US Military Casualties in Vietnam
By Larry Romanoff, October 09, 2022
John Olson’s famous photo of wounded Marines being evacuated during the Battle of Hue in February 1968.
John Olson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images
When considering war fatalities, we tend to construct a simple framework in our minds, of the form: "50,000 soldiers were sent into battle; 40,000 returned; fatalities 10,000. End of story." But things are not so simple as this, for reasons both valid and fraudulent.
For one, the US government and military inevitably understate all the bad parts of their wars. It may be true that all governments and militaries do this, but here we are discussing the US. A few examples:
For the fire-bombing of Tokyo, any estimate of deaths less than one million is not even remotely plausible, yet I can recall that for many years the "official" US military estimate was 35,000. The generally-accepted death totals for the Vietnam war (including Laos and Cambodia) is around five million; the US adamantly states the totals at only one million on the grounds that "Vietnamese statistics are notoriously unreliable". Bonnie Triyana, an Indonesian historian, has documented the death toll during the American "pacification" of her country, of at least three million, while the NYT ran an article headlined "U.S. Stood By as Indonesia Killed a Half-Million People, Papers Show", reducing the death total by 85% and blaming the deaths on Indonesians rather than the US CIA and military. It is more or less an axiom that the greater the atrocities and the more horrific the war crimes, the greater the understatement, and also the more extensive the media censorship on the topic.
It is also an axiom that whenever the US inflicts its military (and other) atrocities on other nations, the victim is almost inevitably blamed, in one way or another. The NYT article above is one example; there are many others. When the US released the swine flu in Cuba in 1971, necessitating the killing of Cuba's 500,000 pigs, the tragedy was immediately engulfed in US media accusations of Cuba having a biological weapons program that was a threat to the world.
The topic of this essay is US casualties in Vietnam, but let's first examine the landscape to see the kinds of troubles we have in making determinations with any semblance of accuracy. We will look at Iraq, since it is more current and we have more details readily at hand.
First, civilian deaths. The US military claims about 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq. The US Senate clams 115,000, using numbers from the Brookings Institution. The Lancet claimed more than 650,000, with Fox News immediately challenging this "controversial new study" with its "disputed" results. According to Fox, "one respected group" made a "rough estimate at closer to 50,000", and "one expert" was "skeptical" of the new findings. The Guardian, on the other hand, supported the study, stating that it had been "examined and validated by four separate independent experts", stating also that the US military's lower estimate was "was hugely controversial". One UN estimate for Iraqi civilian casualties was over one million, and dozens of other "reports" and "studies" have been all over the map. Meanwhile, the US military remains silent and lets everyone speculate. If accurate figures are indeed available - and they may not be - those who have the data will never release it. Thus, we will never know the truth.
Then, US military casualties and casualty rate in Iraq. To determine this, we need to know the number of deployed soldiers and the number of fatalities. As to deployment, the US military says that about 775,000 troops "participated" in the Iraq war, while the Council on Foreign Relations says a total of 340,000 US troops were deployed to Iraq. On the other hand, the US Senate tells us, in a "definitive" study, that "More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq". To make the picture even more clear, other sources state that these numbers do not include the "hundreds of thousands" of Blackwater and other mercenaries. To further increase the clarity, the US Military often either forgets or remembers (whichever is most convenient) to identify or differentiate between Army (active and reserve), National Guardsmen, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and other categories, sometimes including totals of all branches for deployment but casualties for the Army only. And so on.
Increasing the clarity yet further, the DOD tell us things like "there is a total of "260,000 US Troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria", with no way to separate them by country. Another source tells us the US has deployed more than 2,000,000 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, again without separation.[10a] If the Afghanistan figure of about 750,000 is accurate, that leaves about 1.25 million for Iraq, but we can't be sure. Then we enter a huge cloud with statements like "More than 775,000 U.S. service members have deployed to Afghanistan at least once", with no way to know how many have been double- or triple-counted. The military claim some have been deployed five times. At one point, the Pentagon stated there were 132,000 US troops deployed in Iraq, while the Congressional Research Service (CRS) said it was double that number at 260,000.
Further, on close examination of the data, we discover that the time periods are by no means consistent from one claim to another, with dates like: March 2003 to April 2009, March 2003 to June 2006, July 2004 to February 2013. Then, US military deaths and other casualties in Iraq. The US Senate's "definitive study", and the number most often presented, tells us about 4,500 US soldiers died in Iraq. But then another report that appeared credible in its other data, stated that US casualties were in excess of 20,000 and climbing.
Then we have a report in the Huffington Post that “The death count is accurate but the figure for combat injuries (of 35,000) wildly understates the number," claiming the total may well be over 500,000, and that the Pentagon reports nearly 230,000 cases of . . . traumatic brain injury alone.
Then we have some very strange reports, typified by an article in the WSWS, detailing a distinction between "combat deaths" and "non-combat deaths", with very wide variations between the two, the latter category being ignored by the DOD and the media, with some observers claiming the military deliberately pushes all possible casualties into the "non-combat" category. And here we enter The Twilight Zone: Lt. Col. Scott D. Ross of the US military’s Transportation Command stated his outfit had evacuated around 3,000 battle-injured casualties and nearly 19,000 non-battle injuries (both dead and wounded). How is that even possible? For every soldier injured or killed in battle, another six were injured or killed in "non-battle" situations. And these injuries were apparently so severe they required emergency evacuation to Germany or elsewhere. Where did these "non-battle" injuries take place? In the mess tents? At the poker table? To add to the confusion, these deaths, injuries and evacuations apparently did not include "contractors" or Blackwater's mercenaries.
There is the further problem of the apparently credible reports of the US military burying thousands of body bags in mass graves in the Iraq desert, with all those then listed as "Missing in Action" (MIA) and therefore excluded from the death toll. These were apparently bodies of American servicemen and Blackwater’s mercenaries, who would now not be listed as war dead. This was not a single event but appeared to be a continuing program of some considerable size. The reporter cataloguing this was told that by classifying all those men as MIA, the US military could avoid many family, media, and financial difficulties, and that recruiting for both the military and Blackwater’s mercenaries would be much eased with smaller death tolls. The man was killed by a military sniper before he could release his videos and photos, which disappeared after his death.
The LA Times joined this parade with an article written by a former Air Force Captain employed by the US State Department in Iraq, who said that "95% of injured soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen were not reported as casualties due to what he refers to as the Pentagon’s ‘fudging the numbers’ in a bid to win funding from American lawmakers to finance the wars."
And where does this leave us? Exactly no place. Given all the smoke, there is no way to know the real numbers for Iraq. According to the Guardian, "a bitter war of numbers is raging. Trying to cut one's way through the statistical jungle quickly becomes a battle over methodology, and sometimes over motives. Critics even raise the specter of fraud . . ." To ensure this state of affairs, according to Lt. General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq: "We don't do body counts."
Lastly, Slate carried an article stating that "A comparative analysis of U.S. casualty statistics from Iraq tells a different story. After factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements, infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966 - and in some cases more lethal." For your information, the "official" numbers for Vietnam were about 7 times higher than those for Iraq.
We would like to know the total deaths and the casualty rate for US servicemen in Iraq, but there seems no way to accurately determine either the actual number deployed to Iraq, nor the number of deaths and injuries. It seems reasonably clear that the official numbers are incorrect - some would say fraudulent - but the information necessary for firm knowledge isn't available or accessible.
To return to the beginning, the US government and military inevitably understate all the bad parts of their wars. It isn't a secret that they also lie about all portions of their military adventures. There were multiple media reports that George Bush told 900 separate lies about Iraq, leading up to and during the war. I don't know if the statement was true, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were, and the military, the State Department and the media told their share of hundreds of more lies about Iraq.
If we take the US Senate at their word for 1.5 million deployed in Iraq and a total of about 2 million for both Iraq and Afghanistan, with the "official" death toll at about 6,000 for both, we are left with 3 deaths per 1,000 or about 1/3 of 1%, a number that seems a bit implausible for about 20 years of war in both places. Given this, given the "95% are not reported", given the "we don't do body counts", given the "injuries were not 35,000 but more than 500,000", why would we choose to believe the "official" casualty statistics about Iraq?
Turning to Vietnam
Within feet of the DMZ and at constant risk... Larry Burrows/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
The situation with Vietnam is not better than that in Iraq, but is actually much worse. This is true for no other reason than the powerful political constraints on Vietnam. For Iraq, the US population appeared to be more or less onside, with few street protests and other signs of strenuous objection. Vietnam was very different. You may recall the Kent State Massacre where protesting students were shot in back on Nixon's orders, and you may recall Daniel Ellsberg copying and releasing all the documents from the RAND corporation where he worked - the "Pentagon Papers". The American public were so inflamed by the lies and the illegality, to say nothing of the brutality, of the Vietnam war that much of the nation was in anarchy and becoming ungovernable, with serious concerns of a nationwide public uprising that could easily have overthrown the government. It was in this climate that the US military rescinded the draft, primarily because almost no one was showing up for it.
No government wants to report bad news during a war, especially deaths and injuries, but Vietnam was a special case for the American military and for the government. Bear in mind that the US authorities lied about everything leading up to and during the war in Vietnam until the bad news escaped confinement. The false-flag Gulf of Tonkin incident was only the beginning. The US military lied about the existence of Project Phoenix, the massive torture-to-death program, about the use of Agent Orange - "The Vietnamese government asked us to spray some of their forests". They lied about the false partition of Vietnam, about the bombing of Laos and Cambodia, about the total death tolls of Vietnamese, about the hideous deformed births, about the use of napalm on civilians, and scores of other items large and small. They also lied about the American POWs abandoned in Vietnam.
I have read through numerous files from that time and I cannot identify any item of consequence where the US military, government or media told the truth - essentially the same as Iraq.
Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000
An exhausted US infantryman drinks from his canteen in the Fishhook area of Cambodia
by Larry Burrows/Time & Life pictures/Getty Images
Readers may recall my article on Robert McNamara’s Infamous “Project 100,000”, where around 500,000 severely-retarded young men, combed from the ghettos of America, were pushed into military service and sent to Vietnam. These were men who were unable and had to be taught how to tie their own shoelaces, whose reading comprehension was so low the military had to make little comic books to explain the most basic of military protocol and procedures.
Many researchers have claimed that an overwhelming majority of these men, especially blacks, received combat assignments, and “comprised an overwhelming majority of … battle deaths”, and were also generally posted to “what were considered dangerous military occupations”. These men were provided with special ‘dog tags’ that began with “US67…” so they could be quickly identified by other soldiers. By all accounts, the regular troops did not want to be associated with these men, certainly not in a battle situation, because their lack of intelligence and training simply jeopardised the lives of all around them. Many have reported that when battlefield decisions were being made, given that these men were unable to learn anything much more complicated than pulling a trigger, they were just sent to their deaths. One Vietnam veteran reported that a common order issued to these young men ‘salvaged from the blight of poverty’ was to “Go over there and see if there’s a sniper in that tree”. According to Colonel David Hackworth, who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and became one of the most highly decorated warriors in American history,
"Project 100,000 was implemented to produce more grunts for the killing fields of Vietnam. It took unfit recruits from the bottom of the barrel and rushed them to Vietnam. The result was human applesauce."
US casualty figures mushroomed after the introduction of this program, the victims of which were simply cannon-fodder and, for this and other reasons, I remain convinced there is a high probability that American deaths in Vietnam were grossly under-reported. The subject of war fatalities is always open to claims of manipulation by all sides, but more than a few people seem surprisingly eager to accept the US military’s Vietnam numbers, with what would appear to be unexamined opinions at best. Consider:
2.5 million US soldiers were sent to Vietnam. Officially, around 60,000 died, so a death rate of about 2.25%. “McNamara’s Morons” were reported to have been sent to Vietnam in total numbers ranging from 350,000 to about 500,000, depending on the source you choose. Their deaths are reported to be about 5,500. At the highest deployment numbers that would be a death rate of only 1%.
Yet all sources, including official US military reports, claim that these mentally-handicapped young men suffered fatalities at rates far higher than that of regular soldiers, many claiming death rates of “five to ten times” higher, most sources unanimous in claiming a death rate of around five times higher. I found only one original source claiming "three times higher". But the mentally-retarded young men who were mostly infantry and confirmed as having been sent into combat at a rate "at least several times that" of regular soldiers, and who suffered death rates "at least several times higher', apparently experienced a fatality rate only 40% or 50% that of regular soldiers. How does any of this make sense?
This is the problem that military researchers have in determining the truth of Vietnam even today, claiming that the US military provides only incomplete, contradictory, and confusing data, and stonewalls all attempts to ascertain the truth. In particular, researchers state the US military refuses to release any records on "McNamara’s Morons", so there appears to be no way to know how many died. I do not know how many of these young men survived to return home. My estimate of "few returned" was gleaned from personal testimony of other soldiers who were in Vietnam and served with these men.
None of the official claimed numbers make any sense, either statistically or logically. The Vietnam war was one of the most bitterly-fought wars in recent history, one that the US lost and was in fact driven out of Vietnam, yet the total official death toll is a minuscule 2%+ for ordinary soldiers and a vanishingly-small 1% for hundreds of thousands of young men with an IQ as low as 60 and none above 80.
But perhaps a simpler question is this: The US government and military lied about almost every single element related to the war in Vietnam, and they did so - necessarily, I would suggest - in a political climate so incendiary that it might have sparked a popular revolution. Yet there appear to be many who inexplicably choose to believe that, out of literally hundreds of areas where the US government and military provably lied about US involvement in Vietnam, in this one single instance – the military death count – they magically are telling the truth. You are of course free to form whatever opinion you deem appropriate. For my part, I harbor grave doubts.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 32 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’. (Chapt. 2 — Dealing with Demons).
His full archive can be seen at
https://www.bluemoonofshanghai.com/ + https://www.moonofshanghai.com/
He can be contacted at:
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Copyright © Larry Romanoff, Blue Moon of Shanghai, Moon of Shanghai, 2022