This is a particularly poignant Memorial Day weekend, coming shortly after the number of American coronavirus deaths exceeded the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
There are many differences, of course, between the two struggles. The war in Vietnam was an American choice; the war against what President Donald J. Trump calls the “invisible enemy” was forced upon the country. The American victims in Vietnam were military; the victims now are civilians. The home front suffered no threats during the Vietnam years; the home front in this battle has been devastated.
While both struggles were divisive, the pros and cons of the Vietnam War were fought out in America’s living rooms. This time, Americans have been largely confined to their living rooms. The protesters last time opposed the policies promulgated in the White House, and vociferously opposed the sitting president. The protesters this spring have supported the White House, and won support from the president.
But on this sacred and sober weekend, what ties the two episodes together is the body count.
There was no incremental body count in most of America’s wars — not in the Revolution nor in the War of 1812, when gathering national statistics was beyond the ability of the young country; not in the Mexican War or the Civil War, when territory meant more than toll; nor in the Spanish-American War, when combat fatalities were less than 400; nor even in the two world wars, when vast ideological questions predominated.
The body count originated in the Korean War and was prominent in Vietnam — even though Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz argued in the 19th century that “casualty reports … are never accurate” and that they were a false measure of combat or conflict resolution.
That probably is the case right now, when the pandemic has become political and one side may have a stake in minimizing the toll, while the other may have a stake in maximizing it.
“Too much attention on the death numbers is a distraction,” said Col. Paul H. Nelson, a physician whom the Air Force’s surgeon general has assigned to the Air University, the service’s intellectual and leadership development center. “We made that error in Vietnam. By counting bodies, we thought we were either winning or losing. We never had a strategy in Vietnam and a vision of what victory would look like.”
We don’t have much of a vision of what victory would look like this time, though the simple pleasure of going to the mall or the movies without fear of fatal contagion might well suffice.
But in Vietnam, the body count was a constant measure of the success or failure of the American effort.
“In a war without frontlines and territorial objectives, where ‘attritting’ the enemy was a major goal, the body count became the index of progress,” wrote George C. Herring, a University of Kentucky historian. Indeed, American units competed to have the best “box scores.”
Let’s be clear: In Vietnam, as in the fight against COVID-19, the body count is a measure of national loss, the cumulative effect of deaths devastating to families and communities. In both cases, a large death count means widespread mourning and loss — not to be minimized.
But the body count has a dangerous effect as well. It transforms individual loss into a statistic, a political or medical equivalent of baseball’s wins-against-replacement, which for sports fans pointedly takes the acronym WAR.
“The Vietnam body count was like a scoreboard, and we always emphasized the kill ratio,” said James Wright, a former Dartmouth College president and author of a recent history of the Vietnam War. “But that kill ratio didn’t take into account the pain of the funerals or the pain when someone came to the door to notify the families of a loved one’s death. We paid too much attention to these counts — and in the body count, the pain of the individuals was lost.”
On the ground in Vietnam, as in hospital ICUs in America this spring, individual deaths counted more than the cumulative figure.
“It wasn’t the body count but the body bag that mattered to us,” said former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who lost part of his leg in Vietnam combat. “You see those body bags now and they bring back memories of Vietnam. But there’s something about the numbers — the higher they go, the harder it is to see the personal tragedies. The impact is like Vietnam, because the draft affected every household. But in this I may not have a family member who died, but a family member who could.”
The Vietnam body count was important for the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations, but it was a symbol of the futility of the war to reporters in-country — a meaningless calculation that correspondents grew to distrust, then to resent.
“Field reporters covering military actions often discovered that these enemy dead estimates were routinely exaggerated by unit commanders,” said former Associated Press war correspondent Peter Arnett, one of the most celebrated journalists of the conflict. “The truth-versus-fiction arguments characterized the daily official briefings.”
In an email exchange the other day, Arnett, now 85, said the body counts were a worthless measure of battlefield reality, because they “concealed the true extent of losses.”
Today’s peculiar war — with its heartbreaking side conflict threatening both lives and livelihood — is ripping the country apart even as it causes massive losses.
Here, as in Vietnam, the death count is a measure of great loss. But here, as in Vietnam, the death count obscures the real toll.
In the Vietnam years, it wasn’t until LIFE magazine spread over 10 traumatic pages the photographs of 242 men killed in one week in 1969 that the cost of the war became comprehensible. Count the dead, surely. But let us remember that the toll is felt not only collectively, but individually. On Memorial Day, as on every day, let them Rest In Peace.