An April 29, Stars and Stripes headline read, “U.S. coronavirus deaths reach 60,000, surpassing the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War.” Recently US coronavirus deaths passed 100,000. Soon the number of fatalities will surpass US casualties in World War I of 116,516. As the count goes higher, will people continue to use war deaths as a measure? Is war the right comparison?
I understand why people compare the two. For an instant, the COVID-19 and Vietnam mortality numbers were the same, and, like the COVID-19 crisis, the Vietnam War was a traumatic experience for the people of the United States. During the Vietnam War, like today, communities and families across the country were traumatized by high death tolls. Then, people feared the draft and a tour in Vietnam to perhaps die there. Today, people fear they may contract the disease and possibly die or be responsible for infecting loved ones. But such comparisons distort the truth about war, and about the virus.
After fighting in the First Gulf War and learning more about the Vietnam War and the civilian casualties of war, these comparisons disturb me. Foremost, they place a premium on US lives and dismiss the lives of the “enemy,” and noncombatants as if they do not matter.
It is no surprise that we in the US show more concern for American lives than those of our “enemies.” It’s hard not to when US soldiers are family, friends, and strangers who come from our communities. When my son deployed, I wanted him to return home, but as a soldier, I knew that meant he might have to kill people. That is the nature of war.
Further, all societies uplift their soldiers. We downplay and ignore the killing, or the number of a warrior’s confirmed kills is used as a score to measure bravery. While popular culture may choose to forget faceless dead adversaries, many US service members remember them. My friend and colleague David Cline never forgot. He was a Vietnam War veteran and a national leader in Veterans For Peace. When I met David, he suffered from moral injury. In close combat, David killed a Vietnamese soldier about his age. He told me he wondered about the soldier’s family and life before the war. Nightmares of the killing haunted him. David took this moral conflict to his grave.
After the second invasion of Iraq in March 2003, I traveled to Baghdad in December as a representative of Veterans For Peace. I saw the devastation and horror caused by US firepower. I also saw sick and deformed children as a consequence of toxic US depleted uranium munitions left behind after the First Gulf War. Those images and shared responsibility for the pain of innocent children haunt me.
After I left the military, I realize that I had much in common with those I faced on the battlefield, and I could not disregard their deaths. Most of us were young. Our governments sent us to fight each other. We either thought we were doing the right thing or coerced to fight by peer pressure, intimidation, and economic circumstances. And like me, my former adversaries alive or dead, have family and friends who love and care about them.
Numbers are cold, but they are the best I can do to represent the breadth of loss in US wars. Please remember, these figures represent individual people with families. The total number of US deaths in war from 1775 – June 1, 2020, is 966,689. The total includes combat deaths and those who died in theater for other reasons. But that is not the total sum lost to war. Untold numbers of service members returned home and died from diseases and other war-related ailments. Others died by suicide and drug abuse due to post-traumatic stress and moral injury. We do not know the exact numbers because they are not adequately tracked.
“Enemy” combatant and civilian numbers are elusive. Quoting Chis Hedges from a March 2003 New York Times article, “Americans and their allies typically cause 10 to 20 times more combat casualties than American forces suffer.”
Retired Army COL, Chief Prosecutor in the My Lai Massacre Cases and Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Missouri Kansas City Law School, Professor William G. Eckhardt, is a well-respected researcher on civilian deaths in war. In his March 1989 academic paper, Civilian Deaths in Wartime, Professor Eckhardt writes, “On the average, half of the deaths caused by war happened to civilians, only some of whom were killed by famine associated with war…” “The civilian percentage share of war-related deaths remained at about 50% from century to century.” (p. 97)
As our society seeks to make something of comparisons between war victims and COVID19, let us not forget that war deaths are preventable. War is a decision, predominantly made by men, not to share resources and accept or even tolerate differences. It is a waste of lives and money. In 2019 alone, the world spent $1.9 trillion on war. Viruses are an invention of nature that plagues all of humankind.
Comparing COVID-19 to war should remind us of our common humanity and that if we stopped trying to kill each other, we’d free up more resources to help save each other from a common enemy.
Michael T. McPhearson served as a Captain in the U.S. Army and is a Gulf War Combat Veteran. He is the former executive director of Veterans For Peace and a founding co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition in Saint Louis, MO, organized in the aftermath of Michael Brown, Jr.’s murder. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.