Missing in action

Missing in action
Grave of an unknown British soldier killed during the Battle of Leros. Because his identity is unknown, he is missing in action.
Grave of an unknown American soldier in Oise-Aisne Cemetery. Killed in 1917
Grave of an unknown paratrooper, killed in the Battle of Arnhem, 1944. Photographed in April 1945
Graves of 11 unknown British soldiers killed during World War II, in Rhodes CWGC war cemetery
Wall crypts containing remains of unknown Italian soldiers killed during World War II, in a Rhodes cemetery
Graves of unknown Eritrean Ascaris killed in 1941 during the Battle of Keren
Names on the Thiepval Memorial

Missing in action (MIA) is a casualty Category assigned under the Status of Missing to armed services personnel who are reported missing during active service. They may have been killed, wounded, become a prisoner of war, or deserted. If deceased, neither their remains nor grave can be positively identified. Becoming MIA has been an occupational risk for service personnel for as long as there has been warfare.


Problems and solutions

Until around 1912, service personnel in most countries were not routinely issued with ID tags. As a result, if someone was killed in action and his body was not recovered until much later, there was little or no chance of identifying the remains. Starting around the time of the First World War, nations began to issue their service personnel with purpose-made ID tags. Usually, these were made of some form of lightweight metal such as aluminum. However, in the case of the British Army the material chosen was compressed fibre, which was not very durable. Although wearing ID tags proved to be highly beneficial, the problem remained that soldiers' bodies could be completely destroyed (or buried) by the type of high explosive munitions routinely used in modern warfare. Additionally, the combat environment itself could increase the likelihood of missing personnel e.g. jungle or submarine warfare, and air-crashes in mountainous terrain or at sea.[1] Finally, since soldiers had no strong incentive to keep detailed records of enemy dead, bodies were frequently buried (sometimes with their ID tags)[2] in temporary graves, the locations of which were often lost[3] or obliterated e.g. the forgotten mass grave at Fromelles. As a result the remains of service personnel might not be found for many years, if ever. When missing service personnel are recovered and cannot be identified after a thorough forensic examination (including such methods as DNA testing and comparison of dental records) the remains are interred with a tombstone which indicates their unknown status.

The development of genetic fingerprinting in the late 20th century means that if cell samples from a cheek swab are collected from service personnel prior to deployment to a combat zone, identity can be established using even a small fragment of human remains. Although it is possible to take genetic samples from a close relative of the missing person, it is preferable to collect such samples directly from the subjects themselves. It is a fact of warfare that some service personnel are likely to go missing in action and never be found. However, by wearing ID tags and using modern technology the numbers involved can be considerably reduced. In addition to the obvious military advantages, conclusively identifying the remains of missing service personnel is highly beneficial to the surviving relatives. Having positive identification makes it somewhat easier to come to terms with their loss and move on with their lives. Otherwise some relatives may suspect that the missing person is still alive somewhere and may return someday.[4][5][6][7][8][9]

Before the 20th century

It is possible that some of the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC went missing in action. Certainly, the numerous wars which followed over successive centuries created many MIAs. The list is long and includes most battles which have ever been fought by any nation. The usual problems of identification caused by rapid decomposition were exacerbated by the fact that it was common practice to loot the remains of the dead for any valuables e.g. personal items and clothing. This made the already difficult task of identification even harder. Thereafter the dead were routinely buried in mass graves and scant official records were retained. Notable examples include such medieval battles as Towton,[10] the Hundred Years' War, the later English Civil Wars and Napoleonic Wars[11][12] together with any battle taking place until around the middle of the 19th century. Starting around the time of the Crimean War, American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War, it became more common to make formal efforts to identify individual soldiers. However, since there was no formal system of ID tags at the time, this could be difficult during the process of battlefield clearance. Even so, there had been a notable shift in perceptions e.g. where the remains of a soldier in Confederate uniform were recovered from, say, the Gettysburg battlefield, he would be interred in a single grave with a headstone which stated that he was an unknown Confederate soldier. This change in attitudes coincided with the Geneva Conventions, the first of which was signed in 1864. Although the first Geneva Convention did not specifically address the issue of MIAs, the reasoning behind it (which specified the humane treatment of enemy wounded soldiers) was influential.

World War I

The phenomenon of MIAs became particularly notable during World War I, where the mechanized nature of modern warfare meant that a single battle could cause astounding numbers of casualties. For example, in 1916 over 300,000 Allied and German service personnel were killed in the Battle of the Somme. A total of 19,240 British and Commonwealth troops were killed in action or died of wounds on the first day of that battle alone. It is therefore not surprising that the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France bears the names of 72,090 British and Commonwealth soldiers, all of whom went missing in action during the Battle of the Somme, were never found and who have no known grave. Similarly, the Menin Gate memorial in Belgium commemorates 54,896 missing Allied soldiers who are known to have been killed during one of the three Battles of Ypres. The Douaumont ossuary, meanwhile, contains 130,000 unidentifiable sets of French and German remains from the Battle of Verdun.

Even in the 21st century, the remains of missing service personnel are recovered from the former battlefields of the Western Front every year. These discoveries happen regularly, often during the course of agricultural work or construction projects.[13][14][15][16][17][18][19] Typically, the remains of one or several men are found at a time. However, occasionally the numbers recovered are much larger e.g. the mass grave at Fromelles (excavated in 2009) which contained the skeletal remains of no less than 250 allied soldiers.[20][21][22][23] Regardless, efforts are made to identify any remains found via a thorough forensic examination. If this is achieved, attempts are made to trace any living relatives. However, it is frequently impossible to identify the remains, other than to establish some basic details of the unit they served with. In the case of British and Commonwealth MIAs, the headstone is inscribed with the maximum amount of information that is known about the person. Typically, such information is deduced from metallic objects such as brass buttons and shoulder flashes bearing regimental/unit insignia found on the body. As a result, headstones are inscribed with such information as "A Soldier of The Cameronians" or "An Australian Corporal" etc. Where nothing is known other than that the person fought on the allied side, the headstone is inscribed "A Soldier of The Great War". The term "Sailor" or "Airman" can be substituted, as appropriate.

World War II

There are many missing service personnel from World War II.[24][25][26][27][28][29] In the United States armed forces, 78,750 missing in action were reported by the conclusion of the war, representing over 19 percent of the total 405,399 killed in the conflict.[30]

The 1991–1993 United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs investigated a few outstanding issues and reports related to the fate of U.S. service personnel still missing from World War II.[31]

As with MIAs from the First World War, it is a routine occurrence for the remains of missing service personnel killed during the Second World War to be periodically discovered.[32][33][34][35] As with the First World War, in western Europe MIAs are generally found as individuals, or in twos or threes. However, sometimes the numbers in a group are considerably larger e.g. the mass grave at Villeneuve-Loubet, which contained the remains of 14 German soldiers killed in August 1944. Others are located at remote aircraft crash sites in various countries.[36][37][38] But in eastern Europe and Russia, World War II casualties include approximately two million missing Germans, and many mass graves remain to be found. Almost a half million German MIAs have been buried in new graves since the end of the Cold War. Most of them will stay unknown. The German War Graves Commission is spearheading the effort.[39]

During the 2000s, there was renewed attention within and without the U.S. military to finding remains of the missing, especially in the European Theatre and especially since aging witnesses and local historians were dying off.[40] The group World War II Families for the Return of the Missing was founded in 2005 to work with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and other governmental entities towards locating and repatriating the remains of Americans lost in the conflict.[40] The president of the group said in reference to the far more publicised efforts to find remains of U.S. dead from the Vietnam War, “Vietnam had advocates. This was an older generation, and they didn’t know who to turn to.”[40]

In 2008, investigators began to conduct searches on Tarawa atoll in the Pacific Ocean, trying to locate the remains of 139 American Marines, missing since the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.[41]

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, there were still 73,692 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from World War II.[42]

Korean War

There are many missing service personnel from the Korean War. It is thought that 13,000 South Korean soldiers and 2,000 U.S. soldiers are buried in the Korean Demilitarized Zone alone.[43] The U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the equivalent South Korean command are actively involved in trying to locate and identify remains of both countries' personnel.[43]

In the United States armed forces, the 8,177 service members listed as missing in action constituted over 15 percent of the total killed in the conflict.[30] In August 1953, General James Van Fleet, who had led US and UN forces in Korea, estimated that "a large percentage" of those soldiers listed missing in action were alive.[44]

The 1991–1993 United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs investigated some outstanding issues and reports related to the fate of U.S. service personnel still missing from the Korean War.[31]

Remains of missing service personnel from the Korean War are periodically recovered and identified.[45][46]

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office there are still 7,989 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the Korean War.[47]

While the United States knew in 1953 that at least 900 troops were held captive by North Korea and never released, this information was never released. Historians suggest this was because Americans would have demanded their soldiers be returned home. The Defense Department says there is no clear evidence any of the prisoners are still alive.[48] As of 2005, at least 500 South Korean prisoners of war were believed to be still detained by the North Korean regime.[49]

A number of Australian military personnel have also never been recovered from Korea.[50]

Vietnam War

Following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, 591 U.S. prisoners of war were returned during Operation Homecoming. The U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered.[51] By the early 1990s, this had been reduced to a total of 2,255 unaccounted for from the war, which constituted less than 4 percent of the total 58,152 U.S. service members killed.[30] This was by far the smallest proportion in the nation's history to that point.[30]

About 80 percent of those missing were airmen who were shot down over North Vietnam or Laos, usually over remote mountains, tropical rain forest, or water; the rest typically disappeared in dense, confused fighting in jungles.[30] Investigations of these incidents have involved determining whether the men involved survived their shootdown, and if not efforts to recover their remains. POW/MIA activists played a role in pushing the U.S. government to improve its efforts in resolving the fates of the missing. Progress in doing so was slow until the mid-1980s, when relations between the U.S. and Vietnam began to improve and more cooperative efforts were undertaken. Normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam in the mid-1990s was a culmination of this process.

Considerable speculation and investigation has gone to a theory that a significant number of these men were captured as prisoners of war by Communist forces in the two countries and kept as live prisoners after the war's conclusion for the United States in 1973. A vocal group of POW/MIA activists maintains that there has been a concerted conspiracy by the Vietnamese government and every American government since then to hide the existence of these prisoners. The U.S. government has steadfastly denied that prisoners were left behind or that any effort has been made to cover up their existence.[52] Popular culture has reflected the "live prisoners" theory, most notably in the 1985 film Rambo: First Blood Part II. Several congressional investigations have looked into the issue, culminating with the largest and most thorough, the United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs of 1991–1993 led by Senators John Kerry, Bob Smith, and John McCain. Its unanimous conclusion found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."[31]

This missing in action issue has been a highly emotional one to those involved, and is often considered the last depressing, divisive aftereffect of the Vietnam War. To skeptics, "live prisoners" is a conspiracy theory unsupported by motivation or evidence, and the foundation for a cottage industry of charlatans who have preyed upon the hopes of the families of the missing. As two skeptics wrote in 1995, "The conspiracy myth surrounding the Americans who remained missing after Operation Homecoming in 1973 had evolved to baroque intricacy. By 1992, there were thousands of zealots—who believed with cultlike fervor that hundreds of American POWs had been deliberately and callously abandoned in Indochina after the war, that there was a vast conspiracy within the armed forces and the executive branch—spanning five administrations—to cover up all evidence of this betrayal, and that the governments of Communist Vietnam and Laos continued to hold an unspecified number of living American POWs, despite their adamant denials of this charge."[53] Believers reject such notions; as one wrote in 1994, "It is not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not Rambo fantasy. It is only hard evidence of a national disgrace: American prisoners were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. They were abandoned because six presidents and official Washington could not admit their guilty secret. They were forgotten because the press and most Americans turned away from all things that reminded them of Vietnam."[54]

There are also a large number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong MIAs from the Vietnam war whose remains have yet to be recovered. In 1974, General Võ Nguyên Giáp stated that they had 330,000 missing in action.[55] As of 1999, estimates of those missing were usually around 300,000.[56][57] This figure does not include those missing from former South Vietnamese armed forces, who are given little consideration under the Vietnamese regime.[56] The Vietnamese government did not have any organized program to search for its own missing, in comparison to what it had established to search for American missing.[56][58] The discrepancy angered some Vietnamese; as one said, "It's crazy for the Americans to keep asking us to find their men. We lost several times more than the Americans did. In any war there are many people who disappear. They just disappear."[56] In the 2000s, thousands of Vietnamese were hiring psychics in an effort to find the remains of missing family members.[57][59] The Vietnamese Army organizes what it considers to be the best of the psychics, as part of its parapsychology force trying to find remains.[59] Additionally, remains dating from the earlier French colonial era are sometimes discovered: in January 2009, the remains of at least 50 anti-French resistance fighters dating from circa 1946 to 1947 were discovered in graves located under a former market in central Hanoi.[60]

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office there are still 1,681 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.[61]

Cold War

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, as of 2000 there were still 125 U.S. servicemen unaccounted for from the Cold War.[62]

The 1991–1993 United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs investigated some outstanding issues and reports related to the fate of U.S. service personnel still missing from the Cold War.[31] In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin told the committee that the Soviet Union had held survivors of spy planes shot down in the early 1950s in prisons or psychiatric facilities.[63][64] Russian Colonel General Dmitri Volkogonov, co-leader of the U.S.–Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, said that to his knowledge no Americans were currently being held against their will within the borders of the former Soviet Union.[31] The Select Committee concluded that it "found evidence that some U.S. POWs were held in the former Soviet Union after WW II, the Korean War and Cold War incidents," and that it "cannot, based on its investigation to date, rule out the possibility that one or more U.S. POWs from past wars or incidents are still being held somewhere within the borders of the former Soviet Union."[31]

Iran–Iraq War

The Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 left tens of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi military personnel, including some who had been held as prisoners of war, are still unaccounted for.[65][66] Some counts include civilians who disappeared during the conflict.[66] One estimate is that more than 52,000 Iraqis went missing in the war.[67] Officially, the government of Iran lists 8,000 as missing.[66]

Following up on these cases is often difficult because no accurate or surviving documentation exists.[65] The situation in Iraq is additionally difficult because unknown hundreds of thousands persons are missing due to Iraq's later conflicts, both internal and external, and in Iran due to its being a largely closed society.[65] In addition, relations between the countries remained quite poor for a long time; the last POWs from the war were not exchanged until 2003[68] and relations did not begin to improve until after the regime change brought on by the 2003 onset of the Iraq War.[66] Some cases are brought forward when mass graves are discovered in Iraq, holding the bodies of Iranians once held prisoner.[66] Websites have been started to attempt to track the fates of members of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force shot down and captured over Iraq.[69]

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been active in trying to resolve MIA issues from the war; in October 2008, twenty years after the end of the war, the ICRC forged a memorandum of understanding with the two countries to share information collected in pursuit of resolving cases.[66] Families are still desperate for knowledge about the fate of their loved ones.[65] In Iran, efforts at answering families' questions and identifying remains are led by the POWs and Missing Commission of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, the Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs. In Iraq, efforts are led by the Ministry of Human Rights.[65][67]

Gulf War

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, 47 Americans were listed as POW/MIAs at some point during Operation Desert Storm.[70] At the conclusion of the Gulf War of 1991, U.S. forces resolved all but one of those cases : 21 Prisoners of War were repatriated, 23 bodies were recovered and 2 bodies were lost over the Gulf and therefore classified as Killed-In-Action, Body Not Recovered.[70] That one MIA case, that of U.S. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, became quite well known. He was reported as missing after his F/A-18 was shot down in northern Iraq on the first night of the war.[71] Over the years his status was changed from missing to killed in action to missing-captured, a move that suggested he was alive and imprisoned in Iraq. In 2002, his possible situation became a more high-profile issue in the build-up to the Iraq War; The Washington Times ran five successive front-page articles about it in March 2002 and in September 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush mentioned Speicher in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly as part of his case for war. However, despite the 2003 invasion of Iraq and U.S. military control of the country, Speicher was not found and his status remained under debate.[71][72] It was eventually resolved in August 2009 when his remains were found in the Iraq desert, where according to local civilians, he was buried following his crash in 1991.[73][74]

How many Iraqi forces went missing as a result of the war is not readily known, as estimates of Iraqi casualties overall range considerably.

Global war on terrorism

Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq War)

A small number of coalition soldiers went missing in action in Iraq immediately following the 2003 invasion. These cases were quickly resolved when the bodies were recovered. Following this were the following POW/MIA cases:

  • On April 9, 2004, US Army soldier SSG Keith Matthew "Matt" Maupin (at that time a PFC) was captured in an ambush near the Baghdad International Airport. On April 16, 2004, Maupin appeared on a videotape that was broadcast by the Arabic-language television network Al Jazeera. On June 28, 2004, Al Jazeera reported that Maupin was executed by a group identifying itself as The Persistent Power Against the Enemies of God and the Prophet. The method of execution in the video was a gunshot to the head. On March 30, 2008, Maupin's father told local newsmedia that the remains of his son had been found. He states that an Army general had told him that DNA was used to identify the remains. According to an Army statement, Maupin's remains "were recovered northwest of Baghdad on March 20, by soldiers from 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, based out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, part of the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team."
  • On June 19, 2004, a US Marine of Lebanese background, CPL Wassef Ali Hassoun, went missing and claimed to have been captured. He later turned up in Lebanon, and was flown home to the U.S. It was soon discovered Hassoun made the kidnapping story up, and Hassoun is currently a fugitive.[75]
  • On June 16, 2006, a three US soldiers patrol in an armored humvee was overwhelmed south of Baghdad. One soldier died during the fight, while the other two were captured and tortured to death. Their names were PFC Kristian Menchaca and PFC Thomas Lowell Tucker. Their bodies were found on June 20, 2006.[76]
  • On October 23, 2006, US Army soldier SSG Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie (at that time a SPC) was captured by insurgents and is listed as missing-captured. He appeared in a proof of life video in February 2007 but was not heard of again until 2010. In February 2010, it was confirmed that he was killed while in captivity by his captors at an unknown point in time.[77]
  • On May 12, 2007 a US Army observation post was overrun by Iraqi insurgents, four American and one Iraqi soldier were killed. Three US soldiers were captured. They were PFC Joseph J. Anzack Jr., PVT Byron W. Fouty and SPC Alex Jimenez. Iraqi police found PFC Anzacks' body in the Euphrates River south of Baghdad on May 23, 2007 bearing signs of torture. On June 4, 2007. The insurgent organization Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) claimed that they killed PVT Fouty and SPC Jimenez and also claimed that their bodies were buried and would not be returned to their families. On Wednesday July 9, 2008,[78] the bodies of PVT Byron Fouty and SPC Alex Jimenez were found in an area south of Baghdad known as the "triangle of death".[79] The families of the victims were notified and the Defense Department released a statement to the public on July 11, 2008.[80]

SSG Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie is currently the only US serviceman listed as missing in action from Operation Iraqi Freedom, although with the recent events on February 2010 discussed above, his status could change.

Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan War)

On July 1, 2009, US Army soldier SGT (then a PFC) Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum, Idaho, was declared missing, which was later changed to captured on July 3 of that year. A video was shown of him on July 18, 2009 indicating that he had been captured. A second video was released on December 25, 2009, again showing him in captivity. On April 7, 2010, the Taliban released a third video of Bergdahl in captivity. In the new video Bergdahl has a full head of hair, a beard and pleads for the release of Afghan prisoners that are held in Guantanamo and Bagram.

SGT Bowe R. Bergdahl the only American soldier listed as missing from the War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom).

On July 4, 2011, a British soldier went missing in central Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The Taliban later confirmed responsibility for his capture, but also announced they had executed him when ISAF forces attempted to rescue him in the following hours.[81] The soldier was later named as twenty year old Highlander Scott McLaren of the 4th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland. His body was recovered and returned to the UK following a firefight with the insurgents holding his body.[82]


Australian sniffer dog Sarbi, officially declared MIA in Afghanistan for 14 months, before being found safe and well in 2009.[83]

Military animals can also be officially declared as being Missing In Action.

Colloquial usage

MIA is sometimes used in American English to describe difficulty finding something, particularly a person. "The employee is MIA." It is less often used in this context in UK English, where the equivalent phrase is "gone AWOL".

See also


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