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Old myths about Vietnam resurface

In the wake of the Richard Blumenthal nonsense, Larry Pressler, former Republican senator from SD and a Vietnam vet writes a pretty good indictment of the deferment generation Blumenthal represents and how their thinking about war in general evolved from the time they’d have had to participate to the time when others would have to do so.  Unsurprisingly they’re more for the latter than they were for the former.

But there was a line in his article that again perpetuates a myth about the Vietnam war:

The problem is that for every person who won a deferment or a spot in a special National Guard unit, someone poorer or less educated, and usually African-American, had to serve.

Let me say this very clearly: NOT TRUE.

Goodness knows there have been a number of studies that address this canard.  And their findings do not support the contention.  Here are the raw numbers:

Of all the men and women who served in Vietnam, 275,000, or 10.6%, were black. The remaining 88.4% were Caucasian. At the time of the Vietnam War, Blacks represented approximately 12.5% of the total U.S. population.

There is a persistent myth that Blacks were used as “cannon fodder”, being assigned to infantry units where they were forced to “walk point”. This is not supported by the casualty data which indicates that 86.8% of those killed in action were Caucasian, while 12.1%, or 5,711, were Black. Again, this number is approximately the same as the percentage of Blacks in the general population during the war.

Another study produced the same result:

Sociologists Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, in their recently published book “All That We Can Be,” said they analyzed the claim that blacks were used like cannon fodder during Vietnam “and can report definitely that this charge is untrue. Black fatalities amounted to 12 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia – a figure proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population at the time and slightly lower than the proportion of blacks in the Army at the close of the war.”

So put that one to bed if you hear it repeated.  It’s simply not true.  Nor is the “poor and less educated”.  Perhaps in in the context that Pressler uses it (he’s talking about the “elite” in Ivy League schools at the time) it has some legs, but in the context of the force as a whole it doesn’t hold up:

Servicemen who went to Vietnam from well-to-do areas had a slightly elevated risk of dying because they were more likely to be pilots or infantry officers.

Vietnam Veterans were the best educated forces our nation had ever sent into combat. 79% had a high school education or better.

Certainly the military was strained then and those of us who served at that time remember the Cat IVs (if I’m not mistaken 100,000 were admitted and didn’t last long – they simply weren’t equipped to handle the military), but in general, it was, as General Barry McCaffrey notes above, the best educated force we’d ever fielded at the time.

There are a few other myths I’d like to see go away and now seems the perfect time address them with some statistics:

91% of Vietnam Veterans say they are glad they served.

74% said they would serve again even knowing the outcome.

There is no difference in drug usage between Vietnam Veterans and non veterans of the same age group (from a Veterans Administration study).

Vietnam Veterans are less likely to be in prison than the general population – only 1/2 of one percent of Vietnam Veterans have been jailed for crimes.

97% were discharged under honorable conditions; the same percentage of honorable discharges as ten years prior to Vietnam.

85% of Vietnam Veterans made a successful transition to civilian life.

Vietnam veterans’ personal income exceeds that of our non-veteran age group by more than 18 percent.

Vietnam veterans have a lower unemployment rate than our non-vet age group.

87% of the American people hold Vietnam Vets in high esteem.

Here’s one of my favorite myths – most Vietnam veterans were drafted:

2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 2/3 of the men who served in World War II were drafted.   Many men volunteered for the draft so even some of the draftees were actually volunteers.

Approximately 70% of those killed were volunteers.

And, of course, you’ve heard the one about the average age of the infantryman in Vietnam being 19?  It wasn’t.  It was 22.55 years old.

While I certainly agree with Pressler’s greater point about those like Blumenthal, he doesn’t need to use myths in place of facts to do so. The attitude toward Vietnam vets has changed significantly and for the better over the years. However, these myths, perpetuated by the anti-war crowd and the media have persisted and cast a shadow on their service.  Time to put them to rest once and for all.

~McQ

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36 Responses to Old myths about Vietnam resurface

  • Given the numbers you quoted, blacks were slightly under represented in the military, slightly over represented in casualties.  The proper baseline for casualties isn’t the general population, but the military. It seems likely that officers were disproportionately Caucasian, and that casualties are more common in enlisted men than in officers.  Without running the numbers myself, I suspect a 2% shift on both sides could be explained by historical trends alone.

    • “It seems likely that officers were disproportionately Caucasian, and that casualties are more common in enlisted men than in officers.”
      Casualties are generally higher in officers and NCOs at or below company level than they are for the enlisted men under their command.  So the people going into the Army straight out of college had a rougher time of it than the guys going in after high school.

      • “Casualties are generally higher in officers and NCOs at or below company level than they are for the enlisted men under their command.”

        Color me skeptical. You have a cite for that? 

        • Well, first off, you’re a higher priority target for the opposition if they have any training – whack the command structure first.  You’re also more likely to be a visible target as you keep your command moving forward or recovering from whatever scrape you’re currently in.  At some point someone has to give the commands and sometimes the only way to do that is to move from hole to stump to wall to tree to hole, where your sane enlisted men have taken cover.

          • I agree with looker: it makes sense that sergeants and company-grade officers are going to be casualties at somewhat higher rates because the enemy is actively looking to kill them.  Further, our military leaders have the phrases “lead from the front” and “lead by example” drilled into them; this leads them to (sometimes recklessly) expose themselves to danger.  I recall reading about the “Sergeant York syndrome” during the Gulf War that speaks to this point.  I am myself a former NCO and, while I never (thankfully) heard a shot fired in anger, I was quite aware of what my duties would have been in combat as well as the greater risks these would have entailed.

          • It’s the other letter the slick sleeves don’t  talk about that replaces the P for “privileges” in the acronym RHIP -

            “R” – RESPONSIBILITIES.

          • It should be easy enough then to find some statistics to back up that theory.

          • According to this source 13.5% of the casualties suffered were officers (all branches), too include Warrants.
            “The Army suffered the most casualties, 38179 or 66% of all casualties.”
            “The Army lost the greatest number of officers, 4635 or 59% of all officer casualties”
            This source states that American Army officer to enlisted ratio changed in the early 60′s  -  11% down to 9% and then up to 15% before US withdrawal in the 70′s.
            Assuming these cites are accurate that’s 12% and only accounts for the officer casualties, not the NCOs.  It  puts officer casualties (very) roughly in line with their proportion in the general Army population over the course of the conflict, it’s obvious what will happen if you can find and add in the NCO statistics.

        • “It  puts officer casualties (very) roughly in line with their proportion in the general Army population over the course of the conflict,”

          Then I guess they were not higher than enlisted casualties. Especially when you consider that 50% of helicopter crews, 100% for cobras and fixed wing aircraft, were officers.

          • ““Casualties are generally higher in officers and NCOs at or below company level than they are for the enlisted men under their command.”
            The premise was NCOs AND officers.

            Stands to reason without knowing the numbers that if the officer casualties already roughly represent their actual proportion in service to casualties that adding the NCO totals in there will validate the statement that NCOs AND officers combined suffered higher casualties rates.

            From another angle, the fact that officers  casualty rate matches their proportion in service is interesting.   Considering the ratio one might expect them to show a casualty ratio in line with their percentage per man they command, rather than their percentage in service.  Fewer targets, yet their casualty rate was at least as high as the average enlisted man.  Or am I viewing that wrong?  6 men in a group, on of whom is an officer. If it were a dice  that’s a six sided die, with one 1, and 5 of any other single number….
            The odds you will roll an enlisted man should be much much higher, assuming it’s really random.

            and  it’s beginning to creep me out that I’m treating these as random numbers to prove a statement.  Facts and numbers is what they are, but it’s hard for me not to think they represent guys who didn’t come home.

          • Think of a full up infantry platoon of 40 (a rarity in VN). It would have 27 enlisted, 13 NCOs and 1 officer.

            Consider another possibility – many times you had more senior enlisted acting as NCOs.

            NCO casualty number might be down because they just weren’t available (remember the push for “shake and bake” NCOs and hard strip corporals?), so you had enlisted killed in action who were filling NCO slots. But proportionally, there were more enlisted than NCOs in an infantry platoon.

            Same with Officers. You had 6 officers in a infantry company – 4 plt ldrs, and XO and the CO (and the company hq often was augmented by a LT FO). If you consider a full up inf platoon (a rarity in VN), there were 27 enlisted, 13 NCOs and 1 officer.

  • I was a little too young for that ToD (age 18 in 1976) In the little blue collar town I grew up in, everyone I knew who went to VN, did so, voluntarily.
    The old man went off to WWII voluntarily, and so you shall… that’s just the way things were when I was a boy in small town America. The ol’ man was Navy, and in the family tradition, that’s what was expected, you’d joined the same branch.

  • perpetuated by the anti-war crowd and the media

    But you repeat yourself.

  • One question from someone who wasn’t alive at the time:  Wasn’t it common for people who knew or suspected they were going to be drafted to enlist?  That way they were more likely to get put into job they wanted instead of getting stuck in an infantry company.

    • I know a fair number who joined the Air Force or the Navy on that basis.  Not that that kept them out of the war zone, it just kept them out of the infantry.

      • Some of those that joined the AF looking for easy duty were likely quite surprised…  The AF units that provided base security for AF bases in-country had the highest kill-ratio of any other ground unit…

        Apparently, the VC liked to throw mountains of guys at AF bases, and the AF guys were equally happy to turn them into piles of corpses.

        • Kill ratios are a bit incomplete. Plus, those AF folks had a bit of help from various Army units.

    • As McQ highlighted:

      “2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 2/3 of the men who served in World War II were drafted.   Many men volunteered for the draft so even some of the draftees were actually volunteers.”

      At the time, a draftee had to serve two years and if you enlisted you had to serve a minimum of four years.  Draftees usually came out of basic as infantry while enlistees were give some deference in career field choice.  There was a another area where you could “volunteer for the draft.”  It was a three year commitment but you had some choice as to your specialty code.  Many individuals (a friend of mine in college was one) chose this option.

      • “At the time, a draftee had to serve two years and if you enlisted you had to serve a minimum of four years.”

        Three years for the Army. You could enlist for a specific occupational specialty or a specific duty station. Some occupations did require a four year active duty requirement. I think it was the same for the other services, and let’s not forget the Coast Guard.  

  • I was amazed to learn the MOS with the highest mortality rate in VN a few years ago.  Any guesses (no wiki-peeks)?

    • My guess would be someone in the 13s – arty FO types.

    • My guess is radiomen or other communications guys.  At any rate, I knew some commo types who engaged in morbid bragging about their (short) life expectancy in combat.

      • Good guess – could be. Antennas were pretty obvious give-aways. But most RTOs, at least at platoon level, weren’t commo MOSs – or at least not in my experience.

        • I’ve heard an apocryphal story of a radioman who added a foot or so to his antenna for that reason.

    • I cheated – not what I would have guessed.

      • It was, according to what I read, tankers.  I found that very curious, because we tend to think of the VC and the commie regulars as lightly armed.  I never delved into the stats, so I don’t know why tankers suffered such high rates.

        • I’ve never seen that before, some observations
          1. In raw numbers, armor MOSes would be small relative to just about any other MOS.
          2. Armor officers/NCOs often served as advisors to ARVN infantry or RF/PF troops not to mention the number of armor officers who served as aviators.
          3. Tank commanders spent 95% of their time exposed, IE outside the turret
          4. Al Qaeda did not invent IEDs. Most armor units conducted daily thunder runs to clear the roads outside bases. It was not unusual for the VC/NVA to plant large unexploded USAF munitions or artillery shells both under the road and on the verges.
          5. Cavalry Scouts are considered an armor MOS. (11D then, 19D now) Scouts rode to battle in the M113, designed to protect the crew from small arms and artillery shrapnel. Not B40 rockets or large mines. The typical Vietnam M113 crew rode atop the vehicle with sand bags piled around the edges and often more sand bags piled on the floor.
          Not that it means anything, but having served with many tankers and scouts who were  in Vietnam, I never heard anyone say that armor types had the highest casualty rate.

          • The highest loss-rate for any MOS was 11E (Armor Crewman) 27% KIA
            http://www.rjsmith.com/kia_tbl.html
            and
            http://www.ktroop.com/HonorRoll/casualty.pdf
            As you note, the number of actual casualties in 11E troops was low, but the rate very high relative to their numbers in country.

          • 2. So did infantry officers & ncos.
            3. Infantry, leaders and followers, spend 100% of their time exposed.
            4. Those mines & booby traps work even better on infantry.
            5. I don’t think the typical M113 crew rode atop their vehicle. It is difficult to drive or  work the machine guns in that position. If you are talking about the infantry riding that vehicle, they have an infantry MOS.

          • @Tim

            3. Yeah, but infantry wasn’t preceded by loud engine noise.

            4.  True, but infantry can mostly go anywhere, while armor had limited paths they could take.  And knocking out a couple of armor units could trap several others, making them easy pickings.

            5. Part of my dad’s time in-country was spent driving an APC, and he said it wasn’t unusual for crew to spend time riding on the outside, as those things were hot as blazes in nice weather, forget about the hell that being under the Vietnam sun was.

          • Don’t forget too that most junior officers of whatever branch ended up being “detailed” infantry when they got to VN.

        • What was the precise definition of mortality rate? That might have something to do with it. Is it the proportion of deaths to total casualties or the proportion of deaths to total number of personnel? Also, what is the exact MOS? 

          • The highest loss-rate for any MOS was 11E (Armor Crewman) 27% KIA
            http://www.rjsmith.com/kia_tbl.html
            and
            http://www.ktroop.com/HonorRoll/casualty.pdf
            As Steve noted, the number of actual casualties in 11E troops was low, but the rate very high relative to their numbers in country.
            The M-113, as I knew them, were not considered much protection.  They were WAY better than a jeep or deuce, but bear (i.e., without augmentation) a 12mm MG round could penetrate them.

          • 113s are not armored vehicles as many people mistakenly think they are. They’re personnel carriers that offer a modicum of protection from fragments. As you note a .51 cal or an RPG can eat one up.

            Tankers many times pulled duty on bridges (with infantry support) to keep them from being destroyed. They were in static positions. VC and NVA would occasionally isolate and attack them. As you can imagine, the tanks and 113s were their first target.

          • I recall reading an account of a triangle camp supported by two or three M-60s, attacked by a large regular formation.  At least one of the tanks was hit with something big enough to induce casualties among the crew and take it off-line.  I can’t recall if they were dug in.
            I also think the enemy used mines and IEDs very effectively, especially in some environments where heavy armor was constrained by terrain.   The recoilless rifle was also a very effective weapon for both sides in its day.

  • bear should be “bare”…

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