Michael McDonald-Low’s Unaccounted (First Edition Design Publishing, 364 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins with a startling statistic: More than 83,000 American military personnel—the overwhelming majority from World War II— have been listed as missing in action. The military did not systematically search for MIAs until after the Vietnam War, the author points out, when the families of those unaccounted for demanded answers.
Unaccounted looks at the service of, and search for, Clifford D. Van Artsdalen, an American soldier who went missing in May 1968 at the beginning of the second Tet Cffensive. Using a unique style of storytelling, the author presents a fictionalized account of the war from Van Artsdalen’s perspective, starting with his first duty station at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and ending with his presumed death in the Que Son Valley. McDonald-Low intersperses this retelling with personal experiences and interactions he had as Van Artsdalen’s platoon leader, along with details gathered from after-action reports.
Convincing reconstructed dialogue and descriptions put the reader firmly in the combat boots of the two main characters in Vietnam. The story starts with McDonald-Low waking in the present, drenched in sweat, from a nightmare that has haunted him for decades—the day when, as a platoon leader with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, he and his men walked into an ambush along the hills of Que Son Valley.
The events leading up to the ambush are what the author attempts to reconcile through this retelling—could something have happened that would have spared the lives of Van Artsdalen and other men? Was there some crucial detail that he missed?
When Van Artsdalen is shot and goes missing, the book leaps forward to the present, where McDonald-Low is advising a JPAC recovery team searching for Van Artsdalen’s remains. The last third of the book describes the team’s recovery efforts in Hawaii and Vietnam. Without giving too much away, the recovery team is only marginally successful, but its endeavor enables McDonald-Low to confront Van Artsdalen’s death.
Inattentive readers may miss the shift in POV when a new chapter starts, as there’s not much change in tone. Plus, sometimes chapters skip weeks, months, or even years in a non-linear fashion. But overall, McDonald-Low’s book does an excellent job portraying the chaos of battle and the similar thoughts and emotions of officers and enlisted men.
Unaccounted evokes Clifford Van Artsdalen’s war experiences and the ultimate sacrifice he paid—even if it took 44 years for him to be accounted for.
The author’s website is www.unaccounted.net