The Vietnam War: Body Count

1964: 216 killed.
1965: 1,928 killed.
1966: 6,350 killed.
1967: 11,363 killed.
1968: 16,899 killed.
1969: 11,780 killed…

58,220 deaths. After the United States of America entered the Vietnam War in 1965, the number of soldiers killed in the war skyrocketed. A total of 58,220 soldiers died from a range of causes, including death from wounds, killed in action, accidents, and even self-infliction. During the bloodiest month of 1968, over 2,000 soldiers were killed in May alone. This number only continued to increase because of the Tet Offensive and through 1969. From May 28 through June 3, 1969, 242 Americans were killed (“Vietnam War U.S. Military”).

Yet, the number of deaths from this war was brought closer home than they had in previous wars, such as in World War I or World War II. Television became more prominent in the 1960s, especially in 1968. As a result, the war became more televised, allowing a massive audience of Americans to view the casualties of the war from their homes. Every night, the body count was declared on the evening news:

Due to the fact that evening news stations, such as NBC, CBS, and ABC, informed the audience of the number of American deaths, Vietnamese deaths, and more, it brought attention to the great number of casualties. Americans were able to see the war from the backseat, viewing the dehumanization of violence and turning deaths into an abstract number and consequence of war. They could observe the true horrors of the war not only through television, but also through photography as well. However, it also forced the soldiers and people to understand and accept that soldiers were dying on both sides of the war. It was a way of including the American audience into the war, and led to a large number of Anti-Vietnam war protests.

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Protestors filled the streets not only in America, but also in London in 1968.

Nevertheless, the constant repetition of the body count became a major part of memory from 1968. The number of people died (Americans, Vietnamese, and Communists) was described every night, some with cause of death. The body count was manipulated in a way to make it appear as if the United States was winning the war; however, this was far from the truth (Arillo). The body count was a way to measure progress. Since it was difficult to see this progress through the acquirement of territory, the body count became a necessity of sorts to determine how much progress the United States was making. However, this made the body count and the kill the “primary target – simply because the essential political target is too elusive for us” (Myers and Gartner).

” … Such statistics are not only meaningless but misleading and that body counts can push junior commanders into a numbers game that compromises their integrity” – General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (Arillo)

In other words, the body count for the Vietnam side was elevated and rewards were given for having killed soldiers. This memory then remained with Americans watching television, deceived by the body count into believing the United States was making great progress and winning the Vietnam War.

As a result, the body count is tied to emotion in people’s memories of the Vietnam War while it was televised. There now lies a sense of mistrust, especially towards those in power during war and in politics. This mistrust continues to be remembered by people years from now who reflect back on 1968. During this year, the idea was that the American audience would benefit from the body count; however, the opposite happened. The feeling of mistrust has perpetuated and the media is now not always trusted. Furthermore, fewer people today benefit from the memory of the body count, except as a reminder of the Vietnam War and a stark contrast between the war then and wars now. This lends to the

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In February 1968, a couple watches footage of the Vietnam War. Image credit: Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine / Public Domain.

concept that the memory of the body count is processual. The feeling of mistrust has continued to be developed upon as people have experienced new wars and conflicts, as well as have created new memories of politics and more that have changed their opinions and previous memories. In addition to this feeling, the idea of body counts has tried to be obliterated in a way from memories. Through the more recent violent conflicts the United States has engaged in, the body count is no longer used, and while Americans are still able to view videos and pictures of those conflicts on television, the number of deaths are more hidden than they were during the Vietnam War. This decreases the reality of war and death. There is more of an impersonal connection between the American audience and the war now than before as well.

 

A US Navy plane was downed and was the plane of Lt. Stephen Owen Musselman. While he ejected from his aircraft before it crashed, he was MIA until March 1, 1978, when remains were confirmed to be his. He was likely included in the body count. Image by Doan Cong Tinh.

Furthermore, within the imagined community in the United States, the body count brought people together to create a deeper link in between them. American soldiers were dying and were spoken of objectively on television, yet all of the Americans in the United States felt that loss as one. This made the body count usable as people may have counted on it to further a feeling of nationalism. However, as time progressed, this memory of the body count became distant, due to the fact there is no body count anymore spoken of on television. While deaths are announced, it is not a regular event that happens nightly on the television news. This means that once those people who remember the body count are no longer alive, the memory of the body count will only be one that is remembered through media and stories passed through word of mouth. Therefore, the body count is a great reminder of the Vietnam War’s morality and amount of deaths. While it may be forgotten directly in people’s memories, it will be remembered as a site of memory that was powerful and brought thousands of people together.

Another evening news link from 1968:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfm_KlKtAT8

References

Arillo, Cecilio. “The Vietnam body-count syndrome.” BusinessMirror, 30 Oct. 2016, www.businessmirror.com.ph/the-vietnam-body-count-syndrome/.

Myers, Marissa E., and Scott S. Gartner. “Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3, Winter 1995, pp. 377-395, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/205692.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:624464ad8b855a974da2ed60a292519b.

“Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics.” National Archives, The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 11 Jan. 2018, www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.

Anti-Vietnam War Image:
http://www.fotolibra.com/gallery/21781/anti-vietnam-war-demo-london-march-1968/

Television Image:
https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-10-11/tet-offensive-shocked-nation-and-permanently-changed-us-attitudes-toward-vietnam

Plane Image:
https://mashable.com/2016/02/05/another-vietnam-photography/#9WFEnECypGqZ

 

 

One thought on “The Vietnam War: Body Count”

  1. After reading your post I have a deeper understanding of just how many people were killed during the war. To me, it was a shocking amount of number. I couldn’t imagine the pain of the family of those who lost their lives, and I believe it still affects them to this day. Overall I think this is a great post, thank you.

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