Vietnam Combat Losses and New York City

In 1971, E. James Lieberman published a study in the Journal Of Marriage and the Family, entitled “American Families In The Vietnam War.”[1]

While the Department of Defense asserted that, at the time, it did not have information on family characteristics of US casualties in Vietnam, some statistics could be obtained through the Veterans Administration. Of the 50,000 US serviceman killed in action in Vietnam between 1961 and 1970, 90% were between the ages of 18 and 26. Ordinarily this group would have a very low mortality. “War deaths in the 19 – 23 age group equals automobile accident deaths in 1966; all acts and deaths in 1967, and all other deaths combined in 1968.” Lieberman reminded us that such a rate of death among a given population would be regarded an epidemic.

Lieberman rightly pointed out that all these 50,000 deaths were scattered around the country, so that naturally any given community did not feel the total impact. Still, Lieberman calculated that  “for every 10 men killed in Vietnam, there are close to 16 surviving parents of the original 20… and about 12 grandparents of the original 40. This means 28 direct lineal forbearers for 10 servicemen, or almost 3 for each one. And there are, on average, more than two siblings for each serviceman. Including aunts, uncles, cousins and fiancés, at least 250,000 Americans have been bereaved by death of an immediate family member in Vietnam so far. According to Lieberman’s calculations, “there were the least 30,000 widows and orphans, 80,000 parents, and 60,000 grandparents, and the rest brothers and sisters.” Additionally, Lieberman recognized that about 150,000 servicemen had suffered serious injuries, involving at least another 750,000 family members.

In total, over one million Americans had a close family member either killed or seriously wounded in Vietnam by 1970.

Effectively, Lieberman argued that the war in Vietnam left behind a “silent minority” made up of less privileged whites and relatively high achieving nonwhites. Lieberman cited a study which found that within the U.S. Congress, a body with 234 draft – eligible sons, one half (118) were deferred, 26 served in Vietnam; one was wounded.

To sum up, “one family in 50 lost a member to the war in Vietnam; one in 10 suffered casualty, about half of those serious.”

Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker have described the “circles of grief” that surround the death of any single soldier in the First World War. The first circle of bereavement or mourning, they argue, “was undoubtedly composed of the soldiers themselves.” In many cases they found eyewitness accounts of soldiers who would maintain as best they could do grades of comrades to whom they felt especially close, and would sometimes go to the length of informing the dead man’s family about the location of his burial place.

But, they continue, the circles of mourning on the home-front are wider and perhaps more lasting. They invite us to think of the impact of a battlefield death as a series of concentric circles, quote whose contours become increasingly difficult to trace as we move away from the most strongly affected relatives. The first circle might include the most direct relatives the dead man’s parents, grandparents, wives, children, brothers and sisters. Beyond that would be a circle including aunts, uncles cousins, nieces, nephews brother is – and sisters – and – law. The authors cautioned that while the first two circles correspond to what demographers call the immediate family, relationships in the second circle could be as intense as those in the first period and beyond this second circle of morning would be made up of yet another group of people who were distant family members, but as they accurately remind us, “ this circle is impossible to reconstitute.” But still, there is yet another circle around each one of the war dead: the circle of chosen relationships, male and female friends. As almost everyone knows, having a friend passed away can be equally and sometimes more painful than having a direct family member die.

The authors emphasize that they are not here working to establish anything like a hierarchy of grief, but rather to map out the territory of the way any given death could devastate a very large number of people, creating what they call “after shocks.”

In an effort to get a grasp on the circles of grief caused by combat losses during the First World War, the authors have relied on a concept of ‘entourage.’ By which they mean individuals that surround any given person. They cite a study that concludes quote all individuals, regardless of age or type of households seem to be surrounded by a minimum of 10 people in their immediate family and a maximum of around 20.

In the case of France during the great war, extrapolating from those rough figures, they arrived at what they considered the following plausible conclusion: “if we add up immediate family, distant relatives and wider entourage, it seems that by the end of the great war, the various circles of morning included, in France, the quasi-totality of the population. Virtually an entire society was probably in morning; an entire society formed by a community of mourning.”[2]

If we borrow the conclusions reached by Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker in their study of the First World War and take the number of casualties for New York City, 1741, and multiply by 20,  some 34,820 persons were directly affected by combat losses  in Vietnam  between 1964 and 1975.

The population of New York City in 1975 was 7,895,563.

These figures suggest that at least one person out of every 226 individuals living in New York City in 1975 had been directly affected by the combat death in Vietnam of someone they knew or were close to.

[1] E.  James Lieberman, “American Families and the Vietnam War,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 33, No. 4, Special Double Issue: Violence and the Family and Sexism in Family Studies, Part 2 (Nov., 1971), pp. 709-721.

[2] Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 201-212.


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