The New York Times
June 22, 2007


THE White House visit today by President Nguyen Minh Triet of Vietnam will take place just a few miles from the resting place of some of his countrymen. When American G.I.’s returned from the Vietnam War, some tried to smuggle home the skulls of Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers. The graffiti-covered skulls served as ashtrays, candle holders and trophies. Six skulls were seized by the Customs Service. They remain in limbo, relegated to a drawer on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

At a time when President Bush plans to chastise the Vietnamese leader about human rights abuses, a question confronts his own administration: Should we return the Vietnamese trophy skulls?

The importance of human remains has been highlighted over the past six years by the efforts to identify bits of bone and ash from the bodies of people who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. More than 1,000 cubic yards of dirt and other material from near ground zero are still being screened for bone fragments and other remains. Grieving families continue to inundate forensics experts from the World Trade Center site with old toothbrushes, licked stamps and razor blades that might provide a DNA sample and a genetic link to the bodies of their loved ones.

But what of the similar desires of a people 8,000 miles away? Many Vietnamese worship their ancestors as part of their religion. They believe that if a person’s bones cannot be found, his soul wanders aimlessly and cannot be cared for properly by his descendants.

About 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers went missing in action in what the Vietnamese call the American War. A Vietnamese television program, with several episodes each week, describes what is known about the final days of Vietnamese M.I.A.’s to help their relatives find their bones.

American soldiers have been active in this work. They’ve turned over to the Vietnamese Embassy the wallets and photos they took from slain Vietnamese soldiers. They’ve drawn maps to show where mass graves were dug. Those efforts have helped locate the remains of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers.

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on the Walter Reed campus received the Vietnamese skulls by default. The Defense Department institute is known for its sensitive handling of human remains. Its lab receives the bodies of all the American soldiers who are killed in Iraq. The medical examiner and his staff identify those remains by linking soldiers to their families through DNA testing. After the Sept. 11 attacks, 50 forensic experts from the institute raced to help, identifying 184 Pentagon victims and all the passengers of United 93.

Human remains are not trinkets. They are people’s links to their past and societies’ testimony to their history. With the Vietnamese government now helping to find the remains of American soldiers on Southeast Asian soil, the fate of the Vietnamese trophy skulls on our soil is a litmus test for how empathetic we can be about our former enemies’ remains and how serious we are about creating a new relationship with Vietnam. President Bush needs to return the skulls. For in honoring the dead, we also show our respect for the living.

Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, is the author of “The Silent Assassin,” a novel.


All content © 2006-08 by Lori Andrews.