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Vietnam War Casualties
Author's Notes

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by William F Abbott, Vietnam Veteran

"...In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces the US who served in the V'nam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us." --
Inscription at the beginning of The Wall.

The names are etched onto the 2 rising black marble walls that meet at a vortex of 125 degrees 10 feet above ground level. It is intended that the shining surface will reflect the sun, the ground and those who stand before it. The names are listed chronologically by date of death -the 1st to last- and as 1 walks The Wall slowly, examining the ineffably Amer names, 1 is struck by the same recurring surnames. How many Smiths can there possibly be who died in V'nam? There were 667. How many Andersons? 178. Garcias? 102. Murphys? 82. Jenkins? 66. 1 wants to know more about these


A new DoD database computer tape released through the Nat'l Archives allows researchers for the 1st time to take a much closer look at our 58,152 V'nam casualties.

2,100,000 served in V'nam in the years from 1964-73. This was exactly 24% of the 8444000 who were in the active Armed Forces during those years, but only 8% of the 26000000 Americans who were eligible for military service. The vast majority of Americans who were eligible by age but did not serve in the Armed Forces were exempted by reason of physical, mental, psychiatric, or moral failure; or they were given status deferments because they were college students, fathers, teachers, engineers, or conscientious objectors. Others were simply ineligible by age phasing, high lottery number, or they joined the Reserves or Nat'l Guard. Still others, a small number relatively, refused to register for the draft; some went to Canada or Sweden, few were actually prosecuted, and most were eventually pardoned by Pres Carter's ExecOrd in 1977.

The DoD database shows that of 2100000 men and women who served in V'nam, 58152 or 2.7% were killed. The Army suffered the most casualties, 38179 or 66% of all casualties. As a branch, however, the USMC lost the highest percentage of its own men (5%) which in turn accounted for 25.5% of all casualties.

8 women were killed in V'nam - 5 Army Lieutenants, 1 Army Capt, 1 Army LtCol and 1 USAF Capt. All were nurses, all were single and all but 1 were in their twenties. An estimated 11000 women served in V'nam.

In this rpt we will speak of casualties as the 58152 who died in V'nam, but it should be emphasized that there were 153303 who were wounded seriously enough to be hospitalized and recorded by branch of service. Thus, there were 211455 killed and wounded or 1 in every 10 Americans who served in V'nam. The Army as a branch had 134982 killed or wounded (9.5%), but the Marines suffered 66227 killed and wounded or almost 1 in every 4 Marines who served.


Since the days of Alexander the Great and the Caesars of Rome it has always been the young, inexperienced, low-ranking enlisted man (the dog-face of WW2, the grunt of V'nam) who has taken the brunt of combat casualties.

V'nam was no different and the DoD percentages reveal that nearly 75% of Army enlisted casualties were Privates or Corporals. The USMC losses were skewed even more to the lower ranks- 91% were Pvts or Cpls. If the 2 branches are combined then 80% of the Army and Marine enlisted casualties were Privates or Cpls-grades E1-E4. Although it is a truism that the young die in war, 1 is still unprepared for the fact that 40% of Marine enlisted casualties in V'nam were teenagers that over 16% of Army enlisted casualties were also teenagers and that nearly 1/4 of all enlisted casualties in V'nam were in the same 17-19 year age group. If the demographic is expanded to 17-21 then we find that 83% of Marine enlisted casualties, 65% of Army enlisted casualties, and nearly 70% of all enlisted casualties were 21 or under. Only the Navy with 50% of its enlisted casualties over 21 and the USAF with 75% over 21 showed an older more experienced age demographic.

[Footnote: USCG casualties are included in the Navy totals. Of the 8000 Coastguardsmen who served in V'nam, 7 were killed and 59 wounded.]

No other Amer war has presented such a young profile in combat. These young men were trained quickly, shipped to V'nam quickly and died quickly - many within a few weeks or months of arriving in V'nam.

Given the draft policies, the hard sell recruitment, the severe escalations from month to month, the refusal by Pres Johnson to call up the older Reserves or Natl Guard, it could not have been otherwise. The burden of combat fell on the very available non-college bound young. The civ and military men who formed the policy did not see it necessarily as a disadvantage. The very young are considered by many to be preferred combat material. Despite their inexperience they are thought to accept discipline readily, they do not, in most cases, carry the burdens of wife or children, they are at their peak physically and, perhaps more importantly, many of them probably do not yet fully understand their own mortality, and are therefore less likely to be timid in combat and, as in all Amer wars, it is the very young who are the most willing to volunteer.


It may come as a surprise to some that 63.3% of all V'nam enlisted casualties were volunteer. If officers are added then almost 70% of those who died were volunteers. Of course, the Marine, Navy and Air Corps enlisted personnel were, with the exception of a small number of Marines, all volunteer, but as it turned out almost 50% of Army enlisted casualties were also volunteer. It should be noted, however, that the draft was specifically designed to "trigger" volunteer enlistments. The draft policy at the time of the V'nam Mar was called the Universal Military Training and Service Act. Since its adoption in 1951 at the time of the Korean War, it had been renewed by Congress every 4 years. It called for the registration of all 18-26 year old males with induction to take place at 18 1/2 if so ordered by the local draft board. The draftee, if found mentally and physically fit, would be inducted for a period of 2 year, to be followed by another 2 year period in the active reserves and a subsequent 2 years in the inactive reserves. But recruiters could point out that the volunteer could enlist as early as age 17 (with parental consent) that he was allowed to select his branch of service that he would receive specialized training if he qualified; that he could request a specific overseas assignment; and that his 3 year enlistment satisfied his military obligation immediately, to be followed by another 3 years in the inactive reserves. Sad to say that many of these recruitment promises were fudged in 1 way or another and many of these young men found themselves shipped directly to V'nam after basic training.

1 additional factor, often overlooked, that entered into volunteer enlistment was military tradition, or put in another way, the influence of fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and other men in the extended family who had served in previous 20th century wars. In these families, no matter what was thought of the legitimacy of the V'nam War itself, it was considered unpatriotic and indeed reprehensible to avoid active duty by requesting a status deferment, enlisting in the Reserves or Natl Guard or seeking out a "draft counselor" for advice on how to avoid the draft. This, of course, was 1 of the great and abiding agonies of the V'nam War, causing repercussions Within families that have lasted to this day.


The training for Amer officers beginning with the 3 service academies, the other military colleges, the extensive ROTC prog and the Officer Candidate School (OCS) is thought by many foreign military authorities to be the best in the world. Officer casualties in V'nam, including Warrant Officers, numbered 7874 or 13.5% of all casualties. The Army lost the greatest number of officers, 4635 or 59% of all officer casualties.

[Footnote: With few exceptions, almost all of the 6600 commissioned officers who died in V'nam were graduates of the service academies, the college ROTC or OCS programs. The major service academies and other military colleges provided close to 900 of the V'nam officer casualties: US Military Academy (278); USAF Academy (205); US Naval Academy (130); Texas AandM (112); The Citadel (66); Virginia Military Institute (43); North Georgia College (27); Virginia Polytechnic Institute (26); Norwich Univ'y (19)]

91% of these Army officers were either Warrant Officers, 2nd Lieutenants, 1st Lieutenants or Captains. This was a reflection of the Warrant Officer role as a chopper pilot (of the 1277 Warrant Officer casualties, 95% were Army chopper pilots), and that of the young Lieutenants and Captains as combat platoon leaders or company cmdrs. The same profile holds true for the USMC where 87% of all officer casualties (821 of 938) were either WO, Lts or Capts. Army and Marine officer fatalities in V'nam were also quite young. Fully 50% were in the 17-24 year age group and, astonishingly, there were 764 Army officer casualties (16%) who were 21 or younger. Quite a different profile emerges amongst the Navy and USAF officer corps. The USAF lost the highest percentage of officers. Of 2590 USAF casualties, officer and enlisted, 1674 or 65% were officers. Many of them, as experienced pilots, were older (2/3ds were 30 or older) and many were high-ranking, almost 50% were Majors, LtCols, Colonels and 3 were Genls. The Navy had a similar profile - 55% of its 622 officer casualties were 30 years of age or older and 45 a were ranked at LtCmdr or above when they died. It should be added that 55% of all Navy and USAF officer casualties came as a result of the recon and bombing sorties into N.V'nam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. As a result it was mainly the families of Navy and USAF pilots who suffered the great agony of the POW and MIA experience that came out of the V'nam War.


The makeup of our combat forces in V'nam has long been the subject of controversy among civ and military social scientists. The feeling is that the poor, the under-educated, the minorities made up the vast majority of the combat arms in V'nam. Farther, it is felt by some that this was the very antithesis of what we stand for as a democracy; a shameful corruption of our values and our historical sense of fairness and social justice. There is some truth to this but it will be instructive to look at the DoD database for what it reveals in terms of race, ethnicity, nat'l origin, religious preference and casualties by US geographic areas.

Race, Religion, Ethnicity and National Origin Of all enlisted men who died in V'nam, blacks made up 14.1% of the total. This came at a time when blacks made up 11% of the young male population nationwide. However, if we add officer casualties to the total then this over- representation is reduced to 12.5% of all casualties. Of the 7262 blacks who died, 6955 or 96% were Army and Marine enlisted men. The combination of our selective service policies, our skills and aptitude testing of both volunteers and draftees (in which blacks scored notice ably lower) all conspired to assign blacks in greater numbers to the combat units of the Army and USMC.

Early in the war, when blacks made up about 11% of our V'nam force, black casualties soared to over 20% of the total (1965 and 1966). Black leaders, including Martin Luther King, protested and Pres Johnson ordered that black participation in the combat units should be cut back. As a result, the black casualty rated was reduced to 11.5% by 1969.

During the V'nam War, the Navy and USAF became substantially white enclaves. Of the 4953 Navy and USAF casualties, both officer and enlisted, 4736 or 96% were white. Officer casualties of all branches were overwhelmingly white. Of the 7877 officer casualties, 7595 or 96.4% were white; 147 or 1.8% were black; 24 or .03% were Asian; 7 or .08% were Naive Amer and 104 or 1.3% were unidentified by race.

The DoD database contains no information on Hispanic-Amer casualties. Hispanics can be of any race, but the 1980 census revealed that only 2.6% regard themselves as black. In a massive sampling of the database we were able to establish that between 5.0 and 6.0% had identifiable Hispanic surnames. These were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Latino-Americans with ancestries based in Central and South Amer. They came largely from California and Texas with lesser numbers from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida and NY and a few from many states across the country The 1970 census which we are using as our V'nam era population base, estimated Hispanic-Americans at 4.5% of the US population. Thus we think it is safe to say Hispanic-Americans were over-represented among V'nam casualties - an estimated 5.5% of the dead against 4.5% of the 1970 population. The Territory of Puerto Rico suffered 345 V'nam dead.

In terms of nat'l origin ancestries our extensive sampling of the database reveals that Americans of French Canadian, Polish, Italian and other Southern and Eastern European surnames made up about 10% of the V'nam casualties. These casualties came largely from the Northeast and North Central regions, many from the traditionally patriotic, Catholic working class neighborhoods.

[Footnote: The DoD database listed precise religious preferences for the V'nam casualties. Protestants were 64.4% (37483), Catholics were 28.9% (16806). Less than 1% (.08%) were Jewish, Hindu, That, Buddhist or Muslim and 5.7% listed no religious preference or it was unknown. Blacks were exactly 85% Protestant. Officers of all services, by tradition largely Protestant, remained so during the V'nam War, sustaining casualties on a 5 to 2 ratio.]

It becomes apparent that the remaining 70% of our V'nam enlisted casualties were of English/Scottish/Welsh, German, Irish, and Scandanavian-Amer ancestries, more from the south and Mid-West than the other regions, many from the small towns with a family military tradition. The officer corps has always drawn heavily on English, German, Irish and Scandanavian-Amer ancestries from-lower-middle and middle class white-collar homes with other large percentages from ambitious blue collar and, of course, career military South and West regions - 4.1 deaths per 100000 to 3.5 from the Northeast and North Central (Mid-West).


As a region, the South experienced the greatest numbers of V'nam dead- nearly 34% of the total and 31.0 deaths per 100, 000 of population. This compared graphically with the Northeast region-23.5- while the West was 29.9 and the North Central (Mid-West) region stood at 28.4 deaths per 100000 of population. This uneven impact was caused by a number of factors: 1) While the South was home to some 53% of all blacks in the 1970 census almost 6% of black casualties came from the South; 2) Although we cannot be as precise we do know that a considerable majority of Hispanic-Amer casualties came from the West (California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado) and the South (Texas); 3) Better employment opportunities in the Northeast reduced the number of volunteers; 4) Greater college matriculation in the Northeast increased the number of status deferments for the region's 17-24 year olds; 5) More anti-war sentiment in the media and on college campuses in the Northeast and a correspondingly greater tradition of military service in the other regions. It is not surprising, for instance, that West Virginia, Montana and Oklahoma had a casualty rate almost twice that of NY, New Jersey and Connecticut.


WW2 had been, for the most part, "a perfect war", clear of purpose, the forces of democracy and freedom lined up against the forces of fascism and tyranny. Our combat arms were thought to be completely classless. They drew on ever segment of Amer society. We were 1 giant Hollywood B17 bomber crew; 1 perfect socio-economic platoon storming Omaha Beach or Okinawa. All classes were drafted or volunteered and all served and died equally - although it must be noted that most blacks died separately. But with the beginning of the Cold War that perfect paradigm of purpose broke down and 1 of the features of that breakdown was the withdrawal of the educated classes from the spectrum of military service.

A kind of educational apartheid had settled over the US after WW2. Where previously a high school diploma had been an acceptable goal, now it was college and all the benefits it would bring. Early on it had been evident to Pres Johnson, his advrs and the Congress that the V'nam War could not be conducted beyond its 1st year if the draft had been truly equitable and had included combat assignments for the sons of the educationally advantaged and influential Americans from the professional and managerial classes. Congress and the Johnson Admin sought to protect our college bound and educated young men.

The "Channeling Memo" of 7-1965 instructed local draft boards to defer the college bound, undergraduates and post-graduates: "The Selective Service System has the responsibility to deliver manpower to the armed forces in such a manner as to reduce to a minimum my adverse effect upon the nat'l health, safety, interest and progress."

Many of us forget that Congress and the Amer people were mostly behind our containment effort in V'nam. The young enlisted volunteer and draftee had not had much time to form any complicated theories about our V'nam commitment. He accepted the tradition of military service passed on to him by the popular culture and by the Kennedy/Johnson containment paradigm: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty." Eventually, of course, as the war dragged on and the casualties mounted our commitment was reexamined and for all the well known reasons we were-forced to conclude that the courageous wheel of communist containment that we had fashioned after WW2 had finally developed a badly broken spoke.


Most of the young Amer enlisted men who served in V'nam were not college prospects at the time they entered the service. Those who could have qualified for college probably did not have the funds or motivation. Many of the 17- 18 year olds were simply late in maturing, they were struggling through or dropping out of high school; or, if high school graduates were testing poorly for college entrance. Yet, as it turned out, the percentage of V'nam vets who applied for the GI Bill was higher than either WW2 or Korea.

The DoD database provides no civ or military educational levels for the V'nam casualties. However, the DoD does provide genl levels for all enlisted men across all the services during the V'nam era. The figures show that on average 65% of white enlisted men and 60% of black enlisted men were high school graduates. Only 5-10% of enlisted men in the combat units were estimated to have had some college and less that 1% were college graduates.

The Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) was given to all enlisted men. These aptitude scores were used to classify entrants into 4 categories and their subsequent assignments in the indiv services. On average, 43% of white enlisted entrants placed in categories I and 11 (score 65-100) and 57% in categories III and IV (score 10-64). For blacks, however, it was only 7% in categories I and II and 93% in categories III and IV. In civ life poor aptitude testing can hurt badly whether for college placement or for simple job advancement at all levels. In the military it can be somewhat more deadly. John Kennedy said that life is unfair. True enough, but many of the surviving V'nam casualty families would reply that the ultimate unfairness is death at an early age, in a land far from home, for reasons not clearly defined.

PROJECT 100,000

amounted to 4.1% of all enlisted casualties in V'nam.

Thus we can see that the channeling philosophy continued in the armed forces themselves through the AFQT process where the men scoring in the higher categories were more likely to be assigned to further specialized training and eventually to the skilled, the technical and administrative units.


It would be wise to dispel the widely held notion that the poor served and died in V'nam while the rich stayed home. A more precise equation would be that the college bound stay ed home while the non-college bound served and died. The idea that our V'nam enlisted dead were made up largely of society's poverty stricken misfits is a terrible slander to their memory and to the solid middle class and working class families of this country who provided the vast majority of our casualties. Certainly some who died came from poor and broken families in the urban ghettos and barrios, or were from dirt-poor farm homes in the South and MidWest. and more's the pity because many of them were trying to escape and didn't make it.

Indeed, recent studies tend to refute what had been the perceived wisdom of social scientists and other commentators that our V'nam dead came overwhelmingly from the poor communities. An MIT study released in 10-1992 found that our V'nam casualties were only marginally greater from the economically lowest 50% of our communities (31 V'nam deaths per 100000 of population) when compared with the highest 50% (26 deaths per 100000 of population). The class aspects of V'nam service had to do more with the obvious unfairness of sending very young non-college candidates to serve and die while the college bound stayed home. It became particularly reprehensible when the stay-at-homes sometimes became the most visible protesters against the war often vilifying those who were serving and dying.

It is instructive to read the surviving and still continuing literature of the war - the letters home from those who died, the novels and narrative accounts of those who served in combat and retd. They often reveal a typically warm Amer family atmosphere; they will refer to older or younger siblings who are either in or on their way to college; they often show a heartbreakingly wry sense of humor with the same sensibilities of their college bound peers. It forces us to the conclusion that many of the names on The Wall were kids who just couldn't quite get it together in high school, perhaps a little late in maturing intellectually and, even had they wanted to a didn't have the resources or the guile to get into college and out of the way when the war came.


The V'nam Vets Memorial Wall is now the most popular tourist attraction in Washg'tn. The ceremony at The Wall on Memorial Day has become the single most important and unifying nat'l event honoring all our vets. What will be the evolving historical judgment for those names on The Wall? with the end of the Cold War many now believe that at its outset the V'nam War was a quite honorable extension of our ultimately successful policy of communist containment; that our effort in V'nam became flawed because of political and strategic failures having nothing to do with those who served there; and, that these young Americans were asked by 3 Presidents and 6 Congresses to give up their lives so that freedom would have a better chance everywhere in the world. As 1 stands before The Wall 1 feels that no other judgment is acceptable to their living memory.

"It was as if the black-brown earth were polished and made into an interface between the sunny world and the quiet dark world beyond that we cannot enter The names would become the memorial. There was no need to embellish." - Maya Ling Lin- Architect of The Wall


As the V'nam War wound down in the early 70's and the draft was discontinued, an important debate took place among the mili, the executive branch, the Congress and the social scientists. As we have seen the evidence showed quite conclusively that with the exception of our officer corps the college bound and educated classes had almost completely avoided serving in our V'nam combat forces. The crux of the debate on the future of our military therefore became; In a democratic society that demands justice and equality, who should serve when not all serve?

Although there were compellingly egalitarian arguments for some sort of universal military or nat'l service, they did not survive the hard-eyed appraisal of the realists in the Executive, the Congress and the mili. Realistically they looked at the whole spectrum of our young people and decided that, although many of the college bound would, and did, volunteer for the Peace Corps, or social work, or environmental remedies, or other "good works", the great majority would be so caught up in their own careers and self- interest, that we could not begin to persuade them to volunteer for the armed forces and that if we attempted to draft them as part of a natl service they would resist with all the fervor and articulation at their command.

Thus the All-Volunteer Force was born in 1973 and as expected it has had its unrepresentative moments. In the late 70's and early 80's, the Army became over 50% black and Hispanic. Gradually, however, with a combination of intelligent recruitment and raises standards the various branches have matured into something approaching a representative force. During the recent Gulf we our All-Volunteer Force was about 20-25% black, 6% Hispanic, and 11% female. Virtually all enlisted men and women were high school graduates, a fair percentage had some college, AFQT scores had improved substantially over 90 a in categories I through III), and, with the Reserve and NG call-up, the whole force was somewhat older. Should they want 1 most of the returning vets are eligible for a college education. Many will hope to stay in the military as a career ar will come out of the service with skills they could not have acquired as civilians.

The officer corps, still led by the men and women of our service academies, the ROTC and the OCS, is now more representative of our society the ever before. The Gulf war, with its thankfully few casualties, was a vital test. Political and strategic considerations of war and peace aside, the All-Volunteer Force appears to be ready for the 90's and beyond.


Most of the info in this rpt was provided by the Natl Archives in Washg'tn. The database is entitled So'east Asia, Combat Area Casualties File (CACF).

Dept of Defense, Selected Manpower Statistics, 1988-89.
Office of Ass't SecDef-Accessions.
V'nam Vets Memorial-Directory of Names.
Statistical Abstract of the US, 1970-80.
Human Resources Research Org-HumRRO.
Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks PA
US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy
Texas AandM
The Citadel
Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
Norwich University
"We The People" - Allen and Turner, MacMillan and Co, 1988
"Amer's V'nam Casualties Victims of a Class War?"
MIT - Arnold Barnett, Timothy Stanley, Michael Shore
Published in Ops Research, Vol.40, N0.5, Sept/Oct.1992

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