Many American soldiers served and died in the various bloody theaters of World War II. They were called upon by the people of America and the wider family of civilized nations around the world to defeat burgeoning, horrific threats to the global order. They enjoined what history has widely judged to be a just and necessary war. Hundreds of thousands of these heroes’ remains were duly brought back home to be buried by their families and friends in somber funeral ceremonies across the 50 states. While those war dead represented the greatest possible sacrifice to country at a critical moment in history, and also a tragic loss for countless communities, at least upon paying the terrible price they received the proper honor they deserved in a final resting place chosen by those who loved them the most after earning victory. In the 1940s and beyond their headstones would be adorned with inspiring inscriptions, soaring monuments, and beautiful flowers, or they could lie next to their brothers in arms in dignified venues such as Arlington Cemetery, their heroism to be cherished by the generations to come and most importantly, never, ever forgotten.
Yet the remains of too many of these brave souls unceremoniously languish even today under remote corners of Indian stone and soil, in the incongruously scenic mountains and fields of Arunachal Pradesh, a Northeastern state riven by contentious territorial disputes between the rising superpowers, China and India.
They were US Airmen whose planes crashed in the heat of battle, and the Great War is still not over for them at all. We have a good idea of exactly who they are and where they lie, but the descendants and friends of approximately 400 men have been innocent victims squarely caught in the crossfire of endless bureaucratic disputes between nations- *nations whose soldiers fought alongside them as allies in WW II, no less.* Government bureaucracies are preventing even basic access to the sites where these men lie, forever young. Meanwhile, challenging and complex as the solutions may be, the United States government has not fought hard enough for a clean resolution, which should disturb all Americans who still benefit from the fruits of the MIA soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice.
As an Indian-American in particular, I feel the pain and helplessness suffered by the wives, siblings, and children who are living and over time, dying without the simple satisfaction of closure that society owes them.
What will it take to right this injustice? Previous editorials in this space by Gary Zaetz, the leader of Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action paint a picture of tireless efforts, promising breakthroughs, productive archaeological surveys and digging expeditions, and minor victories on the rare occasion where a limited expedition turns up a small fraction of a soldier’s strewn body parts over 70 years after World War II ended.
The Pentagon has even sponsored a few ceremonies for a few of them. Many journalists, government leaders, and concerned citizens around the world have encouragingly offered support for the cause. But what sticks out most cruelly are the reams of red tape thrown forward by the halls of power in Washington, New Delhi, and Beijing which are stifling progress. Please read these moving editorials by Gary Zaetz here with critical updates to the story published here and here. Please take a few moments to scan the photos of the pilots and crew members, and look straight into the eyes of these young men and their families.
So what are the main challenges today? The key roadblock is the fact that China and India disagree about who the land belongs to, along with thousands of other miles of far-flung border lands throughout the Himalayan Mountain region. The two nations themselves have fought major wars in the 20th century over various little pieces of this turf in tragic pissing matches, with China defeating India badly, along with numerous smaller skirmishes that continue to this day. None of these have served to permanently settle the disputes over territory between these two nuclear weapon-tipped rivals. Hundreds of thousands of troops from both sides uneasily patrol the disputed regions in an ugly stalemate. The United Nations and the international community have been helpless in helping settle the disputes. Under the current postures of the involved nations, China will not allow peaceful expeditions to search for the remains safely behind a security cordon. India, viewing its role in the matter as subservient to wider engagement priorities in dialogue with China, has been unwilling to support the expeditions despite claiming outright that the territory is Indian. Perhaps understandably under the harsh realities, neither China nor India have decided to lead the discovery of American bodies. More vexingly, successive United States governments under administration after administration both Democrat and Republican have not taken full accountability for their own war dead either.
This should not stand. In fact, there is a duly appointed Pentagon office called Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) whose entire mission and reason for being is to find, recover, and repatriate the US military’s MIAs around the world. Unlike MIAs in Vietnam and elsewhere, where it may seem like finding them is sort of a “cold case,” there is more accurate information as to where to look in the case of Arunachal’s MIA soldiers. However, since 2004 communications and efforts of the Families and Supporters for Arunachal’s Missing in Action with the DPAA has resulted in limited progress.
The group has also earnestly reached out to US Senators, Representatives, State Department officials such as multiple US Ambassadors to India over time, senior Indian government officials such as retired Indian military officers, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, media groups, and others. Unfortunately, these communications have largely resulted in finger pointing about who is responsible for the lack of accountability in leading the long-overdue MIA discoveries. Over the last several years I have felt increasingly hapless due to the sea of red tape that has risen up.
We can certainly do better! I have contemplated what simple actions can be taken by concerned readers, regardless of where you live in the world, your politics, culture, or your religious background in the face of what seem like insurmountable challenges as large as the Himalaya mountains themselves. After all, this is purely a humanitarian issue with a potential solution in sight, a light at the end of the tunnel. You can join in by doing the following:
1) Join the Facebook page for the latest updates and offer your support in any way you can to this nonprofit organization, including financial.
2) Reach out with targeted messaging to the relevant government authorities individually, or as part of an organization you belong to such as local VFW or American Legion posts. Feel free to use the content from this editorial or others we have shared here as a guide, such as copying and pasting into emails, letters, or social media:
* The US Embassy to India https://in.usembassy.gov/embassy-consulates/new-delhi/
* The Indian Embassy to the United States https://www.indianembassy.org/
* The White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/
* Your Senator and Congressperson
3) Publish these letters and emails in local newspapers, newsletters, or social media outlets that you have access to.
4) If you can, set up meetings with government leaders who may have the power to assist in finding and bringing home the MIAs of Arunachal Pradesh.
5) Communicate any fresh ideas you might have to usindiamonitor or to Gary Zaetz, as you may think of new angles not yet considered for achieving elusive progress.
If enough people join this fight, the Arunachal Pradesh expeditions can continue apace once again with the approvals of all the relevant authorities- a long and hard slog in its own right so far led by a team including Clayton Kuhles, despite the government resistance. Indian-Americans, other NRIs, or Indians residing in India itself can join with this cause in solidarity. But of course, all comers would be most welcome.
The saddest aspect is that the loved ones of the US war dead will themselves be buried without the satisfaction of burying their own hero family members. This suffering is unnecessary and unacceptable, if there is something that can be done about it.
To some I understand that this may all appear to be such a small and unimportant priority from a long bygone era, when there are so many active problems going on in the world of today. To those, I would respond that if we patriots can’t take care of these little things as a society, then how can we possibly hope to tackle the grand global challenges society faces today?
I look forward to hearing from you on this conundrum.