Body Counts

After watching four nights of Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War,” I feel exhausted. Everything seems to be running together as we see the continuing failure of America’s worldview of saving the world from communism versus the North Vietnamese focus on unifying the country.

If I have one critique of the series so far, it is that we haven’t heard the voices of the Vietnamese refugees who fled South Vietnam when it fell to the North Vietnamese.  What were they thinking back in 1966?  Perhaps we will hear from them in the later episodes.

One takeaway from the series  that has implications for any organization, including the church, was McNamara’s determination to find a measurement that would prove his strategies were working.  Unlike WWII, success in Vietnam could not be measured by taking territory.  When the U.S. advanced against Germany in World War II, there was an end game and a destination – to  take back France and go to Berlin.

In Vietnam, there was no territory to win.  In fact, American troops were finding themselves going back over the same territory again and again, because they were fighting against an insurgent enemy.  But by 1966, McNamara had his definitive measurement – body counts.  If we were killing more of them and fewer of us were being killed, then we must be winning.  The goal became to kill so many Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers that they could not be replaced with fresh troops. This was called the “crossover point.”

In June of 1967, Alpha Company was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces.  Out of 137 men, 76 were killed, and 23 were wounded.  It was a terrible loss for the Americans.  Only nine or ten North Vietnamese bodies were found.  This was unacceptable to the higher-ups.  There must be an equally high body count of the enemy.  The troops on the scene were asked to find more enemy casualties.  There were no more.  But when the official report was sent out, it was reported that over 400 enemy soldiers had been killed.  At all costs– even at the cost of the truth– the Defense Department needed its numbers.

By June of 1967, 500,000 American troops were in Vietnam.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How do you measure success? Numbers? Hearts and minds?
  2. Are there body counts in your ministry?
  3. Do you have acceptable losses on the way to a greater goal?
  4. How does a faith community discern its effectiveness?

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For a post about Episode 1 go Here.
For a post about Episode 2 go Here.
For a post about Episode 3 go Here.

To see Episode 4 on PBS go Here.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. He will be sharing insights on each episode of this series.  Join Miller in a three-part on Boomer Spirituality starting on October 4, at 6:30 pm Central Time. Register for the webinar series »