Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: Where They Lay: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers

Where They Lay: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers, Earl Swift, Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

I've not seen a single episode of television's CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), but I'd guess that if one took the show out of its sexy LA and/or Miami confines and mixed in a Texas-sized mud pie, poisonous reptile, unbearable humidity, and a million or so fire ants, you might come close to understanding the worldwide quest of the U.S. Military's Central Identification Laboratory (CILHI), an organization tasked to find and identify the nation's lost soldiers. Telling the tale is Earl Swift, a Virginia journalist, who journied to Laos in 2001 to surveil the group and their hunt for a crew of missing Army aviators, whose helicopter went down near the Vietnam/Laos border in 1971.

The engine of Swift's story is human interest. In not much time, you know the crew. From the spitshined complexion of the chopper commander to the muscle car-loving door gunner, the author brings you into their quirky, homey, chain-smoking world. Then he rips them from you; Their steel machine crashes and they are gone. But, at this point, you're in, part of the search team, walking just behind Swift down some dusty Degar hunting trail, and you'll accept even the slightest form of proof: a helmet, a manufacturing i.d., bullet casing.

At the beginning of the account, Swift asks us if it's worth it: spending $100 million a year to find our fallen sons and fathers. By the time the collective fate of Jack Barker, Johnny Chub, Johnny Dugan (see photo above) and Will Dillender is decided, you have your answer.

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