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Toward a Better Understanding of Attrition: The Korean and Vietnam Wars

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 68, Number 3, July 2004
pp. 911-942 | 10.1353/jmh.2004.0129


This article attempts to provide a historically accurate description of attrition as an operational strategy. The Korean and Vietnam Wars contain prominent and commonly recognized examples of attrition. These examples clash with the popular image of attrition as a futile and bloody slogging match in which a commander ruthlessly trades the lives of his men in order to weaken the enemy at a relatively favorable rate. In these conflicts, attrition was a basic process of warfare, characterized by a variety of methods. Although not necessarily optimal, it was a useful alternative to other operational strategies that were too costly or risky. Accordingly, the popular image of attrition—shared by many historians, political scientists, and military officers—may not reflect the actual history of attrition.

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