From the US perspective, the enemy was composed of two distinct groups: members of the North Vietnamese army and indigenous South Vietnamese fighters loyal to the National Liberation Front, the revolutionary organization that succeeded the Viet Minh and opposed the US-allied Saigon government. The NLF’s combatants, officially known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), included guerrillas in peasant clothing as well as uniformed troops organized into professionalized units. The US Information Service invented the moniker “Viet Cong” — that is, Vietnamese Communists — as a derogatory term that covered anyone fighting on the side of the NLF, though many of the guerrillas themselves were driven more by nationalism than by communist ideology. American soldiers, in turn, oft en shortened this label to “the Cong” or “VC,” or, owing to the military’s phonetic Alpha- Bravo- Charlie alphabet, to “Victor Charlie” or simply “Charlie.”
By 1968 the US forces and their allies in the South were opposed by an estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese troops plus 60,000 uniformed PLAF soldiers, while the revolutionaries’ paramilitary forces — part-time, local guerrillas — likely reached into the hundreds of thousands. Americans often made hard-and-fast distinctions between the well-armed, green- or khaki-uniformed North Vietnamese troops with their fabric-covered, pressed-cardboard pithstyle helmets; the khaki-clad main force PLAF soldiers, with their floppy cloth “boonie hats”; and the lightly armed, “black pajama”-clad guerrillas (all of whom actually wore a wide variety of types andcolors of clothing depending on the time and place). In reality, though, they were very hard to disentangle, since North Vietnamese troops reinforced PLAF units, “local” VC fought in tandem with “hard-core” professionalized PLAF troops, and part-time farmer fighters assisted uniformed North Vietnamese forces.
The plethora of designations and the often hazy distinctions between them underscore the fact that the Americans never really grasped who the enemy was. On one hand, they claimed the VC had little popular support and held sway over villages only through terror tactics. On the other, American soldiers who were supposedly engaged in countering communist aggression to protect the South Vietnamese readily killed civilians because they assumed that most villagers either were in league with the enemy or were guerrillas themselves once the sun went down.
The United States never wanted to admit that the conflict might be a true “people’s war,” and that Vietnamese were bound to the revolution because they saw it as a fight for their families, their land and their country. In the villages of South Vietnam, Vietnamese nationalists had long organized themselves to resist foreign domination, and it was no different when the Americans came. By then, the local population was often inextricably joined to the liberation struggle. Lacking advanced technology, financial resources, or significant firepower, America’s Vietnamese enemies maximized assets like concealment, local knowledge, popular support and something less quantifiable — call it patriotism or nationalism, or perhaps a hope and a dream.
Of course, not every Vietnamese villager believed in the revolution or saw it as the best expression of nationalist patriotism. Even villages in revolutionary strongholds were home to some supporters of the Saigon government. And many more farmers simply wanted nothing to do with the conflict or abstract notions like nationalism and communism. They worried mainly about their next rice crop, their animals, their house and children. But bombs and napalm don’t discriminate. As gunships and howitzers ravaged the landscape, as soldiers with M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers swept through the countryside, Vietnamese villagers of every type — supporters of the revolution, sympathizers of the Saigon regime and those who merely wanted to be left alone — all perished in vast numbers.
The war’s casualty figures are staggering indeed. From 1955 to 1975, the United States lost more than 58,000 military personnel in Southeast Asia. Its troops were wounded around 304,000 times, with 153,000 cases serious enough to require hospitalization, and 75,000 veterans left severely disabled. While Americans who served in Vietnam paid a grave price, an extremely conservative estimate of Vietnamese deaths found them to be “proportionally 100 times greater than those suffered by the United States.” The military forces of the US-allied Republic of Vietnam reportedly lost more than 254,000 killed and more than 783,000 wounded. And the casualties of the revolutionary forces were evidently far graver — perhaps 1.7 million, including 1 million killed in battle, plus some 300,000 personnel still “missing” according to the official but incomplete Vietnamese government figures.
Horrendous as these numbers may be, they pale in comparison to the estimated civilian death toll during the war years. At least 65,000 North Vietnamese civilians were killed, mainly from US air raids. No one will ever know the exact number of South Vietnamese civilians killed as a result of the American War. While the US military attempted to quantify almost every other aspect of the conflict — from the number of helicopter sorties flown to the number of propaganda leaflets dispersed — it quite deliberately never conducted a comprehensive study of Vietnamese noncombatant casualties. Whatever civilian casualty statistics the United States did tally were generally kept secret, and when released piecemeal they were invariably radical undercounts.
Yet even the available flawed figures are startling, especially given that the total population of South Vietnam was only about 19 million people. Using fragmentary data and questionable extrapolations that, for instance, relied heavily on hospital data yet all but ignored the immense number of Vietnamese treated by the revolutionary forces (and also failed to take into account the many civilians killed by US forces and claimed as enemies), one Department of Defense statistical analyst came up with a postwar estimate of 1.2 million civilian casualties, including 195,000 killed. In 1975, a US Senate subcommittee on refugees and war victims offered an estimate of 1.4 million civilian casualties in South Vietnam, including 415,000 killed. Or take the figures proffered by the political scientist Guenter Lewy, the progenitor of a revisionist school of Vietnam War history that invariably shines the best possible light on the US war effort. Even he posits that there were more than 1.1 million South Vietnamese civilian casualties, including almost 250,000 killed, as a result of the conflict.