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  #1  
Old 26 April 2009, 06:03 PM
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Military Mortality rate of 2LTs in Vietnam

Comment: This really is not new to me. There has been a tale going around
for years that the life expectancy for a Second Lieutenant who led combat
patrols in Vietnam was a few minutes.
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  #2  
Old 26 April 2009, 06:49 PM
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I've heard that before, but I've never seen any data to back it up. I've also heard the same statistic for certain specialties (tankers, infantrymen) in combat, and with seconds instead of minutes. I'm not sure how you'd quantify 'life expectancy', since generally most US troops in Vietnam would survive a firefight. I would suspect, however, that most US casualties occurred in the first few minutes of a firefight, until the US could bring their artillery and air support into play.

Statistically, casualties were much higher for Army and Marine 1LTs than 2LTs. I suspect this might be due to the high casualty rates for helicopter pilots, who often made 1LT before reaching combat, due to the long training cycle.
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Old 26 April 2009, 11:04 PM
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I heard this one and have seen it referenced in TV, with the implication being patrols assisted in the deaths of their own incompetent leaders. I know I've seen a version where a clueless 2LT led a patrol into danger and one of the soldiers shot him and tried to cover it up as a death to enemy fire. It may have been an episode of American Dreams but I'm not sure.
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  #4  
Old 26 April 2009, 11:07 PM
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This is an oft-heard UL which, in addition to having ZERO supporting data, just doesn't pass the common sense test. A few points:

1) I don't have on-hand the mortality rates for second lieutenants in Vietnam, so we're going to have to make a few assumptions, but that's okay. Lets VERY generously assume that 50% of 2ndLts who served in combat in Vietnam were killed (which is in and of itself ludicrous--I'm sure the survival rate was much higher--but stay with me); even if this is so, it's mathematically impossible for the mean average life expectancy to be measured in the minutes. Again being generous, even if our supposed 50% who did die all happened to die withint SECONDS of contact with the enemy, with the other 50% surviving, there's just no way that mean average would find itself in the minutes. Weeks, maybe even days, but minutes--impossible.
2) For anyone to make any sort of claim--be it weeks, days, minutes, whatever--would require a dataset which I'm pretty confident doesn't exist. The quality and detail of post-combat debriefing and reporting varies widely, and even in the information age, trying to reconstruct combat events down the minute is extremely challenging without exhaustive debriefs of all parties, and careful and patient post-event reconstruction by analysts. Yes, it can certainly be done (and I've helped do it), but with the amount of effort and man-hours involved, it's only done in cases of heightened or exceptional interest (mass cas events, new enemy TTPs, etc), not every time there is a friendly KIA. I somehow suspect this degree of exhaustive detail in post-combat assessment occured even less frequently in Vietnam--so in most cases wherein 2ndLts were killed in action, I doubt anyone could conclusively offer accurate figures on how many minutes or hours into an engagement the death actually occured. Ergo... wildly incomplete dataset, and no reliable average.

But it sounds great when bearded, long-haired former pogues at the VFW try to sound salty and pass themselves off as combat vets.

(Disclaimer--yes, I'm a pogue too. And I'm the first person to admit it.)
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Old 26 April 2009, 11:37 PM
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Back in the cold war Army the 'life expectancy' statistic was tossed around a lot.

I got the impression the statistics were based on first contact with an equal force in a Fulda Gap scenario.
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  #6  
Old 27 April 2009, 09:56 AM
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In which case, such may have been a reasonable estimate--but an estimate nonetheless, not a figure based in actual data.
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  #7  
Old 27 April 2009, 05:17 PM
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I've heard something similar for British subalterns in WWI, although I imagine that was also pretty much made up.

If that were the case, the chances of a 2LT lasting to finish his 3rd patrol would be tiny - vast swathes of 2LTs would have to be killed within seconds of leaving base to make up for every guy who made it through the war unhurt.
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Old 27 April 2009, 05:31 PM
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I agree with the posters above. Even if fragging is included as a cause of death to inexperienced 2nd lieutenants, there is no way to make statistical sense of this.
A similiar one that I heard at the time was the "life expectancy of a door gunner" on a copter. I don't remember the exact answer on this, but even then it was longer than a few minutes.
CBS did a report during the war about Charlie Company, the company name was part of the title, I forget the unit. In it, famously, an officer, I think a captain, was trying to get his men to head down this trail. They refused saying that they knew that Charlie was down there waiting for them in ambush. That was where the issue stood. The officer could not make his orders stick with soldiers who had some experience.

Ali "an internet poster could live forever" Infree
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  #9  
Old 27 April 2009, 05:48 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Squirt View Post
If that were the case, the chances of a 2LT lasting to finish his 3rd patrol would be tiny - vast swathes of 2LTs would have to be killed within seconds of leaving base to make up for every guy who made it through the war unhurt.
That's true, but perhaps we're taking the concept too literally by focusing on the term "life expectancy" and concentrating on a mean rather than, say, a median or a mode. Maybe we should think of the claim more in terms of something like "Less than half of all 2LTs in Vietnam survived their first patrols" or "Only 20% of all 2LTs in Vietnam survived their first patrols, but those who did had a 95% survival rate for the rest of the war."
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Old 27 April 2009, 07:55 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by snopes View Post
That's true, but perhaps we're taking the concept too literally by focusing on the term "life expectancy" and concentrating on a mean rather than, say, a median or a mode. Maybe we should think of the claim more in terms of something like "Less than half of all 2LTs in Vietnam survived their first patrols" or "Only 20% of all 2LTs in Vietnam survived their first patrols, but those who did had a 95% survival rate for the rest of the war."
This is probably one of those "legends" where there is indeed some underlying truth. It's just that the numbers that have been warped so badly that it makes it look silly.

The US Army and Marines certainly have the statistics to, for example, compare the casualty rates for 1LT and 2LT versus enlisted men in combat units. I suspect the 2LTs did indeed have somewhat higher casualty rates than did 1LTs and enlisted men.

I believe there is a long history of higher casualty rates for low grade officers going back hundreds of years.

Higher ranking officers used to get killed much more often than they did in 20th century wars. In the civil war, generals were killed in battle with surprising frequency, in a large battle a couple generals would typically be killed. Figure for every General killed several dozen low ranking officers were killed as well.
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  #11  
Old 27 April 2009, 11:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jimmy101_again View Post
The US Army and Marines certainly have the statistics to, for example, compare the casualty rates for 1LT and 2LT versus enlisted men in combat units. I suspect the 2LTs did indeed have somewhat higher casualty rates than did 1LTs and enlisted men.
I would not think that they have the statistics for this stuff. It would mean that someone has already chased this down a rabbit hole. They do have all the source data, but likely have not crunched the data into statistics.

When I was a high school student, and later on early in my military career, I worked in the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum. We got asked by an author to confirm the rates of fire for the Normandy based artillery batteries in the months following the D-Day invasion. We had the source data, but it took dozens of hours of work by Lt UEL to gather that information.

Unless the Vietnam era information is computerised, I would submit that they likely do not have the statistics, but do have the source information.
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  #12  
Old 27 April 2009, 11:51 PM
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In response to both snopes and jimmy, I would have to agree with both of you--intuitively I expect there is more than just a grain of truth to this UL. My beef is with people presenting it as though it's a proven statistic in order to support whatever point they're trying to make.
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  #13  
Old 27 April 2009, 11:58 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by UEL View Post
I would not think that they have the statistics for this stuff. It would mean that someone has already chased this down a rabbit hole. They do have all the source data, but likely have not crunched the data into statistics.

When I was a high school student, and later on early in my military career, I worked in the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum. We got asked by an author to confirm the rates of fire for the Normandy based artillery batteries in the months following the D-Day invasion. We had the source data, but it took dozens of hours of work by Lt UEL to gather that information.

Unless the Vietnam era information is computerised, I would submit that they likely do not have the statistics, but do have the source information.
I would think that the DOD did/has done extensive analysis of the data. It would be basic business practice to know what the expected combat lifetimes of the various ranks is. That would be the only way to logically plan training of replacements.

My understanding is that the DOD keeps very detailed records of how soldiers are killed; combat (with many sub-classifications), non-combat, accident, friendly fire, disease etc. That data certainly would have been extensively analyzed during the Vietnam war.

So the data and analysis certainly exist (or existed). Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean either is locatable.
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  #14  
Old 28 April 2009, 01:26 AM
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Not necessarily true there Jimmy.

When I was a lowly political science undergraduate, I took a class on the statistics of war. The teacher referenced a large project that was attempting to encode and reduce to a usuable database all kinds of information about war throughout history. Stuff like what sides fought, who won, numbers of casualities, etc. In 2003, the project still had not reached the Vietnam Era, IIRC. If DOD was sitting on such a gold mine of potential data, the group would have gotten it already. It was called the Correlates of War Project.
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Old 28 April 2009, 01:37 AM
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And while DOD is meticulous in cataloging casualty figures with basic cause of death, I can say with certainty the records do NOT uniformly exist that record the exact sequence and timing of events to the level of detail required to extrapolate time of death down the minute following enemy contact. Even now, when the technology and manpower are actually available to actually do so, minute-by-minute engagement storyboards are reconstructed by exception, not as the rule. I am fairly certain such was likely the case in Vietnam also.
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Old 28 April 2009, 10:25 AM
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One thing I can tell from my time in the Swiss Army is that there was a similar story about our "armoured grenadeers" (APC-borne shock troops) whose life expectency after leaving their vehicle was said to be of 30 seconds - all their training being to make a maximal mess during this half-minute.

As for the officers, I heard the Vietnam story, too, but also a similar one about the Israelis during the Yom-Kippur war (it said that after a few days of fighting, most frontline units were commanded by NCOs because the officers below Major were no more).

According to this, our lieutenants were supposed to hide any sign of their rank in the field (IIRC, they were told to change their pistol in favor of a rifle in case of a war, because the Guy with a Pistol is a prioritary target).

But as other posters have said, it was the mid-80's, so it could be Cold-War lore.

Last edited by Cyrano; 28 April 2009 at 10:32 AM.
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Old 28 April 2009, 01:08 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Cyrano View Post
(IIRC, they were told to change their pistol in favor of a rifle in case of a war, because the Guy with a Pistol is a prioritary target).
This is also in Robert Graves "Goodbye to All That" He says that in WWI many British officers ditched their pistols and cavalry britches for rifles and normal trousers so they wouldn't be as obvious.
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  #18  
Old 28 April 2009, 07:08 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DesertRat View Post
And while DOD is meticulous in cataloging casualty figures with basic cause of death, I can say with certainty the records do NOT uniformly exist that record the exact sequence and timing of events to the level of detail required to extrapolate time of death down the minute following enemy contact. Even now, when the technology and manpower are actually available to actually do so, minute-by-minute engagement storyboards are reconstructed by exception, not as the rule. I am fairly certain such was likely the case in Vietnam also.
I understand that precise records would not exists and even if they did they probably wouldn't be reliable. But you wouldn't necessarily need records that are all the precise.

For example, you simply need to know how many 2LTs, 1LTs etc are in theatre with a combat job designation (forget the correct military jargon) of "rifle platoon leader" and the number of enlisted men also assigned to "rifle platoons". Get the combat casualty rates for both sets. Compare casualty rates per day in theatre. How much more likely is it that a 2LT was killed compared to the enlisted men? If the statistic in the OP is anywhere near correct then the casualty rate for the 2LTs would have to be huge, as in; "We deployed 10,000 enlisted men in rifle platoons along with 1000 2LTs. At the end of the year we had 500 enlisted casualties (5%, which would be high) but 200 (20%) 2LT casualties." From that you can assign a life expectance in combat for the 2LTs as being 1/4 that of the enlisted men.

Surely the DOD has numbers like that. The tricky part would be getting reliable combat casualty data. IIRC, even in modern armies, a very high percentage of casualties are not combat related. (IIRC in the civil war only something like 10% of casualties were actually combat related.)

To get the statistic down to "half-life expectance for 2LTs in combat" you need an estimate of how much time a rifle platoon spends in firefights. Granted that is going to be an extremely unreliable number but that number still exists. You can then calculate the "half-life" for 2LTs, enlisted men etc. The number will not be very accurate or precise but still may be very useful and not all that hard to determine.
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Old 28 April 2009, 07:27 PM
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Fragging aside, I don't understand why a 2nd Lt would have a significantly higher casualty rate than a private in Vietnam: it's not like a private is a career soldier who has spent the last 20 years training to fight: he's probably worse trained than that "stupid" junior officer leading him. Prefferential targeting of officers? It's not like they were marching in line across fields with an officer out in front holding a saber...
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Old 28 April 2009, 10:39 PM
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Well, there are some things to consider that could result in a higher-than-normal casualty rate for second lieutenants. First off, even if a lieutenant goes without rank and is carrying the same loadout as his men, there are certain actions he would immediately take in combat which would cause him to stand out right away as the small unit leader. The most obviously example is running to the radioman and using the radio, but there are others. If an adept enemy was looking to deliberately target said small unit leader, there are signs.

Secondly, if a second lieutenant is doing his job in a combat situation, he is leading from the front. Yes, the small unit leader is supposed to position himself wherein he is best postured to direct the fire and maneuver of his unit, but frequently that is also in an area where he is vulnerable and exposed.

Niether of the reasons above have anything to do with the "greeness" or proficiency of a 2ndLt; rather, they are unavoidable risks associated with his role on the battlefield. Case in point--the first ground combat casualty of OIF was 2ndLt Shane Childers, who I knew personally; he was an experienced mustang and a highly proficient officer, not a "boot butterbar" by anyone's standards.
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