Myth Body Counts Were Falsified

This is another one of those enduring myths that actually had its roots with the South Vietnamese Army. During the period when Americans were strictly advisors to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) the South Vietnamese were courting favor with the Kennedy Administration. In order to make it appear that they were doing more to fight the insurgents then they were actually doing, and therefore be eligible for more military assistance, they faked the number of VC they claimed to have killed in most operations.

Reporters covering the war from Saigon assumed that the Americans would do the same thing and that is basically what they reported. They took the position that any casualty estimate, or as they put it, body count, must be inflated.

Personally, I never heard the term "body count" until I returned to the United States after my tour. They were called "enemy casualtiy reports" in Vietnam just as they were in Germany. In actuality, every enemy casualtiy report made by every unit I was attached to had to be verified by a senior officer before it was accepted. More than once we had to haul dead NVA/VC out from remote battlesites on the back decks of our tanks to a place where a battalion or brigade officer could see them in person before they were counted. On several occasions my crew and I, along with an infantry rifle squad, sat in the sun babysitting bloated corpses until they could be officially counted. Only then did we get the unpleasant job of burying the bodies.

The NVA and VC took great pains to remove their dead from the battalefield in order to conceal their true losses. More than once we found wooden "body hooks" the NVA used to haul their dead from the field of battle. This led to a practice of adding estimates of the number of "probables" (i.e., "probably killed, no body recovered") to the count of "confirmed" killed. While it is certainly possible that some commanders choose to report the sum of these two numbers rather than separate figures, I doubt whether this was a systemic practice based on personal experience. There was a standard formula for estimating enemy wounded, based on statistics gathered from World Wars One and Two that basically said that two men were wounded for every one killed.

The irony of this whole affair is that on April 3rd, 1995, on the 20th anniversary of the end of the Second Indochina War, the North Vietnamese Communists finally admited their true casualties. While the U.S. Command had officially stated that we killed about 750,000 NVA and VC, the Communists declared, in an official press release to Agence France, that we had actually killed 1.1 million NVA soldiers.