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The widely held belief that many more poor and working class youths died in the Vietnam War than their middle- and upper-class counterparts is "a great exaggeration," say MIT researchers who studied the family incomes of the 58,000 American war dead in Vietnam.
In a report based on the study, the researchers said that their data analysis "offers substantial evidence that, in terms of the bereavement it brought to America, Vietnam was not a class war."
The study, funded by the US Army and MIT, found that affluent communities had only marginally lower casualty rates than the nation as a whole, while poor communities had only marginally higher rates.
Furthermore, the report said, "Data about the residential addresses of war casualties suggest that, within both large heterogeneous cities and wealthy suburbs, there was little relationship between neighborhood incomes and per capita Vietnam death rates."
The authors of the report-which appears in the September-October issue of the journal Operations Research-are Dr. Arnold Barnett, professor of operations research at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and two former graduate students, Captain Timothy Stanley, who now teaches at the US Military Academy, and Michael Shore. Professor Barnett specializes in applied probabilistic and statistical analyses related to health and safety. His earlier studies on such topics as air safety and homicide have been widely reported.
The researchers believe that their study was "the first comprehensive scientific analysis relating Vietnam war casualty patterns to economic status." They undertook it, they said, because of a "strong public interest in the historical accuracy of judgments about the bitterly controversial Vietnam War" and because the belief about class war "continues to influence contemporary policy debates" and even the current presidential election campaign.
The existing perceptions "contribute to a sense of pervasive unfairness in which the benefits of being rich go well beyond material possessions," the authors said. They took note of present Vietnam War-related controversies about Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's draft status and Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle's National Guard duty.
The perception that Vietnam was a class war, they said, "seems to arise more from anecdotes and personal impressions than from any systematic study" relating casualty patterns to economic status.
Citing several examples, the authors declared that "prestigious newspapers and magazines and Academy Award-winning movies have depicted the conflict as a `class war,'" and "distinguished defense analyst James Fallows explicitly described it as one."
They added: "If untrue, the belief that affluent citizens were conspicuously missing from the Vietnam war dead is harmful to all Americans. It demeans the sacrifices of the wealthy by implying that such sacrifices were nonexistent. It demeans the sacrifices of the nonwealthy by suggesting that, manipulated and misled, they shed their blood in a conflict in which the privileged and influential were unwilling to shed theirs."
The study concentrated on US servicemen killed in the war, reasoning that they and their families were presumably the Americans who suffered the most in the conflict, the researchers said. It considered how the families of the 58,000 war dead compared with a random sample of 58,000 contemporary American youths.
In their analysis, they said, they used information about the deceased that appears in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Directory of Names, supplemented by more precise data from the National Military Archives in St. Louis, MO, about key subsets of casualties. Through scrutinizing the data in conjunction with diverse statistics from the 1970 census, they were able to make inferences about the economic backgrounds of the war dead.
The authors performed numerous analyses of local, regional and national data, some based on a random sample of essentially every 40th name in the alphabetical list of US casualties. While the data analyses were individually imperfect, their weaknesses did not overlap, the researchers stated. Hence, "the credibility of their collective outcome may far transcend that of any isolated result."
In analogy with a widely used economic indicator, the authors devised a "disparity score" under which "zero" means no net link between economic status and casualty rates, and "one" means an extreme concentration of war deaths among the poor. They estimated the national disparity score for Vietnam to be about 0.06, which suggests only weak association between income and per capita casualty rates.
The researchers said they also undertook several specialized calculations, one of which examined the contention by Fallows that, with gold stars going to families in rural and working-class areas, "the mothers of Beverly Hills [CA] and Chevy Chase [MD] and Great Neck [NY] and Belmont [MA] were not on the telephones to their Congressmen screaming `you killed my boy.'"
"We found," they said, "that per capita death rates exceeded the national average in three of the four `upscale' communities, as did the overall rate for the four."
Another calculation involved the fact that public discontent with the war grew steadily over time. "A concentration of casualties among wealthy citizens towards the start of the war, therefore, might imply that such citizens rapidly withdrew from participating in the conflict once they ceased supporting it," they said. "Date-of-casualty data indicate, however, that deaths of servicemen from the richest 10 percent of the nation's communities had essentially the same distribution over time as the deaths of other servicemen."
Other specialized calculations estimated that, among the dead, those from prosperous communities were about twice as likely as the others to have been officers (24 percent vs. 13 percent) and that men from such communities who went to Vietnam were about 10 percent likelier to die there than were other servicemen.
They explained: "That excess reflects the disproportionate presence of the affluent in such hazardous roles as pilots or infantry captains and lieutenants. Even if few affluent youths were among the `grunts' in the Vietnam front lines, it could be fallacious to infer from that circumstance that well-off Americans were out of harm's way."
Because few conscripts become officers, the relatively high ranks of affluent servicemen also raised the issue of voluntary vs. compulsory Vietnam service, the researchers said, and whether "the real difference between rich and poor was that Vietnam service was optional for the former and and mandatory for the latter."
"One should be cautious in advancing that viewpoint," they said, "given strong evidence that many `volunteers' only enlisted as an alternative to imminent induction. But suppose that middle- and upper-class youths were in fact far better equipped than other Americans to avoid the military draft. To reconcile that premise with the findings in our paper, one would have to infer that the affluent did not proceed en masse to exploit their special advantages. Less vulnerable than other youths to unrelenting pressure to serve in Vietnam, they nonetheless appear to have gone there in sizeable numbers."
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 8).