The Hard Truth About Fragging

By Peter Brush
7/28/2010 • Black History, Vietnam Point of View, Vietnam War

The Defense Department’s fragging figures only included the incidents that involved explosive devices. Given the greater availability of firearms, the total number of assaults on commanders by enlisted men likely reached into the thousands, according to David Cortright in his 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt. Furthermore, military lawyers estimated that only about 10 percent of all fragging incidents actually ended up being adjudicated.

Army Generals Testified About Deteriorating Morale and Discipline

Senator Mansfield’s attempt to inject the fragging into the American political discourse about the war was successful. In September 1971, during House of Representatives hearings on Defense Department appropriations for 1972, Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations Congressman George Mahon of Texas called upon Army generals to testify about the problems of the deteriorating morale and discipline in the Army. Vice Chief of Staff General Bruce Palmer Jr. acknowledged that the Army’s problems, including fragging, could no longer be minimized. Palmer noted some of the Army’s then current problems had also occurred in previous wars, but that fragging and widespread drug use were new phenomena. When asked if fraggings followed any noticeable patterns, Palmer told the committee that since the number of incidents was rising while the number of deaths and injuries were decreasing, many incidents might be explained in terms of intimidation or “just plain horseplay” rather than cases of deliberate murder. He also testified that the attacks did not seem to be racially motivated but rather were attacks against “the man in authority, black or white.” When a congressman asked General Palmer about incidents of officers being shot by their own men, another congressman ended the discussion by noting, “They have been shooting second lieutenants in the back for a thousand years.”

A description of the typical fragging incident during the Vietnam War is straightforward: It was an assault by explosive devices (which excludes rifles, pistols and knives); victims were officers and noncommissioned officers who were of superior rank to their attackers and who were discharging their command responsibilities at the time of the attack; and the attack was not a face-to-face assault but rather was made at a distance.

Since most fragging incidents did not end up in the court system, it is more difficult to establish a profile of the perpetrators themselves. However, a 1976 study conducted at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth gleaned some general characteristics of likely individuals who committed fragging. Of 850 inmates in the USDB population at the time, 28 were identified whose actions, based on their courts-martial transcripts, matched the fragging incident profile. On average, they were 20 years old and had 28 months on active duty. About 20 percent were African American, and about 7 percent were draftees. Most had enlisted in the service and supported the war. They had attained only a low level of education and were considered “loners.” Most were in support units, given jobs for which they had not been trained, and reported little job satisfaction. They felt “scapegoated” and showed little or no remorse for their crimes. Almost 90 percent of these men were intoxicated on a wide assortment of substances at the time of the fragging, which mostly occurred at night. They admitted to little planning beyond talking to others, and most did nothing to avoid capture. Consistent with the command structure at the company and battery level, captains and first sergeants were their most common targets, and 75 percent of the perpetrators had been at some time involved in a verbal or physical altercation with their victims.

In terms of motive, the victims were viewed as having somehow denied the offenders of something they desired, such as promotions or transfers. The victims were perceived as a threat to the offenders. Only two of the 28 offenders studied claimed race was a factor. According to the authors of the study, the easy access and use of drugs was an essential factor in the assaults. That conclusion was further buttressed in a 1976 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Thomas Bond, which claimed that illicit drug use, so much more common in Vietnam than in other wars, tended to reduce any inhibitions the offenders may have had about assaulting superiors.

Fragging had serious consequences for the U.S. military in Vietnam far beyond the number of actual victims. The most likely targets of fragging found themselves caught in a hard place between the hostility and frustration of the men they commanded and the expectations of their superior officers. Officers and noncommissioned officers were expected to inspire their men, to be aggressive and to initiate and succeed in combat. Yet to do so in Vietnam, especially in 1969 and later, was to assume the risk of being killed by their own men.

For every actual fragging incident, there was an untold number of threats of fragging. These threats were made in various forms, such as the surreptitious placement of a grenade or grenade pin, or perhaps the detonation of a nonlethal gas or smoke grenade, in the potential victim’s quarters or work areas. According to Captain Barry Steinberg, an Army judge who presided over a number of fragging courts-martial, once an officer had been threatened with fragging, he was intimidated to the point of being “useless to the military because he can no longer carry out orders essential to the functioning of the Army.” Officers who survived fragging attempts often did not discover the identity of their attackers, and as a consequence they lived in constant fear the attacks would be repeated.

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