Measuring Success by Counting Corpses

While re-watching the Ken Burns documentary ‘The Vietnam War‘, it prompted me to re-examine what I learned about the war in school and from personal reading. As the narrator explained, there was no discernible way to measure success in the traditional aspects of moving the front, taking territory, or even fighting conventional forces. The focus of occupying enemy territory and taking landmark objectives was significantly more difficult in Vietnam (fueled by the problematic identification of a friendly population and hostile forces). Search-and-destroy was the most direct way to achieve results by actively seeking out the enemy. Therefore, it became necessary to find ways producing progress on the battlefield and showing the public that the United States was winning the war against the Communists. The Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) relied heavily on a statistic that shaped the military’s definition of success: body count.

A central objective for the U.S. Armed Forces was not to invade and destroy North Vietnam, but to prevent South Vietnam from capitulating to Communism. Therefore, it became difficult for MACV to accurately assess their situation on whether they were winning the war. If they were invading North Vietnam, capturing towns, destroying methods of resupply, and decapitation strikes would be listed objectives. This wasn’t the case though. Lt. Col. James Willbanks, revealed that notion very simply:

“The problem with the war . . . are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So in this particular case what you could count was dead enemy bodies.”

-James Willbanks, ‘The Vietnam War

General Westmoreland and other commanders widely adopted an attrition strategy in defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, whereby if they killed more enemy soldiers than could be replaced [crossover point] then Communist forces would cease their attacks. Officers often pressured soldiers to deliver on their body counts, but lacking discrepancy when determining who was friendly or hostile (Christian Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, UNC Press, UNC-Chapel Hill, pg. 8). What came from this though were additional tactics that fomented exaggerated body counts; free-fire zones and search and destroy missions. Soldiers were ordered to shoot at anything that moved. They surrounded themselves with reminders that killing was the main objective: score sheets, tallying boxes, chalkboards, etc. (Appy, pg. 144) Because it was difficult to tell the difference between an enemy combatant and a friendly civilian (since guerrillas did not wear uniforms) U.S. servicemen were sometimes less than positive about differentiating who was friendly or not. Discriminatory firepower was not necessarily in good practice as it was easier to shoot rather than ask questions [see Strategic Lessons Learned in Vietnam by the BDM Corporation]. MACV wanted results and since body count was the only way, they needed bodies. So bodies were what they got.

Body count was how success was measured in the Vietnam War. Telling the difference between enemy dead and civilian casualties was not strictly enforced so nearly all bodies were counted as ‘Enemy KIA’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Vietnam War historian Christian Appy pointed to search-and-destroy missions as the main tactic in defeating Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. The attrition strategy was central to American operations in South Vietnam (Appy, pg. 156). Accompanying this tactic was the body count measure of progress. Large-scale search-and-destroy missions resulted in huge numbers of refuges who often escaped, only to return home in a now designated free-fire zone. Anyone caught there would be shot and often were. The  widespread practice of tagging every dead Vietnamese as ‘Enemy Killed in Action’ grossly inflated the measure of progress, undermining the very thing that MACV and the United States used to justify their purpose in southeast Asia. These numbers of enemy killed in action were inflated occasionally to placate superior officers at headquarters in order to demonstrate the progress being made. Field commanders and officers knew their figures were wildly inaccurate. One infamous operation highlights the deadly cost of relying on body count to measure progress: Operation Speedy Express. For six months in the Mekong Delta, the U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division relentlessly pursued the Viet Cong night and day. At the operation’s conclusion, Major General Julian Ewell proudly announced that the 9th Division inflicted almost 11,000 enemy deaths while only losing 242 U.S. servicemen, a kill ratio of nearly 45 to 1; nowhere else had this ratio been achieved in South Vietnam. An internal report from the Army Inspector General would later reveal that more than half of the reported casualties were actually unarmed civilians. No one was held accountable and in fact, Ewell, the ‘Butcher of the Delta’ received another star on his lapels and was promoted to lieutenant general.

For all the impressive statistical figures and metrics that MACV produced, numbers did not tell the entire story of the Vietnam War. Military historian Lewis Sorley condemned the application of body counts and claimed that practice alone undermined any prospect of securing South Vietnam’s independence:

Body count may have been the most corrupt – and corrupting – measure of progress in the whole mess. Certainly the consensus of senior Army leaders, the generals who commanded in Vietnam, strongly indicates that it was.

-Lewis Sorley, ‘A Better War‘, pg. 21

The complexity of the conflict between the North and South that encompassed the people’s struggle could not be reduced to a statistic. Another scene in Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary summed up this conundrum perfectly: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara received thousands of reports and metrics on the war and wanted everything to be quantified (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, Viking Press, NY pg. 254) He asked an aide to come and look at the numbers and hear his feedback. The aide replied that something was missing. McNamara asked what it was. The aide said ‘the thoughts and feelings of the South Vietnamese people.’ The Vietnam War was driven by numbers, but unraveled by the predilection for killing and trying to make sense of it all.

Moods: President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Cabinet Room meeting. The stress placed on the Johnson Administration on trying to figure out how to measure progress and maintain support for the war was draining (Johnson White House Photographs, 11/22/1963 – 1/20/1969, LBJ Presidential Library, NARA)

Works Cited:

Appy, Christian, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, UNC Press, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1993.

Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History, New York, NY, Viking Press, 1983.

Sorley, Lewis, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, Orlando: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Strategic Lessons Learned in Vietnam by the BDM Corporation, Volume VII ‘The Soldier’, 1981



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