While watching the local PBS station a "teaser" for Ken Burns' upcoming (September) documentary series on the Vietnam War came on. In the "teaser," an unidentified "GI" discusses quite cogently the fear that land mines instilled in American soldiers and marines in the war. He also made the statement, "Somewhere around 80% of our casualties came from land mines of all sorts."
On its face, the statement, if applied to the whole war, is ludicrous. But it is not clear whether he was talking about his own unit ("our") or what "of all sorts" means. Nor is it clear whether he is including all injuries in the word "casualties," crippling injuries that remove people from the battlefield permanently, or deaths only. This may seem like nit-picking, but as I am researching this subject at the moment the word usages are important and have historical meaning.
Though records were kept as to the cause of deaths, to my knowledge there are no official statistics on the causes of injuries among US troops. Moreover, the US had a very expansive use of the term "casualties" in its less-than-lethal sense. For example, the South Vietnamese labeled only those less-than-lethal injuries that required hospitalization as "casualties." The US, on the other hand, labeled any injury at all in its less-than-lethal "casualties" figures, even if official medical attention or hospitalization was not required. These differing usages led to unfair and untrue charges from the war's critics in the press and Congress that the South Vietnamese, since their overall numbers were lower than the Americans' based on narrower criteria, were letting the US do the bulk of the fighting. If the hospitalization only criterion was applied, however, South Vietnamese "casualties" were considerably higher than the Americans'. This distinction was often not made during the war and used to denigrate the South Vietnamese sacrifices.
The figures I have for less-than-lethal "casualties" for the US are (rounded to nearest ten thousand) approximately 300,000 with roughly half (150,000) not requiring hospitalization.
The usual standard for the American military is that a casualty is a death or injury (or capture, though usually listed separately) that removes the enemy soldier from the battlefield and thus renders him unable to fight. According to this standard, the US had approximately 150,000 less-than-lethal casualties in Vietnam. That would mean by the documentary's account that there were 120,000 soldiers hospitalized due to land mine injuries, with another 120,000 injured but not hospitalized. This seems quite out of line with probable reality.
As for the role of land mines in lethal casualties, over which there is little definitional controversy, the official statistics also do not support anything like an 80% figure.
In the Vietnam War, there were 47,322 "Hostile" American military deaths (as opposed to accidents, illness, etc.) Though precise categories were not always kept, of those deaths 7,432 died from "Other Explosion (grenades, mines,)" which is 15.7% of total lethal casualties. (There is another category "Multiple Fragmentation Wounds," but it is apparently separate from land mine casualties. There is also a third category labeled "Bomb Explosions" which is also apparently separate.)
For the Marines in Vietnam, the percentages are higher. There were 13,073 "Hostile" lethal casualties among the Marines. In the category "Other Explosive Device," which apparently means land mines, the death total was 3056, or 23% (rounded.)
[Source for the previous two paragraphs: US Department of Defense, U.S. casualties in Southeast Asia: Statistics as of April 30, 1985 (Washington, DC: Washington Headquarters Services, Directorate for Information, Operations and Reports, 1985), p. 5]
This record can be compared with 4% of lethal land mine casualties and 3% of non-lethal casualties in World War II, and 4% in each category in the Korean War. Although much publicized and feared, non-explosive booby traps such as the famous “punji sticks” caused only 2% of the non-lethal casualties, with no deaths reported. Psychologically devastating, but statistically relatively insignificant. By American historical standards, Vietnam was a conflict where land mines and booby traps were unusually important factors. [Source: Colonel Harry Summers, “Maimers of War,” Vietnam (April, 1991), p. 12.] But neither the probable non-lethal casualty figures nor the official lethal casualty figures appear to approach anything like 80% "casualties," not even as an order of magnitude.
One can forgive a "GI" veteran for such exaggeration, but if the claim is left uncorrected or at least not qualified in the documentary, it might say something negative about the fact checking involved.
My query is this: can anyone point the way to credible statistics, from secondary or primary sources, that deal realistically with: a) non-lethal American casualties and their causes; b) South Vietnamese military casualty figures from land mines, and, c) Vietnamese civilian casualties from land mines? Any help will be greatly appreciated.
Doug Macdonald, emeritus