US Deaths in Vietnam and Iraq by Month

I was watching John McCain and Bob Graham yacking at each other on Meet the Press yesterday, and good lord, this is sounding more like Vietnam all the time. It won’t be long before we’ll have politicians talking about “peace with honor” and secret plans to end the war.

And that reminded me of something I’d been meaning to do for a while. Whenever I bring up a Vietnam/Iraq comparison, fans of the current war point out that casualty rates in Vietnam were way beyond anything we’ve seen so far in Iraq. Which is true, if you’re talking about the Vietnam war at its peak. But there was a long run-up during which Vietnam simmered along at much lower casualty rates. I keep meaning to put together some charts to compare the two wars in terms of the US death toll, and now I’ve done that.

For my Vietnam statistics I used the excellent Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, where there is an advanced search tool that lets you query the database of war dead by month. For the Iraq statistics I used Lunaville’s page on Iraq coalition casualties.

In each case, I counted all US deaths in the war zone, rather than only counting combat fatalities. In the case of the current month (October 2003), I took the fairly morbid step of estimating that the current monthly total of 24 deaths would rise to 32 deaths over the next 10 days. (Here’s hoping that estimate turns out to be high. I’ll revise the charts at the end of the month to reflect the true total.) (Update: Sadly, I was low. The actual number of US deaths in October was 42. I’ve updated the charts accordingly, and have posted some new observations in this item: Iraq war deaths.)

For the first chart, I plotted deaths for the first 12 months of the Vietnam war, and the 8 months to-date of the Iraq war. I picked December of 1961 as the “starting point” for the Vietnam war mainly because that was the month in which SP4 James Davis of Livingston, Tennessee, was killed by the Viet Cong, with Lyndon Johnson later referring to him as “the first American to fall in defense of our freedom in Vietnam.” (See this interesting timeline of the Vietnam war.) Note, though, that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial currently lists Capt. Harry Griffith Cramer, who died in October of 1957, as the earliest Vietnam war death.

Since my main interest in putting this graph together was to think about (and stimulate thinking about) politicians’ and citizens’ perceptions of war-related death tolls, I figured that Johnson’s willingness to identify a particular death as the “first of the war” was as good a starting point as any.

Anyway, here’s the graph (note that you can click on any of these images for a larger version):

It’s interesting to me how the Iraq war, so far at least, shows dramatically more US deaths per month than the Vietnam war did at a comparable point in its political lifetime. Yes, I realize that there were far fewer troops in Vietnam at this stage of the war than we currently have in Iraq. I grant that the two wars have followed very differerent scenarios so far. What I’m really interested in here is the domestic political picture, and its relationship to the ongoing death toll.

Let’s get a little more perspective. Here’s the same chart, but with the numbers for Vietnam extended out to December of 1965, by which time, armed with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (passed in August, 1964), Johnson had dramatically increased the number of US troops on the ground:

Finally, here’s a version of the chart that shows the entire extent of the Vietnam war, ending with the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the US Embassy in April of 1975:

You can spin the data depicted in these charts however you like. For myself, I view them with concern. When politicians are allowed to launch wars for ill-defined reasons, with vague exit strategies and ever-shifting criteria for success, you have a formula for tragedy. That’s what happened back in the 1960s, and I can’t see any reason to believe it isn’t happening again today.

Note: I’m completely aware that this comparison is not normalized for number of US troops present in each conflict. This is not a comparison of death rate per unit of troop strength, and it doesn’t claim to be. If you want that, you’ll have to make a different graph. See discussion below, and on the following pages. The graphs are all the same; I just update them in place when the new numbers become available.

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