Today I walked past a second-hand bookstore and a book suddenly appeared in my hand (this is pretty much how it happens. I will leave the similarities between second-hand bookstores and alien abductions to another post). A subject in which I had taken a particular interest during my undergraduate degree had been about the conflict in Vietnam, so when I saw The Pictorial History of the Vietnam War printed down the spine of a large and seemingly well-read book I grabbed it. I didn’t flick much through it however, and when I found myself outside I regretted this for a moment when I saw the first page:
But then, after a few second of standing waiting for the lights to change, I started thinking about something that had always bothered me when studying the conflict at uni: approximate death counts. I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was that large successions of pages were missing from a book about a conflict in which – like every war I suppose– the exact total death count remains disputed.
I understand how difficult exact numbers would be to determine. The absence of reliable data to use as comparison points before let alone during a war are only some of the obstacles. Many people have pointed this out, especially in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq (as even a cursory look online will attest).
Charles Herschman, Samuel Preston and Vu Manh Loi draw attention to this in an article in which they attempt to create a more accurate data-based estimate of the total dead in the American war in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975 – a mammoth task, especially for the Vietnamese dead.
‘Although there was a careful counting of the causalities sustained by foreign armies, there are no reliable statistics on the Vietnamese war losses during the “American War”. Numbers from one to three million Vietnamese war dead are frequently reported.’ *1
This raises other issues: There is the issue of counting deaths connected to the war not only in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. And then there are long-term deaths that must be taken into account, people who died after 1975 due to war-related causes — exposure to the chemical substances used in the war, food shortages, people who died fleeing the country. I realise that these are probably extensions of what typically goes into a death-count, but they are deaths connected to the war nonetheless.
So it seems there are at least two types of history – one that is written, and rewritten, and corrected, and disputed, and passed on down to the next generation in the hopes that we will learn from it. But then there is one that is harder to grasp, one that is more elusive and that is known and felt most prominently by the families who see those missing people, those missing pages every day.
The fact that guesses have to be made in many instances is one I can understand in terms of practical limitations. But every time I hear that word ‘approximate’ the bits of the puzzle that remain unsolved make the idea that anyone really ‘wins’ a war a strange one at best.
Barnes, Jeremy, The Pictorial History of the Vietnam War (New York: Gallery Books, 1988).
*1) Charles Herschman, Samuel Preston, and Vu Manh Loi, ‘Vietnamese Casualties During the Vietnam War: A New Estimate’, Population and Development Review, vol. 21/no. 4, (1995), p. 783.