrounding the provenance or reference samples, some may never be. These remains now exist in a liminal state, unable to be recognised by the science and no longer resting in peace in the ‘hallowed grounds’ of the national cemetery. While Department of Defense officials agree such cases will not be stored indefinitely on lab shelves and ideas have been floated for a memorial that could house unidentified remains for future analysis – similar to the 9/11 memorial in New York City (Aronson 2016: 173–200) – for the time being, the remains persist as objects of scientific scrutiny and not yet individuated evidence of American military sacrifice.

Unmet Expectations

Clavicles, X-rays and historical records hardly sound like the stuff of twenty-first-century forensic science, at least not to a public impatient for its results – that is, to the Korean War families, veterans and politicians who advocate on their behalf, some pushing for additional congressional oversight. This raises a final, surprising development in the MIA accounting efforts, one tied to the disconnect between expectation and capacity, and certainty and error. In writing about the Korean War missing, Dolski notes: ‘When expectation and reality do not meet, frustration quickly mounts’ (2016: 151). He is referring to the clash between expectations, particularly among surviving family members of the missing, and the reality of the complex scientific and analytical process of producing an identification. Dolski hints here at the intensifying, emotional reverberations of long-term absence – an urgency felt by many of the Korean War families. With the rare exception, parents of the Korean War dead have gone to their own graves without the much-desired return of their lost sons. The mantle of mourning passes down to the next generation – siblings, spouses, children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren – who likewise struggle to understand the temporal gaps of recovery, burial, disinterment and identification. A newsletter published in 2012 by a Korean War MIA family organisation laments, ‘Family members and eyewitnesses to many missing men's fates are aging. Time has become an issue’.15 The countermanding expectation is that science will defy time, overcome its degrading effects and at last interrupt surviving kin's protracted mourning.

Shortly before the Department of Defense unveiled its official disinterment policy memorandum in 2015, public frustration with the US military's accounting efforts had taken aim at the forensic work of recovery and identification. Where one might imagine science as the protagonist in a narrative of US military technoscientific prowess, the forensic side of accounting became the target, its practitioners pilloried for thwarting progress and denying rightful care for the missing war dead (Wagner 2019: 91–99). The forensic scientific work of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, specifically its Central Identification Laboratory, came under intense public scrutiny, with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in February 2014 ordering the Pentagon to take stock of its entire MIA accounting process and reorganise its entities under one umbrella, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Hagel's call for reform was the predictable outcome of the 2010 congressional mandate to accelerate the accounting process, doubling the annual quota to 200 identifications per year by 2015. Despite the accelerated pace of disinterments, of both the Korean War and Second World War unknowns, the numbers were still hard to reach. Both military and mainstream media picked up the story and ran with its discontents.

One of the critiques that arose both in congressional hearings and the media exposés during this period of heightened scrutiny focused on the process of knowledge production underlying identifications: namely, that attention to exactness – archival, mathematical and scientific – was counterproductive. Accordingly, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and, by extension, the federal government were ‘failing’ the missing because of ‘risk-averse’ scientists insisting on outdated methods and adhering to standard operating procedures and, as some coverage suggested, not performing to the standards of the fictional crime-show laboratories in which DNA testing is performed as both immediate and invariably conclusive. Overlooked in the public debate were the constraints of probability amid a scientific enterprise whose margin of error was set at zero, and the chaotic, destructive nature of war itself. Few if any reports acknowledged the complicated circumstances of recovery from places like the Chosin Reservoir, the high incidence of commingling during and as a consequence of temporary burial on the battlefield, the degrading effects of time and the environment and the limitations of prior forensic scientific practice. Instead, the negative coverage exposed the fault lines between the scientific and analytical work of identification and the American military ethos of ‘fullest possible accounting’. Skimming the surface of forensic practice and expertise, the public debate failed to acknowledge the clash between epistemic cultures (Knorr Cetina 1999) that alternately demanded scientific certainty and yet indicted the forensic process for failing to deliver expected results in a timely manner.

In the wake of the ‘reorganisation’ that gave rise to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and a sleeker public relations campaign, the US military's MIA accounting mission has gradually attracted more favourable headlines, often driven by local media coverage of the Second World War and Korean War identifications, including among them unknown service members disinterred from national cemeteries in the Philippines, Europe and the Punchbowl. In May 2021, the Korean War Identification Project announced one of its most high-profile results to date: the identification of Father Emil Kapaun, a Roman Catholic priest whom President Barack Obama had awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2013, and who is on the path of canonisation for his acts of heroism and ministry during the Battle of Unsan and later as a prisoner of war. Disinterred from the Punchbowl in 2020, his remains were returned to Wichita, Kansas for his funeral, an event livestreamed on 29 September 2021.16 At the close of the service that interlaced the church and the nation, Father Kapaun's casket, with dog tag affixed, was processed out of the chapel by a US Army honor guard marching in unison to the strains of ‘America the Beautiful’. ‘Welcome home, Father. Well done, good and faithful servant’, added a viewer to the chat.

Conclusion

Whether a priest on the pathway to sainthood or a private first class like Richard Gzik, the scores of unknowns who have been disinterred from the Punchbowl follow similar, publicly celebrated paths from states of namelessness to suspected and then confirmed identify. In doing so, they make manifest the memory politics that re-inscribe them into service on behalf of the nation. They carry out symbolic work, even and especially in death. For beyond their recovery's more intimate familial significance, the narrative of scientific exceptionalism embedded in highly publicised homecomings reanimate the memory of a so-called forgotten war, reminding the American public of former military sacrifice – but without the messy acknowledgment of the terribleness of violence and decay that originally rendered them unidentifiable. Instead, with an identification, military sacrifice assumes the concrete form of an individual service member; his loss has (an unmarred) face and his memory a surviving family. Thus, tactically reappeared through individuated identification, named unknowns such as PFC Gzik and Father Kapaun become not only ‘material evidence’ of American efforts in the previous century to resist and control Communism on the Korean peninsula but also signposts for contemporary obligations to the state's all-volunteer force. They are also put to work disciplining the public in support of future combatants. A mirror to sacrifices yet to come, the unearthed and recognised unknowns serve as valuable outputs of this national bureaucracy of forensic care, helping to underwrite a mission of past and present strategic national remembrance.

Acknowledgments

Research for this article was supported by the National Science Foundation (#1027457) and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. I am grateful to the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Mission and personnel at the former Central Identification Laboratory for extending me the opportunity to conduct fieldwork at the forensic facilities at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Special thanks also go to the anonymous reviewers for their comments and to Michael Dolski and Thomas Holland for their critical insights into the disinterment programme and continued support of my research.

Notes

1

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Press Release 25 September 2012. ‘Marine Missing In Action From Korean War Identified (Gzik)’, Release No: 12-052 (https://www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/News-Releases/PressReleaseArticleView/Article/581980/marine-missing-in-action-from-korean-war-identified-gzik/) Accessed June 2022.

2

The Battle of Chosin Reservoir claimed the lives of more than 10,000 South Korean and US troops, with another 7,388 non-combatant deaths. The Chinese suffered an estimated loss of 38,000 combat and non-combat casualties.

3

See Scully (2014), as well as Rosenblatt on ‘forensic care’ as a critical lens in understanding forensic science (and forensic scientists) in the context of human rights investigations and missing person identification efforts (2015: 167–198).

4

The annual budget for the US military's MIA accounting efforts is approximately $140 million.

5

Historian Thomas Laqueur explains that the label ‘unknown’ was ‘little seen before late in the nineteenth century because it described the default condition of war and also of peace’; a ‘common designation in the American Civil War cemeteries’, it became the ‘marked category’ for the nameless dead, ‘the essence of an entirely new cult predicated on deep namelessness in the Great War’ (2015: 418).

6

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 1 June 2022. ‘Fact Sheet: Progress on Korean War Personnel Accounting’.

7

Along a similar vein, through the ‘material evidence’ of Japanese atomic bomb victims’ body parts (stored in a US military pathology agency, studied and eventually repatriated), Susan Lindee illustrates how bodies of war victims are ‘made objects on many levels’, from the biological to the ideological, producing ‘natural knowledge but also political or economic power’ (1998: 379, 408).

8

In 2015, the MIA accounting agencies were restructured, and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command became part of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

9

Arguably, the most high-profile disinterment of US war dead remains occurred in May 1998, with the exhumation of the remains of the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery in the Tomb of the Unknowns (Wagner 2019: 39–51; Allen 2011).

10

Inspector General, US Department of Defense, 18 July 2018. ‘DoD's Organizational Changes to the Past Conflict Personnel Accounting Community’, Report No. DODIG-2018-138 (https://media.defense.gov/2018/Jul/20/2001945039/-1/-1/1/DODIG-2018-138.PDF, p13; Accessed June 2022). See also Dolski (2016: 154).

11

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, Memorandum for Secretary of the Military Departments, ‘Subject: Disinterment of Unknowns from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific’, 14 April 2015 (https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/DSD_Memo_Disinterment_of_Unknowns_from_the_National_Memorial_Cemetery_of_the_Pacific.pdf) Accessed July 2022.

12

Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAS, Summer 2021 newsletter (https://www.coalitionoffamilies.org/uploads/7/4/0/8/74085837/coalition_summer_2021_newsletter_.pdf) Accessed June 2022.

13

See Edwards (2015) on Second World War national cemeteries as part of US postwar commemorative diplomacy.

14

US accounting efforts for missing service members from the Korean War also encompass remains unilaterally returned to the US by the North Korean government, over two periods: in the early to mid-1990s, which resulted in what are known as the K-208 cases (Liu 2020: 349–355; Jin et al 2014), and the more recent unilateral turnover of 55 ‘sets of remains’ following the ‘Singapore summit’ between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un in 2018.

15

Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAS, Summer 2012 newsletter (https://www.coalitionoffamilies.org/uploads/7/4/0/8/74085837/coalition_newsletter-summer_2012_e-mail.pdf) Accessed July 2022.

16

The livestreamed video, ‘Mass of Christian Burial, FR. Emil Kapaun’, can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyIoBQMXRqA&t=8618s (Accessed June 2022).

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosenblatt, A. 2015. Digging the disappeared: forensic science after atrocity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Rosenblatt, A. and S. Wagner 2017. Known unknowns: DNA identifications, the nation-state, and the iconic dead, in C. Stojanowski and W. Duncan (eds.), Studies in forensic biohistory: anthropological perspectives, 237266. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Scully, J. L. 2014. ‘Remains as an act of care’, New Genetics and Society 33: 313332.

  • Stepputat, F. 2014. Governing the dead: sovereignty and the politics of dead bodies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Verdery, K. 1999. The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist change. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Vu, L. 2021. Governing the dead: martyrs, memorials, and necrocitizenship in modern China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wagner, S. 2019. What remains: bringing America's missing home from the Vietnam War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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Contributor Notes

SARAH WAGNER is Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University. She is the author of To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica's Missing (University of California Press, 2008) and What Remains: Bringing America's Missing Home from the Vietnam War (Harvard University Press, 2019). Her research focuses on post-conflict societies, memory, national identity and forensic science applied in the wake of war and, most recently, on COVID-19 death and mourning. Email: sewagner@email.gwu.edu. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3961-1138.

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  • Allen, M. J. 2009. Until the last man comes home: POWs, MIAs, and the unending Vietnam War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Allen, M. J. 2011. ‘“Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind”: the unknown soldier and the imagined community after the Vietnam War’, History & Memory 23: 90130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Anderson, B. 2006 [1983]. Imagined communities: reflections of the origins and spread of nationalism. New York: Verso.

  • Anstett, É. and J. Dreyfus 2015. Human remains and identification: mass violence, genocide, and the ‘forensic turn’. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aronson, J. 2016. Who owns the dead? The science and politics of death. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Budreau, L. 2010. Bodies of war: World War I and the politics of commemoration in America, 1919–1933. New York: New York University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coleman, B. L. 2008. ‘Recovering the Korean War dead, 1950–1958: graves registration, forensic anthropology, and wartime memorialization’, Journal of Military History 72: 179222.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crossland, Z. 2013. ‘Evidential regimes of forensic archaeology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 121137.

  • De León, J. 2015. The land of open graves: living and dying on the migrant trail. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Dolski, M. 2016. When X doesn't mark the spot: historical investigation and identifying remains from the Korean War, in D. Congram (ed.), Missing persons: multidisciplinary perspectives on the disappeared, 137170. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Command). 2022. ‘Fact sheet: Progress on Korean War personnel accounting’, 1 April 2022 (https://www.dpaa.mil/Resources/Fact-Sheets/Article-View/Article/569610/progress-on-korean-war-personnel-accounting/) Accessed July 2022.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dziuban, Z. (ed.) 2017. Mapping the ‘forensic turn’: engagements with materialities of mass death in Holocaust studies and beyond. Vienna: New Academic Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edwards, S. 2015. Allies in memory: World War II and the politics of transatlantic commemoration, c. 1941–2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferrándiz, F. 2013. ‘Exhuming the defeated: civil war mass graves in 21st-century Spain’, American Ethnologist 40: 3854.

  • Ferrándiz, F. and A. Robben (eds.) 2015. Necropolitics: mass graves and exhumations in the age of human rights. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hawley, T. 2005. The remains of war: bodies, politics, and the search for American soldiers unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jasanoff. S. 2004. States of knowledge: the co-production of science and social order. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Jin, J., A. Burch, C. LaGarde and E. Okrutny 2014. The Korean 208: A large-scale commingling case of American remains from the Korean War, in B. J. Adams and J. E. Byrd (eds.), Commingled human remains: methods in recovery, analysis and identification, 407423. New York: Academic Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knorr Cetina, K. 1999. Epistemic cultures: how the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Koon, H. E., O. M. Loreille, A. D. Covington, A. F. Christensen, T. J. Parsons and M. J. Collins 2008. ‘Diagnosing post-mortem treatments which inhibit DNA amplification from US MIAs buried at the Punchbowl’, Forensic Science International 178: 171177.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kwon, H. 2020. After the Korean War: an intimate history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Laqueur, T. 2011. ‘The deep time of the dead’, Social Research 78: 799820.

  • Laqueur, T. 2015. The work of the dead: a cultural history of mortal remains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Lindee, S. 1998. ‘The repatriation of atomic bomb victim body parts to Japan: natural objects and diplomacy’, Osiris 13: 376409.

  • Liu, Z. 2020. ‘Forgotten war, unforgotten bodies: locating, repatriating, and identifying the remains of American servicemen missing in Korea, 1950–2018’, PhD dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University.

  • Lynch, M., S. A. Cole, R. McNally and K. Jordan 2008. Truth machine: the contentious history of DNA fingerprinting. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McElya, M. 2016. The politics of mourning: death and honor in Arlington National Cemetery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Ngo, T. 2021. ‘Bones of contention: placing the dead of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war’, American Ethnologist 48: 192205.

  • Nguyen, V. T. 2016. Nothing ever dies: Vietnam and the memory of war. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Panizo, L. M. 2021. ‘Inhabiting death in the presence of the body: challenges of exhumation in the case of the Malvinas War’, Bulletin of Latin American Research 40: 4053.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Piehler, K. G. 1995. Remembering war the American way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

  • Reineke, R. 2019. Necroviolence and postmortem care along the U.S.-Mexico border, in T. E. Sheridan and R. H. McGuire (eds.), The border and its bodies: the embodiment of risk on the U.S.–Mexico border, 144172. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Renshaw, L. 2018. Forensic science as right and ritual in the recovery of World War I soldiers from the mass graves at Fromelles, in A. Becker and S. Tison (eds.), Un siècle de sites funéraires de la Grande Guerre. De l'histoire à la valorisation patrimoniale, 205225. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris Nanterre.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rojas-Perez, I. 2017. Mourning remains: state atrocity, exhumations, and governing the disappeared in Peru's postwar Andes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosenblatt, A. 2015. Digging the disappeared: forensic science after atrocity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Rosenblatt, A. and S. Wagner 2017. Known unknowns: DNA identifications, the nation-state, and the iconic dead, in C. Stojanowski and W. Duncan (eds.), Studies in forensic biohistory: anthropological perspectives, 237266. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sant Cassia, P. 2005. Bodies of evidence: burial, memory and the recovery of missing persons in Cyprus. New York: Berghahn Books.

  • Scully, J. L. 2014. ‘Remains as an act of care’, New Genetics and Society 33: 313332.

  • Stepputat, F. 2014. Governing the dead: sovereignty and the politics of dead bodies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Verdery, K. 1999. The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist change. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Vu, L. 2021. Governing the dead: martyrs, memorials, and necrocitizenship in modern China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • Wagner, S. 2008. To know where he lies: DNA technology and the search for Srebrenica's missing. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wagner, S. 2019. What remains: bringing America's missing home from the Vietnam War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Weiss, M. 2002. ‘The body of the nation: terrorism and the embodiment of nationalism in contemporary Israel’, Anthropological Quarterly 75: 3762.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Willis, G. D. 2018. ‘The potter's field’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 60: 539568.

  • Winter, J. 1995. Sites of memory, sites of mourning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Zagaria, V. 2019. ‘The clandestine cemetery: burying the victims of Europe's border in a Tunisian coastal town’, Human Remains and Violence 5: 1837.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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