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They’re trying make a case for attacking Iran. And one of the reasons they think they can get away with it is by pushing the meme that “Iraq is nowhere near as bad as Vietnam! In Vietnam, we lost over 58,000 soldiers. In Iraq, we’ve lost less than 3,500! (now up to 3,800.) By diminishing the scale of the Iraq war, expansion into Iran is likewise diminished. In April of 2004, President Bush was asked, “How do you answer the Vietnam comparison?” His response: “I think the analogy is false.” (He did not go on to explain WHY he thought the analogy was false, only that such comparisons demoralize our troops, and then bemoaned how hard his job is.)

ADDEMDUM: Some are pointing out that there were far few troops in-theater in those early years of Vietnam. I would argue that the fact there are as much as TEN TIMES as many troops in Iraq in its first four years further illustrates how dramatically worse Iraq is in what may be its earliest years. If a “President Rudy” should ever see office and the draft reinstated and/or Iran is invaded, the scale of the “War on Terror” could easily dwarf Vietnam.

Now, I know any Vietnam/Iraq comparison is a touchy and deeply personal subject for many, and my intention is not to diminish, dismiss or exacerbate anyone’s pain. But others are doing just that, trying to downplay the casualties in Iraq as compared to the casualties of Vietnam. My intent is only to compare the two conflicts on a level playing field in order to illustrate why their reasoning is not only false, but 180′ from what they are suggesting.

My stock response to those who try and cite the faux statistic of “fewer deaths than Vietnam” has always been: (pardon the gruesome math) “2/3rds of casualties suffered in Iraq today would of been fatal 40 years ago due to lesser medical technology. Adding 2/3rds of the 27,700+ Iraq wounded to the list of fatalities would push the number of U.S. fatalities to date an additional 18,300 deaths.” So, if combat injuries in Iraq today were as lethal as they were in 1965, the number of troops KIA (“killed in action”) to date in Iraq would surpass 22,000!

This compelled me to look at the actual statistics for Vietnam as a basis for comparison and what I found was stunning:

During the first four years of the conflict with Vietnam (1961 to 1965), the number of US troops KIA was UNDER 1,900 (1,864 to be exact)… and that is with 1960’s medical technology. Had they of had access to present-day medicine, the total number of fatalities during the first FOUR YEARS of the Vietnam war might have been closer to just 620 fatalities! Compare that to the 3,800 fatalities we’ve incurred so far in Iraq.

Crunching the Numbers

The key liability of my thesis seems to lie in that “2/3rds” figure I use above. Where does it come from? Is it accurate? According to at least one source (sources for such an obscure figure are few & far between):

The rate of injured limbs requiring amputation was 76 percent in the Vietnam War but has fallen to about 20 percent for soldiers injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to U.S. Navy Capt. Amy Wandel, who recently retired as a plastic surgeon at the Naval Medical Center, San Diego.

A decrease of approximately 74% (100% – 20%/76%), close to 3/4ths. The less mathematical interpretation would be a 56% decrease (76% – 20%), or just over 1/2. Splitting the difference, we arrive at 65%, approximately 2/3rds.

According to Army Public Affairs, the fatality vs wounded rate during Vietnam was 3.68% (deaths per 100 wounded – don’t ask me where they get that number from). Their calculation in October of 2003 put the Iraq conflict at 1.6%. They also claim in that October of 2003 report that only “18 soldiers had died from their wounds” during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, I *might* have believed that number if we were talking about a single month in Afghanistan, but by that point in Iraq, the number of OIF fatalities was actually 364, so where the heck they are getting “18” from is beyond me. But, assuming they used the same metric for both OIF and Vietnam, their own numbers produce the same percentages I stated above.

Going by the hard numbers, 58,202 killed in Vietnam vs 304,704 wounded translates to a 16% fatality rate (58,202 / 362,906). Presently, the OIF fatality rate is just over 12% (3800 / 31550), exactly 3/4 of the Vietnam rate. If we take just the first four years of Vietnam, 9,201 casualties of which 1,864 died of their injuries gives us a 20% fatality rate. Using that metric, the 12% fatality rate of Iraq vs the 20% rate of early Nam comes to 60%… just under 2/3rds.

So I think we’ve established that the 2/3rds figure is sound when comparing the increase in survivability since Vietnam, both mathematically and supported by the evidence.

If these figures are correct… and they are… Iraq is DEMONSTRABLY worse than Vietnam was at this point, and on course to become FAR worse.

So in summary, if Iraq were being fought with 1965 medical technology, the number of fatalities over these first four years might be as high as 22,000 (vs 1,900 in Vietnam), but even if you distrust the “2/3rds increase in survivability” figure, a more direct 1:1 comparison can be made between the “9,201 casualties in the first four years of Nam” vs the “31,550 casualties suffered in the first four years of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’.”

The next time some Right-wing wingnut tries to dismiss the severity of the Iraq war by comparing the number of deaths today to number of deaths in Vietnam 40 years ago, tell them… well, I’ll leave that up to you.