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|October 4, 2004||
Vol. 2, No. 23
Records of outrage so quickly forgotten
By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor
Last month, while partisan veterans argued over the legitimacy of Sen. John Kerry's war medals and the media analyzed the font type of a memo concerning President George Bush's early departure from the National Guard, I read the late Gloria Emerson's searing book on Vietnam, Winners and Losers - Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War.
Emerson was in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972 as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. She remained forever haunted by her experiences there. Her war dispatches won the 1971 George Polk Award for excellence in foreign reporting and later, a Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications. In the early 1970s, she crisscrossed the United States to interview Americans about a war she thought they were forgetting too quickly.
"Let the books be written so when all of us are dead a long record will exist, at least in a few libraries," she wrote in the preface to Winners and Losers, a work of nonfiction that won the National Book Award in 1978. The book chronicles the war's effect on the lives of ordinary Americans and Vietnamese. Tucked in among the personal stories and revealing interviews are tallies of war dead and wounded. None of these statistics were mentioned last month when Vietnam briefly surfaced in American public consciousness as an abstract, generic war by which we were asked to measure the leadership abilities of our presidential candidates. So I give you just a few of those statistics now, knowing full well that numbers never adequately account for all that is lost in war.
Citing figures provided by the Department of Defense (DoD), Emerson writes that: 56, 555 Americans died in Vietnam from January 1, 1961 to April 13, 1974. 7,198 were blacks. Sixty four percent of the men who died in action were 21 years old or younger. Twelve were 17 years old. 3,092 were eighteen years old. 14,057 were nineteen years old. 9,662 were twenty years old. 6,892 officers died. 49,639 enlisted men died.
There were two kinds of death: 46,229 died from enemy action or hostile causes. Deaths from non-hostile causes, which are those that did not result from combat injuries: 10,326.
The most common hostile cause was gunshot wounds: 18, 447; followed by multiple fragmentation wounds: 8,464; grenades and mines: 7,428; non-hostile deaths by drowning or suffocation: 1,017. Suicides: 381.
For the Vietnamese, the war ledger is much grimmer.
Civilian war casualties in South Vietnam, killed or wounded, 1965-1973: 1,435,000. Civilian war casualties in South Vietnam, 1973-1975: 339,882. Refugees generated in South Vietnam, 1965-1973: 10,270,000.
"Among the Vietnamese disabled," Emerson writes, "it is reckoned that amputees number 83,000; paraplegics, 8,000; blind, 30,000; deaf, 10,000; and in other categories 50,000."
Contemporary estimates of casualties from the Vietnam War are much higher than the statistics (and I have not given you all of them) recorded in Winners and Losers, a book published in the '70s. Today, the tally given for American war dead is 58,135; for Vietnamese dead: 1, 921,000. And I have said nothing about the tally for widows and orphans, American and Vietnamese soldiers missing in action, or the dead Laotians and Cambodians.
There is more. At "Aid to Vietnam," a two-day conference in Manila held March 1976 and organized by the World Health Organization, the Vice Minister of Health, Dr. Hoang Dinh Cau of Hanoi, gave the following statistics. 7,600,000 tons of bombs-more than three times the total amount dropped during World War II - fell on towns and cities of North Vietnam during the war. Between 1964-69, over half a million tons of toxic chemical and 7,000 tons of toxic gas were also dropped in these areas.
Late one night while in The New York Times Saigon bureau with Tom Fox, now NCR publisher but then working for Times, Emerson and Fox found the cruelty and hypocrisy of the war more unbearable than usual. Deeply troubled by the immorality and arrogance of the U.S. military operation in Vietnam, the two decided to do something about it. They went to the building in which the daily U.S. military briefings were held, an event dubbed the "Five o'clock follies" by the press corps. Fox, who spoke Vietnamese, distracted the Vietnamese guard at the door of the building. Emerson sneaked in behind and into the briefings room where with a wide-tipped, black marking pen she wrote on three white walls in letters three feet high: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!"
God, forgive us. But do not let us forget.
Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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