Attrition: Compared to Vietnam


December7, 2006: In the last five years, 1.4 million American troops have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and adjacent areas. This includes navy (on land and ships at sea) and air force. Thus 414,094 army troops, and 150,074 marines were supported by 205,562 air force and 241,000 navy personnel. Taking into account those who have gone over two or more times, there have been two million troops in the combat zone. Eleven percent were women, and 28 percent were reservists. By ethnicity, 72.1 percent were white, 17 percent black, 9.6 percent Hispanic and the rest others. By time in service, 59.5 percent were in four years or less (new troops, on their first enlistment). Most of the remainder had been in 5-19 years, and three percent had been in 20 or more years. Even with all those young troops, 51.3 percent were married. By age, 4.8 percent were 17-19 years old, while 56.6 percent were in their 20s and 25.9 percent were in their 30s. Compared to past wars, casualties (24,000) were quite low, with only 1.7 percent getting killed or wounded in combat. Since most of the casualties were suffered by the army and marines, and these two services only supplied 40 percent of the personnel, their casualty rate was more like 4.2 percent. But that's still a third of the rate in Vietnam (12.5 percent, or 350,000 combat casualties for 2.8 million who served there). Proportionately, there were fewer air force personnel in bases outside Vietnam, and sailors offshore, than was the case today. There were slightly more than three times as many combat troops in Vietnam, than there are today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, fewer of the casualties were among support troops in Vietnam. The historically very low casualties among combat troops today has a lot to do with their high morale, and reenlistment rate.

The average trooper in Vietnam was a little younger than those today, and 35 percent were draftees. The Vietnam era soldier was less educated (79 percent at least high school grad, compared to 88 percent today). There were far fewer women in Vietnam, and fewer minorities (80 percent of the troops were white).

The American effort in Vietnam had popular support until the 1968 Tet campaign (an allied victory) was declared a defeat by the mass media. At that time, the fighting had been going on for three years, and Americans have, time and again, become much less supportive of any war that went on for more than three years. The higher casualties in Vietnam were also unpopular, even though they were lower than the World War II rate. Finally, there was the feeling that, it really didn't matter if the communists took over all of Vietnam. In the end, it didn't matter much to Americans, but it was a great tragedy for many Vietnamese. Millions fled the country, and millions more suffered decades of rule by a corrupt police state.


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