In the rice fields of Southeast Asia and in the homes of America, there are reminders that the Indochina war is still not completely over. For many of the families of some 2,500 US servicemen missing in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, there can be no final peace until the fate of their sons is fully explained. Many are impatient with the failure of the US government to repatriate the remains of these servicemen -- or to gain convincing information on the possibility that some of those missing may still be alive.
Across the world on the Plain of Jars, unexploded American bombs still accidentally detonate. They wound or kill Lao soldiers and farmers who are trying to reclaim expanses of crater-pocked farmland. Refugees from saturation bombing by US B-52s still wait in distant camps for the day when they can return to their villages and once again farm their family land.
Both sides have failed to bridge their differences and find some way toward a cooperation which would lessen the losses of war.
Until mid- 1978 Vietnam insisted that the United States must first supply economic aid "to heal the wounds of war" before diplomatic ties and better relations could be established. Vietnam has dropped the demand for economic aid and now offers to establish diplomatic relations any time. But the US now says it will not establish diplomatic relations until Vietnam withdraws the occupation troops it sent into Cambodia in early 1979. Vietnam does not explicitly link the missing Americans question to the question of US economic aid, trade ties, or diplomatic relations. But it is thought Hanoi does use the issue for gaining publicity and political advantage.
The US does have diplomatic relations with Laos. But as with Vietnam, congressional legislation forbids foreign aid there. Whether US aid would make Vietnam or Laos more forthcoming on the question of the missing Americans is unclear. But the failure of these countries to be cooperative is one reason why Congress remains opposed to aid.
Officially the Laos government says it has done all it can to solve the mystery. The US government rejects this.
One result is limited progress in accounting for those missing.
Of some 2,500 unaccounted for, some 1,000 were explained as "presumed dead" shortly after the release of American POWs in 1973. According to the US government, nearly 1,500 more have since been classified "presumed dead" -- based on refugee accounts and other sources. Officially only 10 are now unexplained. But the Defense Department continually examines any new information suggesting that more may still be alive.
US officials say as of now they have no evidence US servicemen are still being held in Indochina. But there may well be a number of deserters and others (sometimes married to local women) who have stayed behind of their own choice, one official adds.
Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that US officials take very seriously the possibility that some American POWs may even now be held in communist Indochina.
One indication is the admission to reporters by some administration officials that the US sent at least two long-range largely Laotian patrols into Laos this May in an effort to confirm "tantalizing hints" that American POWs were still alive.
The missions were said to have returned without any evidence there were Americans in the camp.
To many observers it seemed highly unlikely the US would take the risk of sending in the missions unless there was very good reason to take seriously the possibility of POW survivors.
But receiving a report -- often from refugees or travelers who claim a first hand "sighting" -- is far from confirming it.
"You would be surprised at how many of these claims dissipate like smoke when you look into them," comments one US official in Bangkok, Thailand.
One of the problems, notes another official, is that would-be refugees from Laos or Vietnam will sometimes produce a false POW sighting report in hopes of being accepted for settlement in the United States.
So far, the remains of only 77 of these men have been recovered: 75 from Vietnam, two from Laos, and none from Cambodia.
Ironically, even though Washington has diplomatic relations with Laos but not with Vietnam, Hanoi has proved more cooperative in returning remains than has Vientiane. This is true even though Laos is often seen as a Vietnamese "satellite" with more than 40,000 Vietnamese troops stationed there.
One reason is that Vietnam has a relatively experienced government which controls most of the countryside. There is a relatively unified leadership which can make and carry out decisions. Thus, if Hanoi wants to cooperate with the US on returning remains, it can do so.
By contrast dealing with Laos "is like dealing with fluff," notes one Bangkok-based diplomat. The Pathet Lao guerrilla movement which came to power in 1975 has little experience in governing the country and, in fact, lacks control of much of the countryside. Often it is unclear exactly who in Vientiane makes real decisions, and often it seems that no decisions are made at all.
"When we propose something, there usually is no response whatever," says a Bangkok-based diplomat.
One possible obstacle may be cultural.
Vietnam, like China, is influenced by ancestor worship and Confucianism. Both nations can thus understand the importance attached by Westerners to the recovery of remains.
But Laos has been influenced more heavily by the Theravada Buddhist tradition originally from India. Little importance is attached to remains, which are quickly destroyed, and so, one source says, many Laotians may find it difficult to understand why Americans attach such importance to return of remains.
Family groups wanting more effective US action to recover remains and any surviving POWs have sometimes urged that Washington cooperate more fully with anticommunist insurgents, especially in Laos.
They sometimes maintain the insurgents can give valuable information for locating missing Americans -- or even be used to bring out remains.
But American officials say they must be very careful in any dealings with rebels -- lest they be drawn into backing an insurgency against a government with which the United States has diplomatic relations.
Still a State Department spokesmen says it has been made quite clear to the government of Laos that its poor record on the question of missing Americans is a major reason private Americans citizens are willing to work with insurgents and urge US government cooperation with them.
In the past, according to one official, the insurgents have asked for money from the US government in return for information and services concerning the missing Americans. If the United States agreed, this could put the US in the position of bankrolling a rebellion -- and sliding back into an Indochina war, the official points out.
Paying for information could also lure insurgents into making misleading or false reports. "Once you start paying for this sort of information, all kinds of problems come out of the woodwork," one analyst notes.
Still, critics of US policy suggest Washington has been less than imaginative in finding ways of communicating quietly with the insurgents. Even some US officials, who must of necessity be closed-mouthed, say there is room for improvement.