The Vietnam War and Man Made Death

James Lieberman described death of soldiers in the Vietnam War as “man-made death” with modern weaponry and tactics, and deaths by combat outweighing deaths by disease by twice as much. This strayed from the norm of past wars, as those were characterized primarily by deaths by illness and poor health.

The Vietnam War was much more professional in the handling of casualties of soldiers. By the time the war ended, there were official databases and registrations that kept exact count of soldiers killed, as well as the demographics and information of those soldiers. The losses were recorded by the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS), which kept track of the date of death, and the Combat Area Casualties Current Files (CACCF) which updated the date of approximated death to the date declared dead (National Archives). Using these systems, the American military recorded 58,200 deaths of American soldiers, over 47,000 of those killed in hostile deaths (MRFA). 90% were between the ages of 18 and 26 (Lieberman, 710). 30% of the total deaths were draftees, 88.6% were Caucasian deaths, 12.5% were African Americans, and the remaining 1.1% were other races (MRFA). There were 766 POWs and 114 of them perished in captivity (MRFA).

Of the 58,200 military deaths, 8 of those were women (National Archives). All 8 women were nurses, most of which died while being transported to their stations. Carol Drazba and Elizabeth perished in a helicopter accident, and Eleanor Alexander and Hedwig Orlowski died in a plane crash. Sharon lane was stationed at a hospital that was attacked, and died by shrapnel. Annie Graham was a WWII and Korea vet, and at the age of 56 passed away from a stroke while on duty, and Pamela Donovan passed away from illness. Mary Klinker was a flight nurse, and the plane she was attending to crashed (MRFA).

As the registration of the casualties became an official process, the notification of the deaths to the families and the funeral ceremonies followed suit. The telegram was replaced by personal contact, carried out by a Vietnam Casualty Notification Officer (Johnson). To become a VCNO, there were official rules and regulations to follow, as well as classes to  attend, books to read, and videos to watch. This education allowed the VCNOs to approach the families in appropriate manners, and to prepare for the emotional toll it would take on the families, and the reactions they would display. The regulations stated that they arrive to the front door of the family between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., dressed in Class A uniform, identifying themselves by name and rank (Johnson). Following the introduction, they would proceed to inform the family, following one of four scripts: one for soldiers MIA, KIA, unidentified, or killed by friendly fire. Each individual script followed a universal statement that the soldier “[has] an important message to deliver from the secretary of the Army, and the Secretary asked [him] to express his deep regret…” (Johnson). The VCNO was always accompanied either by a Casualty Arrangement Officer, a chaplain, or both. The CAO sat down with the family to make funeral arrangements and discuss benefits and stipends. The chaplain was present to provide religious and emotional support. The VCNOs carried out an essential, but very traumatic job. The families often responded violently, and with anger towards the officers, sometimes blaming him for the loss.

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Once the family was notified, there was a matter of burial. After the soldiers cause of death and identification were determined, the bodies were either shipped or flown home. To determine the COD, the bodies were put into body bags and lifted off the battlefield onto helicopter hueys (Freedman and Rhoads). Upon bringing the body bags to the hospital, the nurses would examine the body for battle wounds and the cause of death. Sometimes soldiers would accompany the nurses to identify who the body was. It was easier to identified COD in this war due to the advancements in medical technology (National Review). Also because combat wounds were primarily gunshot wounds, the body was mostly still intact, enabling fellow comrades to clearly identify the bodies. After the COD and identification were determined, the bodies were sent to registration to be recorded into the DCAS (Freedman and Rhoads). Funeral ceremonies involved military escorts, as well as American Flags being draped over the caskets. Taps was played on trumpets and prayers were said by ministers in gratitude for the soldier’s bravery and service to the country.

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The technology of notifying and identification of deaths carried over into the action of killing as well. Lieberman’s description of death as “man-made” was far too accurate with this war, as the weapons were advancing and tactics were evolving. As far as American weaponry goes, we were highly dependent on air attack and infantry. In the Air, there were B-52 bombers that released over 8 millions tons of bombs on battlefields and towns alike (History.com). Along with that was napalm, that was destructive due to the carbon monoxide that it released, causing deaths and future health impairments of survivors. They also sprayed over 19 million gallons of herbicide (History.com). The infantry used was advanced and damaging as well, with M-60 and M-16 machine guns. The M-60s had a 2000 yard range, and shot 550 bullets a minute, and the M-16s had a shorter range but shot 700-900 rounds per minute on automatic  (History.com).

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The Viet Cong challenged our weaponry with their own technology. American soldiers suffered wounds from missiles, machine guns, and booby traps. They used SA-7 Grail Missiles to oppose American air attacks. The AK-47 were their machine guns that shot 600 rounds per minute, but were much more accurate and explosive than American machine guns (History.com). They also had more primitive methods of attack, such as using simple clothing and weapons to blend in with citizens, and take advantage of surprise attacks. On top of this they had booby traps, the most used being punji stakes – sharpened bamboo sticks placed on the bottom of pits hidden under leaves (History.com). Finally they made use of American weapons, stealing them and taking them apart, manipulating the pieces into new weapons.

In conclusion, the Vietnam war was destructive, having the 4th highest number of deaths in the history of American wars. Over 58,000 lives were lost, 18,000 women widowed, and with “modern weapons of mass destruction making a mockery of grief” (Lieberman, 718).

Sources:

Freedman, Dan and Jacqueline Rhoads, editors. Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, Inc., 1987. pp. 12 – 17.  http://vietnamwar.lib.umb.edu/experience/docs/NursesInVietnam.html

History.com Staff “Weapons of the Vietnam War” A&E Networks. April 2014.  http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/weapons-of-the-vietnam-war

Johnson, Alex. “Breaking the Bad News”.  MSNBC Interactive. 2003. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3340619/ns/news/t/breaking-bad-news/#.U0RxqfldUnp

Lieberman, E. James. “American Families and the Vietnam War.” Journal of Marriage and Family 33.4, Special Double Issue: Violence and the Family and Sexism in Family Studies, Part 2 (1971): 709-21. JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Mobile Riverine Force Association.  “Vietnam War Statistics”.  March 2014.  http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm

National Archives “Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War”.  August 2013.  http://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html

National Review “The Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War” News Report, 1984.  http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/unk-vn.htm

 

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