In his 1972 Saturday Review article, Eugene Linden described a lieutenant who refused to obey an order from a superior officer to assault an enemy position in the Mekong Delta. The lieutenant subsequently learned his men had actually been considering killing him for being overly aggressive and hence dangerous to them, but decided to abandon their plan upon learning of the lieutenant’s refusal to attack the enemy. While this particular lieutenant was spared a possible fragging at the hands of the men under his command, he had to face the consequences of disobeying an order from his superior officer. Linden’s reporting concluded that fragging, both actual and threatened, was such a powerful influence that virtually all officers and NCOs had to take the possibility into account before giving orders to men in their command.
“The only solution is the total dissolution of our involvement in Indochina”
By May 1971, overall U.S. troop strength in Vietnam had been halved. Combat troops had been reduced by 70 percent, leaving a greater portion of the remaining forces in rear areas. Nonetheless, even as the combat role declined, fraggings, along with serious drug and heroin use, continued to climb. However, in a Washington Post report the same month on the pace of combat troop withdrawals, Army Secretary Stanley Resor said more soldiers were coming forward with evidence of fraggings, and more prospective victims were being tipped off. He added that there was also an active effort by military authorities to get away from using the word “fragging” and use “attempted murder” instead, so as not to minimize the crime.
The Army attempted to deal with the problem of fragging in other ways as well. Since, by 1971, large-scale offensive operations were being avoided, American forces were largely limited to small unit patrols protecting U.S. bases. In many of those units, personal weapons were taken from everyone except those on patrol or guard duty, and fragmentation grenades were taken from everyone.
In his 1971 comments in the Senate chambers, Sen. Mansfield had said about the problem of fragging, “I feel deeply…that the only solution is the total dissolution of our involvement in Indochina.” Mansfield proved to be essentially correct; the Army solved its fragging problem only by leaving Vietnam. On August 12, 1972, the last U.S. combat battalion in Vietnam stood down.
America’s war in Afghanistan has now “officially” exceeded the Vietnam War in duration, and the war in Iraq is approaching that milestone as well. In Vietnam, fragging was both a cause and a consequence of the breakdown in morale and discipline that plagued U.S. forces in the latter part of the war. In spite of facing formidable challenges, today’s professional, all-volunteer Army has almost completely avoided these problems. In 2003 Sergeant Hasan Akbar of the 101st Airborne Division killed two officers when he threw grenades in their tents in Kuwait. In 2005 Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez killed two officers by setting off grenades and a Claymore mine in their room at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Iraq.
With but two reported fragging incidents in two wars, it appears the practice as a serious military problem has been relegated to history—the history of the Vietnam War—from whence it came.
Peter Brush is a frequent contributor to Vietnam magazine. From 1967-68 he served in Marine artillery units in Quang Tri Province. He is now the history librarian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.