Vietnam War casualties

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Vietnamese memorial of the dead
The American War Memorial of the dead Vietnamese soldiers, Vietnam (Hanoi).
American memorial of the dead
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, USA (Washington, D.C.).
Two major war memorials commemorating the dead soldiers in. the Second Indochina War (a.k.a. the Vietnam War and the American War).

Estimates of casualties of the Vietnam War vary widely. Estimates include both civilian and military deaths in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

The conflict persisted from 1955 to 1975 and most of the fighting took place in South Vietnam; accordingly it suffered the most casualties. The war also spilled over into the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos which also endured casualties from aerial and ground fighting.

Civilian deaths caused by both sides amounted to a significant percentage of total deaths. Civilian deaths were partly caused by assassinations, massacres and terror tactics. Civilian deaths were also caused by mortar and artillery, extensive aerial bombing and the use of firepower in military operations conducted in heavily populated areas. Some 365,000 Vietnamese civilians are estimated by one source to have died as a result of the war during the period of American involvement.[1]

A number of incidents occurred during the war in which civilians were deliberately targeted or killed. The best-known are the Massacre at Huế and the My Lai massacre.

Total number of deaths[edit]

Waiting to Lift Off by James Pollock, Vietnam Combat Artists Program, CAT IV, 1967. Courtesy of National Museum of the U.S. Army

Estimates of the total number of deaths in the Vietnam War vary widely. The wide disparity among the estimates cited below is partially explained by the different time periods of the Vietnam War covered by the studies and whether casualties in Cambodia and Laos were included in the estimates.

Guenter Lewy in 1978 estimated 1,353,000 total deaths in North and South Vietnam during the period 1965–1974 in which the U.S. was most engaged in the war. Lewy reduced the number of VC and PAVN battle deaths claimed by the U.S. by 30 percent (in accordance with the opinion of United States Department of Defense officials), and assumed that one third of the battle deaths of the PAVN/VC were actually civilians. His estimate of total deaths is reflected in the table.[2]

Deaths in Vietnam War (1965–1974) per Guenter Lewy
Allied military deaths 282,000
NVA/VC military deaths 444,000
Civilian deaths (North and South Vietnam) 627,000
Total deaths 1,353,000


A 1995 demographic study in Population and Development Review calculated 791,000–1,141,000 war-related Vietnamese deaths, both soldiers and civilians, for all of Vietnam from 1965–75. The study came up with a most likely Vietnamese death toll of 882,000, which included 655,000 adult males (above 15 years of age), 143,000 adult females, and 84,000 children. Those totals include only Vietnamese deaths, and do not include American and other allied military deaths which amounted to about 64,000.[3] The study has been criticized for its small sample size, the imbalance in the sample between rural and urban areas, and the possible overlooking of clusters of high mortality rates.[4]

In 1995, the Vietnamese government released its estimate of war deaths for the more lengthy period of 1955–75. PAVN and VC deaths were reported as 1.1 million and civilian deaths of Vietnamese on both sides totaled 2.0 million. These estimates probably include deaths of Vietnamese soldiers in Laos and Cambodia, but do not include deaths of South Vietnamese and allied soldiers which would add nearly 300,000 for a grand total of 3.4 million military and civilian dead.[5]

A 2008 study by the BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) came up with a higher toll of 3,812,000 dead in Vietnam between 1955–2002. For the period of the Vietnam War the totals are 1,310,000 between 1955 and 1964, 1,700,000 between 1965–74 and 810,000 between 1975 and 1984. (The estimates for 1955–64 are much higher than other estimates). The sum of those totals is 3,091,000 war deaths between 1955–75.[4]

Uppsala University in Sweden maintains the Armed Conflict Database. Their estimates for conflict deaths in Vietnam are 164,923 from 1955–64 and 1,458,050 from 1965–75 for a total of 1,622,973. The database also estimates combat deaths in Cambodia for the years 1967–75 to total 259,000. Data for deaths in Laos is incomplete.[6]

R. J. Rummel's mid-range estimate in 1997 was that the total deaths due to the Vietnam conflict totaled 2,450,000 from 1954–75. Rummel calculated PAVN/VC deaths at 1,062,000 and ARVN and allied war deaths of 741,000,with both totals include civilians inadvertently killed. He estimated that victims of democide (deliberate killing of civilians) included 214,000 by North Vietnam/VC and 98,000 by South Vietnam and its allies. Deaths in Cambodia and Laos were estimated at 273,000 and 62,000 respectively.[7]

Deaths in Vietnam War (1954–75) per R. J. Rummel (except where otherwise noted)[7]
Low estimate of deaths Middle estimate of deaths High estimate of deaths Notes and comments
North Vietnam/Viet Cong military and civilian war dead 533,000 1,062,000 1,489,000 includes an estimated 50,000/65,000/70,000 civilians killed by U.S/SVN bombing/shelling[8]
South Vietnam/U.S./South Korea war military and civilian war dead 429,000 741,000 1,119,000 includes 360,000/391,000/720,000 civilians[9]
Democide by North Vietnam/Viet Cong 131,000 214,000 302,000 25,000/50,000/75,000 killed in North Vietnam, 106,000/164,000/227,000 killed in South Vietnam
Democide by South Vietnam 57,000 89,000 284,000 Democide is the murder of persons by or at the behest of governments.
Democide by the United States 4,000 6,000 10,000 Democide is the murder of persons by or at the behest of governments.
Democide by South Korea 3,000 3,000 3,000 Rummel does not give a medium or high estimate.
Subtotal Vietnam 1,156,000 2,115,000 3,207,000
Cambodians 273,000 273,000 273,000 Rummel estimates 212,000 killed by Khmer Rouge (1967–1975), 60,000 killed by U.S. and 1,000 killed by South Vietnam (1967–73). No estimate given for deaths caused by Viet Cong/North Vietnam (1954–75).[10]
Laotians 28,000 62,000 115,000 Source:[4]
Grand total of war deaths: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (1954–75) 1,450,000 2,450,000 3,595,000

Civilian deaths in the Vietnam War[edit]

Lewy estimates that 40,000 South Vietnamese civilians were assassinated by the PAVN/VC; 250,000 were killed as a result of combat in South Vietnam, and 65,000 were killed in North Vietnam. He suggests that another 222,000 civilians were counted as military deaths by the U.S. in compiling its "body count." His estimated total of civilian deaths is 587,000.[11][12][13] It was difficult to distinguish between civilians and military personnel in many instances as many individuals were part-time guerrillas or impressed laborers who did not wear uniforms.[14][15][16]

Deaths caused by North Vietnam/VC forces[edit]

The Viet Cong killed hundreds of Montagnard civilians at the village during the Battle of Dak Son, 1967

R. J. Rummel estimated that PAVN/VC forces killed around 164,000 civilians in democide between 1954 and 1975 in South Vietnam, from a range of between 106,000 and 227,000, plus another 50,000 killed in North Vietnam.[17] Rummel's mid-level estimate includes 17,000 South Vietnamese civil servants killed by PAVN/VC. In addition, at least 36,000 Southern civilians were executed for various reasons in the period 1967–1972.[18] About 130 American and 16,000 South Vietnamese POWs died in captivity.[19] During the peak war years, another scholar Guenter Lewy attributed almost a third of civilian deaths to the VC.[20]

Thomas Thayer in 1985 estimated that during the 1965-72 period the VC killed 33,052 South Vietnamese village officials and civil servants.[21]

Deaths caused by South Vietnam[edit]

According to RJ Rummel, from 1964 to 1975, an estimated 1,500 people died during the forced relocations of 1,200,000 civilians, another 5,000 prisoners died from ill-treatment and about 30,000 suspected communists and fighters were executed. In Quảng Nam Province 4,700 civilians were killed in 1969. This totals, from a range of between 16,000 and 167,000 deaths caused by South Vietnam during the (Diệm-era), and 42,000 and 118,000 deaths caused by South Vietnam in the post Diệm-era), excluding PAVN forces killed by the ARVN in combat.[22] Operating under the direction of the CIA and other US and South Vietnamese Intel organizations and carried out by RVN units alongside US advisers was the Phoenix Program, intended to neutralise the VC political infrastructure, whom were the civilian administration of the Viet Cong/Provisional Revolutionary Government via infiltration, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination.[23] The program resulted in an estimated 26,000 to 41,000 killed, with an unknown number possibly being innocent civilians.[23]

Deaths caused by the American military[edit]

RJ Rummel estimated that American forces committed around 5,500 intentional democidal mass-killings between 1960 and 1972, from a range of between 4,000 and 10,000 killed in democide.[24] Benjamin Valentino attributes possibly 110,000–310,000 "counterguerrilla mass killings" to U.S. and South Vietnamese forces during the war.[25]

Estimates for the number of North Vietnamese civilian deaths resulting from US bombing range from 30,000–65,000.[26][3] Higher estimates place the number of civilian deaths caused by American bombing of North Vietnam in Operation Rolling Thunder at 182,000.[27] American bombing in Cambodia is estimated to have killed between 30,000 and 150,000 civilians and combatants.[25][28]

Burial of 300 unidentified victims from the Huế Massacre, killed by communist forces and found after the ARVN and U.S. Marines retook the area in March, 1968. U.S. Military photo[29][30]

18.2 million gallons of Agent Orange, some of which was contaminated with Dioxin, was sprayed by the U.S. military over more than 10% of Southern Vietnam,[31] as part of the U.S. herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. Vietnam's government claimed that 400,000 people were killed or maimed as a result of after effects, and that 500,000 children were born with birth defects.[32] The United States government has challenged these figures as being unreliable.[33]

Guenter Lewy estimates that around 220,000 civilians in South Vietnam were killed in US, ARVN and other allied land operations and miscounted as "enemy KIA".[34] For official US military operations reports, there are no established distinctions between enemy KIA and civilian KIA, since body counts was a direct measure of operational success often caused US "operations reports" to list civilians killed as enemy KIA.[35] The pressure to produce body counts as a measure of operational success often caused US "operations reports" to list civilians killed as enemy KIA[36] with one prominent example being the My Lai Massacre written off as an operational success.[37][38] It was assumed by US forces that, were an area is declared a free-fire zone that all individuals killed regardless of whether they were combatants or not, were considered enemy KIA.[39] This it is suggested explains the discrepancies between recovered weapons and body-count figures, alongside inflation.[34] Official operations reports rarely made a distinction between civilians killed and actual combatants, drastically inflating the numbers of "enemies killed" as it was directly tied to promotions and commendation.[40][38] At other times US-committed atrocities were often tied to or blamed on the NVA/VC to skirt punishment.[40] There are further claims made that when air-strikes or artillery were called in on villages, usually civilian casualties were reported as "enemies killed".[40][38] An alleged massacre in which the killed was reported as "enemy KIA" was the Thuy Bo massacre.

German historian Bernd Greiner mentions the following war crimes reported, and/or investigated by the Peers Commission and the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, among other sources:[41]

  • Seven massacres officially confirmed by the American side. My Lai (4) and My Khe (4) claimed the largest number of victims with 420 and 90 respectively, and in five other places altogether about 100 civilians were executed. The My Lai Massacre, where civilians killed were described as enemy combatants, was initially reported as a battlefield victory.[42] This was especially true when areas would be declare a free-fire zone. Victories were often based on body-counts, which resulted in further distortions of actual combatant deaths.[43]
  • Two further massacres were reported by soldiers who had taken part in them, one north of Đức Pho in Quảng Ngãi Province in the summer of 1968 (14 victims), another in Bình Định Province on 20 July 1969 (25 victims).
  • Tiger Force, a special operations force, murdered hundreds, possibly over a thousand, civilians.
  • In the course of large-scale operations an unknown number of non-combatants were killed either accidentally or deliberately – with the Army Inspector General estimating that more than 5,000 died in the course of Operation Speedy Express. Excluding deaths from artillery and air attacks, the total number of dead may have reached tens of thousands during the entire war.

According to the Information Bureau of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), between April 1968 and the end of 1970 American ground troops killed about 6,500 civilians in the course of twenty-one operations either on their own or alongside their allies. Three of the massacres reported on the American side were not mentioned on the PRG list.

Nick Turse, in his 2013 book, Kill Anything that Moves, argues that a relentless drive toward higher body counts, a widespread use of free-fire zones, rules of engagement where civilians who ran from soldiers or helicopters could be viewed as VC, and a widespread disdain for Vietnamese civilians led to massive civilian casualties and endemic war crimes inflicted by U.S. troops.[44] One example cited by Turse is Operation Speedy Express, an operation by the 9th Infantry Division, which was described by John Paul Vann as, in effect, "many My Lais".[44]

Air force captain, Brian Wilson, who carried out bomb-damage assessments in free-fire zones throughout the delta, saw the results firsthand. "It was the epitome of immorality...One of the times I counted bodies after an air strike—which always ended with two napalm bombs which would just fry everything that was left—I counted sixty-two bodies. In my report I described them as so many women between fifteen and twenty-five and so many children—usually in their mothers' arms or very close to them—and so many old people." When he later read the official tally of dead, he found that it listed them as 130 VC killed.[45]

Deaths caused by the South Korean military[edit]

United States Marine recovered victims bodies who were killed by South Korean Marines in Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat hamlets on February 12, 1968.[46]

The ROK Capital Division purportedly conducted the Bình An/Tây Vinh massacre in February/March 1966. The 2nd Marine Brigade purportedly conducted the Binh Tai Massacre on 9 October 1966.[47] In December 1966, the Blue Dragon Brigade purportedly conducted the Bình Hòa massacre.[48] The Second Marine Brigade conducted the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre on 12 February 1968.[49][50] South Korean Marines purportedly conducted the Hà My massacre on 25 February 1968.[51] According to a study conducted in 1968 by a Quaker-funded Vietnamese-speaking American couple, Diane and Michael Jones, there were at least 12 mass-killings conducted by South Korean forces which approached the scale of the My Lai Massacre with reports of thousands of routine murders on civilians primarily the elderly, women and children.[52][53] A separate study by a RAND Corporation employee Terry Rambo conducted interviews in 1970 in ARVN/civilian areas on reported Korean atrocities.[54] Widespread reports of deliberate mass-killings were reported to have occurred, alleging that these were systemic, deliberate policies to massacre civilians with murders running into the hundreds.[54] These policies are also reported by US commanders, with one US Marine General stating "whenever the Korean marines received fire "or think (they got) fired on from a village ... they'd divert from their march and go over and completely level the village ... it would be a lesson to (the Vietnamese)."[55] Another Marine commander Gen. Robert E. Cushman Jr. added, "we had a big problem with atrocities attributed to them, which I sent on down to Saigon." [55] Investigations by Korean civic groups have alleged there were at-least 9000 civilians massacred by ROK forces.[56]

Army of the Republic of Vietnam[edit]

The ARVN suffered 254,256 recorded combat deaths between 1960 and 1974, with the highest number of recorded deaths being in 1972, with 39,587 combat deaths.[57] According to Guenter Lewy, the ARVN suffered between 171,331 and 220,357 deaths during the war.[11][21]:106 R.J. Rummel estimated that ARVN lost between 219,000 and 313,000 deaths during the war including in 1975 and prior to 1960.[17]

Year 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 Total (1960-1974)
ARVN combat deaths[58] 2,223 4,004 4,457 5,665 7,457 11,242 11,953 12,716 27,915 21,833 23,346 22,738 39,587 27,901 31,219 254,256

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military deaths[edit]

RJ Rummel estimates 1,011,000 PAVN/VC combatant deaths.[59] The official US Department of Defense figure was 950,765 communist forces killed in Vietnam from 1965 to 1974. Defense Department officials believed that these body count figures need to be deflated by 30 percent. For this figure, Guenter Lewy assumes that one-third of the reported enemy killed may have been civilians, concluding that the actual number of deaths of the VC and PAVN military forces was probably closer to 444,000.[11]

Author Mark Woodruff noted that when the Vietnamese Government finally revealed its losses (in April 1995) as being 1.1 million dead, US body count figures had actually.[60]

The Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency program executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States special operations forces, and the Republic of Vietnam's security apparatus, killed 26,369 suspected of being VC operatives and informants.[61][62]

Historian Christian Appy states "search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress" in the US strategy of attrition. Search and destroy was a term to describe operations aimed at flushing the Viet Cong out of hiding, while body count was the measuring stick for operation success. Competitions were held between units for the highest number of Vietnamese killed. U.S. Army and marine officers knew that promotions were largely based on confirmed kills. The pressure to produce confirmed kills resulted in massive fraud. One of the most thorough studies found that American commanders exaggerated body counts by 100 percent. Furthermore there was little distinction made between armed combatants, neutral civilians and unarmed individuals for "enemy KIA".[63]

According to the Vietnamese government's national survey and assessment of war casualties (2017), there were 849,018 PAVN/VC military personnel dead or missing, including combat death and non-combat death, from the period between 1955 and 1975.[64] Based on unit surveys, a rough estimate of 30-40% of dead and missing were non-combat deaths.[64] Across all three wars including the First Indochina War and the Third Indochina War there was a total of 1,146,250 PAVN/VC military deaths or missing, included 939,460 deaths (their bodies were found) and 207,000 missing (their bodies were not found). Per war: 191,605 deaths/missing in the First Indochina War, 849,018 deaths/missing in the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War), and 105,627 deaths/missing in the Third Indochina War.[64]

United States armed forces[edit]

U.S. Vietnam War deaths

Casualties as of 24 August 2018:

  • 58,318 KIA or non-combat deaths (including the missing and deaths in captivity)[65]
  • 153,303 WIA (excluding 150,332 persons not requiring hospital care)[66]
  • 1,594 MIA (originally 2,646)[67]
  • 766–778 POW (652–662 freed/escaped*,[68][69] 114–116 died in captivity)[68][70]

Note: *One escapee died of wounds sustained during his rescue 15 days later.[71]

During the Vietnam War, 30% of wounded service members died of their wounds.[72] 30-35% of American deaths in the war were non-combat or friendly fire deaths; the largest causes of death in the U.S. armed forces were small arms fire (31.8%), booby traps including mines and frags (27.4%), and aircraft crashes (14.7%).[73]

Disproportion of African American casualties[edit]

Blacks suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone they comprised almost one out of every four combat deaths.[74][75] With the draft increasing due to the troop buildup in South Vietnam, the military significantly lowered its admission standards. In October 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated Project 100,000 which further lowered military standards for 100,000 additional draftees per year. McNamara claimed this program would provide valuable training, skills and opportunity to America's poor – a promise that was never carried out. Many black men who had previously been ineligible could now be drafted, along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the southern states.[76][77]

The number of US military personnel in Vietnam jumped from 23,300 in 1965 to 465,600 by the end of 1967. Between October 1966 and June 1969, 246,000 soldiers were recruited through Project 100,000, of whom 41% were black, while blacks only made up about 11% of the population of the US.[76] Of the 27 million draft-age men between 1964 and 1973, 40% were drafted into military service, and only 10% were actually sent to Vietnam. This group was made up almost entirely of either work-class or rural youth. College students who did not avoid the draft were generally sent to non-combat and service roles or made officers, while high school drop-outs and the working class were sent into combat roles. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% to 80% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military.[74][78]

Civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, and others, criticized the racial disparity in both casualties and representation in the entire military, prompting the Pentagon to order cutbacks in the number of African Americans in combat positions. Commander George L. Jackson said, "In response to this criticism, the Department of Defense took steps to readjust force levels in order to achieve an equitable proportion and employment of Negroes in Vietnam." The Army instigated myriad reforms, addressed issues of discrimination and prejudice from the post exchanges to the lack of black officers, and introduced "Mandatory Watch And Action Committees" into each unit. This resulted in a dramatic decrease in the proportion of black casualties, and by late 1967, black casualties had fallen to 13%, and were below 10% in 1970 to 1972.[76][79] As a result, by the war's completion, total black casualties averaged 12.5% of US combat deaths, approximately equal to percentage of draft-eligible black men, though still slightly higher than the 10% who served in the military.[79]

South Vietnamese women and children in Mỹ Lai before being killed in the massacre, March 16, 1968

Aftereffects[edit]

Unexploded ordnance especially bombs dropped by the United States, continue to detonate and kill people today. The Vietnamese government claims that unexploded ordnance has killed some 42,000 people since the war officially ended.[80][81] In 2012 alone, unexploded bombs and other ordnance claimed 500 casualties in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, according to activists and government databases. The United States has spent over $65 million since 1998 in an attempt to make Vietnam safe.[82]

Agent Orange and similar chemical substances, have also caused a considerable number of deaths and injuries over the years, including the US Air Force crew that handled them. The government of Vietnam says that 4 million of its citizens were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses because of it; these figures include the children of people who were exposed.[83] The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to contaminated Agent Orange.[84]

On 9 August 2012, the United States and Vietnam began a cooperative cleaning up of the toxic chemical on part of Da Nang International Airport, marking the first time Washington has been involved in cleaning up Agent Orange in Vietnam. Da Nang was the primary storage site of the chemical. Two other cleanup sites the United States and Vietnam are looking at is Biên Hòa Air Base, in the southern province of Đồng Nai – a 'hotspot' for dioxin – and Phù Cát Air Base in Bình Định Province, says U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear. According to the Vietnamese newspaper Nhân Dân, the U.S. government is providing $41 million to the project, which will reduce the contamination level in 73,000 m3 of soil by late 2016.[85]

Other nations' casualties[edit]

Cambodian Civil War

Laotian Civil War

  • 20,000–62,000 killed[4]

Military[edit]

South Korea

  • 5,099 Killed in action
  • 14,232 wounded
  • 4 missing in action[89]

Australia

  • 426 killed in action, 74 died of other causes[90]
  • 3,129 wounded[90]
  • 6 missing in action (all accounted for and repatriated)[91]

Thailand

  • 351 killed in action[89][92]
  • 1,358 wounded

New Zealand

  • 37 killed in action plus 2 civilians[93][94]
  • 187 wounded

Philippines

Republic of China (Taiwan)

  • 25 killed in action

People's Republic of China

  • 1,446 killed in action[96]

Soviet Union

Great Britain

References[edit]

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