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Will America Ever Grapple with the Atrocities It Committed in Vietnam?

There has been one connecting thread in Washington’s foreign wars of the last half century -- misery for local nationals.

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For all the dissimilarities, botched analogies, and tortured comparisons, there has been one connecting thread in Washington’s foreign wars of the last half century that, in recent years at least, Americans have seldom found of the slightest interest: misery for local nationals.  Civilian suffering is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern war in general, even if only rarely discussed in the halls of power or the mainstream media.

An Unimaginable Toll

Pham To was lucky.  He and Pham Thang, another victim and a neighbor, told me that, of the 2,000 people living in their village before the war, only 300 survived it.  Bombing, shelling, a massacre, disease, and starvation had come close to wiping out their entire settlement.  “So many people were hungry,” Pham Thang said.  “With no food, many died.  Others were sick and with medications unavailable, they died, too.  Then there was the bombing and shelling, which took still more lives.  They all died because of the war.”

Leaving aside those who perished from disease, hunger, or lack of medical care, at least 3.8 million Vietnamese died violent war deaths according to researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington.  The best estimate we have is that 2 million of them were civilians.  Using a very conservative extrapolation, this suggests that 5.3 million civilians were wounded during the war, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian casualties overall.  To such figures might be added an estimated 11.7 million Vietnamese forced from their homes and turned into refugees, up to 4.8 million sprayed with toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million war orphans, and 1 million war widows. 

The numbers are staggering, the suffering incalculable, the misery almost incomprehensible to most Americans but not, perhaps, to an Iraqi. 

No one will ever know just how many Iraqis died in the wake of the U.S. invasion of 2003.  In a country with an estimated population of about 25 million at the time, a much-debated survey -- the results of which were published in the British medical journal The Lancet -- suggested more than 601,000 violent “excess deaths” had occurred by 2006.  Another survey indicated that more than 1.2 million Iraqi civilians had died because of the war (and the various internal conflicts that flowed from it) as of 2007.  The Associated Press tallied up records of 110,600 deaths by early 2009.  An Iraqi family health survey fixed the number at 151,000 violent deaths by June 2006.  Official documents made public by Wikileaks counted 109,000 deaths, including 66,081 civilian deaths, between 2004 and 2009.  Iraq Body Count has tallied as many as 121,220 documented cases of violent civilian deaths alone. 

Then there are those 3.2 million Iraqis who were internally displaced or fled the violence to other lands, only to find uncertainty and deprivation in places like Jordan, Iran, and now war-torn Syria.  By 2011, 9% or more of Iraq’s women, as many as 1 million, were widows (a number that skyrocketed in the years after the U.S. invasion).  A recent survey found that 800,000 to 1 million Iraqi children had lost one or both parents, a figure that only grows with the continuing violence that the U.S. unleashed but never stamped out. 

Today, the country, which experienced an enormous brain drain of professionals, has a total of 200 social workers and psychiatrists to aid all those, armed and unarmed, who suffered every sort of horror and trauma.  (In just the last seven years, by comparison, the U.S. Veterans Administration has hired 7,000 new mental health professionals to deal with Americans who have been psychologically scarred by war.)

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