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.
1 Problems and solutions
2 Before the 20th century
3 World War I
4 World War II
5 Korean War
6 Vietnam War
7 Cold War
8 Gulf War
9 Global War on Terrorism
9.1 Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq War)
9.2 Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan War)
11 Colloquial usage
12 See also
14 External links
Problems and solutions
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
Until around 1914, 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. Finally, since soldiers had no strong incentive to keep detailed records of enemy dead, bodies were frequently buried (sometimes with their ID tags) in temporary graves, the locations of which were often lost 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.
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, the Hundred Years' War, the later English Civil Wars and Napoleonic Wars 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
Names on the Thiepval Memorial
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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 ot...