U.S. Deaths in Iraq vs. Vietnam: The Handoff

Here are the updated graphs for October. The US death counts for the Iraq and Vietnam wars were almost exactly even last month (105 for Iraq, 104 for Vietnam). Granted, it’s an artificial juxtaposition, based on a somewhat arbitrary starting point for the Vietnam graph. But it seems like an odd irony, at least.

As you can see from the version of the graph that covers the entire Vietnam War, this is almost certainly going to wind up being the crossover point in the two graphs; the Vietnam numbers spike up dramatically from this point on, while I’d be surprised if the Iraq numbers didn’t continue more or less the same going forward. It seems fitting, in a way, as the war is poised to enter a new political phase, with Democrats in the House widely predicted to gain subpoena and agenda-setting power in Tuesday’s midterm election.

As always, I’m comparing the US military casualties in Iraq to those from the Vietnam war at a similar point in each war’s political lifetime (which some have charged is misleading; see disclaimer below). The data come from the advanced search tool at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, and from Lunaville’s page on Iraq coalition casualties. The figures are for the number of US dead per month, without regard to whether the deaths were combat-related.

The first graph shows the first 45 months of the comparison. (Click on any image for a larger version.)

Next, the chart that gives the US death toll for the entire Vietnam war:

Disclaimer: I’ve been accused of comparing apples to oranges in these graphs. For the record, here’s what I am not arguing:

  • I’m not saying that Iraq is somehow deadlier per soldier-on-the-ground than Vietnam. For both wars, the number of fatalities in any given month tracks pretty closely with the number of troops deployed (along with the intensity of the combat operations being conducted). There were more troops in Iraq in the early going than were in Vietnam during the “corresponding” parts of the graphs. Similarly, for later years in Vietnam, when the monthly death toll exceeds the current Iraq numbers, there were many more troops in place.
  • I am not saying that Iraq is somehow “worse” than Vietnam. I include the first graph mainly because I wanted a zoomed-in view of the Iraq data. And I include the second graph, which shows the entire span of the Vietnam war, because I want to be clear about what the data show about overall death tolls — where any rational assessment would have to conclude that, at least so far, Iraq has been far less significant (at least in terms of US combat fatalities) than Vietnam.

I was just curious how the “death profile” of the two wars compared, and how those deaths played out in terms of their political impact inside the US. For that reason, I chose as the starting point for each graph the first fatality that a US president acknowledged (belatedly, in the case of the Vietnam graph, since US involvement in the war “began” under Kennedy, but the acknowledgement was made only later by Johnson) as having resulted from the war in question.

As ever, you are free to draw your own conclusions. And for that matter, you’re free to draw your own graphs, if you have a way of presenting the information that you believe would be better. In that case, feel free to post a comment with a URL to your own version. Thanks.

5 Responses to “U.S. Deaths in Iraq vs. Vietnam: The Handoff”

  1. shogungt Says:

    It’d be interesting to see this same chart with more conflicts included. Do you have access to figures from WWII, Korean War, Civil War, WWI, etc?

  2. jbc Says:

    I’ve seen figures for total US deaths for those conflicts, I believe, but not month-by-month breakdowns. As I recall, WWII had about 400,000 US deaths, and the Civil War had something like 800,000, compared to the roughly 58,000 for the Vietnam War, or the roughly 3,000 so far in Iraq.

  3. beterwas » Year-End Wrap-Up Says:

    […] 3,000 Soldiers, RIP – I make a point to read the names aloud, whenever I come across them in the paper. So many, so young and so sad to think of the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters that have their worst fears realized. Especially when I hear people comparing to previous wars, and saying that it “isn’t so bad.” It is both fallacious and heartless. […]

  4. retok Says:

    Why are these people more important and heartwrenching when they die than any other Americans? We have a fetish for counting military casualties and ignoring all the other people we expend. Car crashes kill far more people (often as brutally) yet we accept (well “ignore”) them and press on.
    When we become soldiers, sailors, and airmen (I’m a MSgt, retiring soon after 26 years of service) we accept that wars are a normal part of international interaction and that we are subject to being on the pointy end of the spear.
    Mourning and grief at loss are appropriate, but be glad previous generations that took VASTLY more casualties weren’t too paralyzed by grief to keep up the fight.
    The Iraq war casualties are unfortunate (don’t forget the severely wounded, who IMO sacrifice far more than those simply killed), and by all means available take care of the troops. That said, we are VOLUNTEERS, who freely chose to serve.
    Current casualties are NOT “so bad” as the bloodbaths of the Civil War or the World Wars.
    Roughly a quarter of our Iraq casualties are from ACCIDENTS, not hostile fire!
    Un-screw the Army safety “culture” if you want to do some lasting good. How many of you know that the DRIVER in an Army vehicle (any of them) is normally the most junior person???
    Add that to the stress of war, unstable wheeled trucks (HMMWVs when uparmored handle poorly), poor visibility, and you get the least skilled coping with the some of the toughest problems.

  5. sinthrax Says:

    would like to correct jbc since he is misinformed about vietnam. it was 59000+ casualties not all were listed as some could not be found.

    second comparing iraq to vietnam and calling them both brutal? i am sorry but unless you were in vietnam which you were probably not. in vietnam they were coming from all angles and beheading people left and right.

    iraq least you can see your enemy! try fighting in a jungle not being able to see vc 5 feet in front of you till they pop one in you or kill a friend of yours.

    try having the government expose you to agent orange and denying that it harmed the good men who fought in nam!

    the government lies and so does everyone else.

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