War is a dangerous pastime, and the enemy is not the only hazard. This was brought home to me recently when I was researching four young men from my village who died in the war in Vietnam. One was just 19 years old, and the news reports said he was killed in action while on patrol near the DMZ. But the official cause of death was later listed as “accidental self destruction.” As both a veteran and a student of English, I wondered what that clerical term might cover.
The Internet was helpful. “Accidental self destruction” is when you kill yourself by accident. Perhaps you pull the pin of a grenade that is (or was) attached to your vest, or fail to yield right of way to a tank. The term is grouped with “accidental homicide” – which is when you kill someone else by accident – perhaps shooting the man in front of you as you trip over a tree root. And then there is the umbrella term of “misadventure.”
One example helped me sort this out: Three men are in a mortar pit; one of them drops a mortar round which explodes on impact with the ground. For the person who drops it, it’s “accidental self destruction.” The other two men are victims of “accidental homicide.” Or, it could be classed as “misadventure” for all three.
And such accidents were more common than one would think. Among the men killed in the Vietnam war, 842 died by “accidental self destruction,” 944 by “accidental homicide,” and 1,326 as a the result of “misadventure.”
Vehicular accidents accounted for another 1,187 deaths in Vietnam. And then there were “on purpose” deaths: 234 intentional homicides (i.e., murders) and 382 suicides. Also, 273 fatal heart attacks and 42 strokes. That’s almost 5,000 “non-hostile” deaths that had to be categorized, 5,000 carefully worded letters that had to be sent to parents and spouses.
War. It’s a nasty business.