Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"FRAGGING" - US soldiers in Viet Nam killed their own commanders rather than fight the American War.

From: GI Special
December 19, 2006
Email: thomasfbarton@earthlink.net

“Most Fraggings Were Aimed At Eliminating The Abusive Practices Of Individual Commanders” -


The majority of grunts in Vietnam had but one aim, to return home safely, and few were willing to risk their lives for a hopeless cause.

As violent and ruthless as it may have been, fragging was an essential tool of soldier democracy, the means by which men thrust into Vietnam against their wills were able to resist military authority.

It was the final manifestation of a breakdown in the U.S. mission in Vietnam and signaled an Army at war with itself.

On April 20, 1971, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield began the proceedings of Congress by dramatically introducing his colleagues and the nation to the most macabre development of the Vietnam War: fragging.

In a trembling voice, Mansfield grimly told of a young first lieutenant, a West Point graduate from Montana, who was murdered by his own men at Bien Hoa on March 15, just four weeks before his scheduled return to the States.

In the brief comments following Mansfield’s disclosure, Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland captured the shock and dismay of those present:

“In every war a new vocabulary springs up . . . but in all the lexicon of war there is not a more tragic word than ‘fragging’ with all that it implies of total failure of discipline and depression of morale, the complete sense of frustration and confusion and the loss of goals and hope itself.”

The Army began keeping records on assaults with explosive devices in 1969.

Through the end of 1970, over three hundred incidents had taken place, resulting in seventy-three deaths and injury to nearly five hundred people.

By July of 1972, as the last American troops were leaving Vietnam, the total number of incidents had reached 551, with eighty-six soldiers dead and over seven hundred injured.

In effect, these are the casualty figures for the Army’s “other war” in Vietnam, its battle with the insurgents in its own ranks.

As startling as these totals may be, fraggings were in fact more frequent than the Pentagon’s figures imply.

One quite obvious deficiency is that the statistics include only assaults with explosive devices and omit the vast number of shootings with firearms, which, given greater availability, probably occurred more often.

David Addlestone reports that Army lawyers with the 173rd Airborne told of periods during ,1970 and 1971 when violent attacks were almost a daily occurrence.

In fact, assaults against commanders during the Vietnam War probably reached into the thousands.

The Pentagon figures do indicate a sharp rise in the rate of fragging, with the number of incidents increasing each year from 1969 to 1971, despite troop withdrawals:

Calendar Year / Number of Assaults / Deaths
1969 / 96 / 39
1970 / 209 / 34
1971 (first 11 months only) / 215 / 12

Military spokesmen sometimes claim that many of these incidents involved attacks among low-ranking enlisted men, particularly blacks against whites, but the Pentagon’s own figures show that the great majority of fraggings were aimed at those in positions of authority.

Statistics supplied to the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee for the period January 1969 to August 1971 show that, of 43 identified fragging victims, approximately 80 per cent were officers and NCOs.

Fragging was the Gl’s ultimate means of resistance, a deadly and effective weapon against military authority and dangerous or oppressive policies.

A few examples will show the powerful impact of fragging.

In 1970, former Marine Sergeant Robert Parkinson of Sunland, California, appeared before a Congressional Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. A crippled man, the sergeant told how two years earlier, in Vietnam, he had attempted to crack down on widespread drug use within his unit; how he began to receive threats and eventually had to arm himself; and how on September 23, 1968, a fragmentation grenade exploded under his bunk, shattering his foot and causing severe internal injuries.

The sergeant’s tragic experience was not unique, even at this early stage of the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert told interviewers for Playboy magazine of similar attacks within his battalion of the 173rd Airborne before he took command in early 1969:

“There had been two attempts on the previous commander’s life. There had been quite a few fraggings in that battalion, of both officers and senior enlisted men.

“One man had both legs blown off; seven people had been wounded by a grenade, and a Claymore mine had been thrown right at the tactical-operations center—a mine to kill the staff, for Christ’s sake.”

Most fraggings were aimed at eliminating the abusive practices of individual commanders.

On November 9, 1970, an incendiary grenade was thrown into the quarters of several notoriously rigid NCOs of the 2nd Battalion/l7th Artillery at Nha Trang. The sergeants escaped unhurt, but presumably they got the message from the grunts to ease up.

A similar incident occurred several months later within the 538th Transportation Company at Long Binh. The unit seethed with discontent over the policies of the first sergeant, and talk of fagging was blatant. In April of 1971 the sergeant finally fell victim to an attack, later blamed on Sp/4’s Richard Buckingham, a member of VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against The War], and Richard Strain.

Fraggings also took place under combat conditions.

In his January 1972 article in Saturday Review, Eugene Linden recounted an episode in an armored cavalry unit near Khe San in the spring of 1971.

After four months in the bush, the company was scheduled to return to Khe San, when the commander, at the last minute, volunteered his men to stay out on patrol. That night, three Claymore mines were stolen and placed under what was thought to be the commander’s armored track vehicle. The captain was elsewhere, though, and the explosion injured (apparently accidentally) four enlisted men sleeping nearby.

Linden also reported on a fragging involving black radicals at Camp Eagle during the Laotian invasion in March of 1971. The commander of a supply unit at the camp had attempted to discipline several militants for drug use, but after jailing one of the blacks, the captain was wounded in his sleep by a Claymore mine slipped under his bunk.

Similarly, in a 1972 article for Life magazine, John Saar wrote of a fragging in the fall of 1971 in which grunts attempted to blow up their overly zealous commander but accidentally killed the wrong officer. In an unannounced urinalysis test immediately after the slaying, 25 per cent of the men were detected as heroin users and removed from the unit.

The ultimate impact of fragging lay not with any one particular incident but with its general effect on the functioning of the Army. For every one of the more than five hundred reported assaults, there were many instances of intimidation and threats of fragging which often produced the same result.

The unexpected appearance of a grenade pin or the detonation of a harmless smoke grenade frequently convinced commanders to abandon expected military standards.

Once a commander was threatened by or became the actual target of a fragging, his effectiveness and that of the unit involved were severely hampered.

Indeed, as internal defiance spread within many units, no order could be issued without first considering the possibility of fragging.The ardent young West Point graduate, eager to succeed in combat and push his men to medal-winning heroics, was a doomed figure.

The majority of grunts in Vietnam had but one aim, to return home safely, and few were willing to risk their lives for a hopeless cause. As violent and ruthless as it may have been, fragging was an essential tool of soldier democracy, the means by which men thrust into Vietnam against their wills were able to resist military authority.

It was the final manifestation of a breakdown in the U.S. mission in Vietnam and signaled an Army at war with itself.

The plague of disaffection and defiance within the ranks, most dramatically evidenced in fragging, crippled the infantry and left the once-proud American Army helpless, more a liability than an asset to U.S. purposes.

This was perhaps best illustrated by the Army’s attempted solution to the problem of fragging.

By 1970, many commanders in Vietnam apparently felt that enlisted men could no longer be trusted with weapons and began a policy of restricting access to explosive devices and rifles.

Information from various separate sources and conversations with Vietnam veterans confirm that in many units grenades and firearms were taken from all but those on guard duty and on combat patrol.

Sp/5 William Fischer, then of the 440th Signal Battalion in Mannheim, related in June 1970 (at an anti-war gathering in London’s Lyceum Ballroom) how several months earlier in Vietnam a colonel refused to arm the men in his camp, despite an NLF attack, because he was “afraid of incidents.”

Similarly, in 1971, members of “Better Blacks United,” an anti-racist organization centered in Tuy Hoa, disclosed that commanders restricted the possession of arms among blacks and white radicals.

Correspondents for Time, the Washington Post, and other journals likewise observed instances of troops being denied access to weapons. Thus soldiers were stripped of the very weapons with which they had been sent to fight.

Limiting possession of weapons may have prevented some fraggings, but it also undermined the U.S. role in Vietnam.

An Army so utterly demoralized clearly was incapable of functioning as a credible military force.

Military officials and some journalists have asserted that the Army did not seriously fall apart until after extensive withdrawals began; that troops grew restless because they were taken out of combat and thus became bored.

Such arguments raise a “chicken and egg” dilemma: did resistance force the Pentagon to withdraw, or did withdrawal create dissent and unrest?

The actual process was no doubt a dialectic combination of the two, each process playing on the other to produce constantly deteriorating troop morale and an ever- increasing rate of withdrawal.

Nonetheless, too little attention has been directed to the question of just what influence the Army’s collapse in Vietnam had on Nixon-administration disengagement policies.

It’s hard to pinpoint a date when turbulence within the infantry reached a critical state, but my own guess would be that by early 1970 morale problems were already beginning to create grave difficulties.

Several combat refusals had already been reported, drug-use levels were approaching 50 per cent, and fraggings were spreading rapidly; black and whitetroops throughout the services were loudly clamoring for an end to the war and greater personal freedoms.

David Hackworth’s description of the 173rd Brigade at An Khe, even as early as 1969, suggests an Army rapidly approaching collapse:

“Pound for pound, the Brigade was garbage. Discipline was lax; the troops were slovenly, mentally as well as physically. It was obvious that in An Khe at least they were no match for either the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese regulars. As the sergeant had said, they preferred pot, two to one. But marijuana was only an expression of a deeper, more serious failure. . . .They called the hierarchy ‘motherfuckers’ and printed ‘fuck the Green Machine’ on their jackets and hats.”

There seems little doubt that troop withdrawals were in fact speeded up because of the GI revolt. Military officials were compelled to act in order to preserve the Army as an institution and prevent even further internal disintegration.

This was done not only because of fragging and mutiny in Vietnam itself but because of the generalized crisis throughout the armed forces at the time: the plummeting reenlistment rates, soaring desertions, and rising dissent which threatened to destroy the American military apparatus.

Against such a background, it’s not surprising that voices were raised to submit to the pressures for withdrawal. Stewart Alsop, a veteran journalist with reputed close connections to Pentagon officials, penned an extraordinary Newsweek editorial, in December 1970, reporting a “growing feeling among the Administration’s policymakers that it might be a good idea to accelerate the rate of withdrawal.”

The main reason cited for this view, according to Alsop, was “that discipline and morale in the American Army in Vietnam are deteriorating very seriously.”

Similar sentiments were attributed to Pentagon officials a few weeks later in a Time magazine article on Gl dissent:

“Officers from Chief of Staff William C. Westmoreland on clown are known to be arguing that they are not being pulled out fast enough.”

Washington Post reporters also found appeals for accelerated withdrawal rates among many leading officers who “believe that a continued presence provides little help for the Vietnamese but exacerbates the problems of drugs and disaffection.”

There were also reports in early 1971 that then Secretary of Defense Laird returned from an inspection tour of Vietnam “shocked and distressed by the high level of marijuana use and the low level of morale” and urged a more rapid reduction in ground troops.

The Nixon administration claimed and received great credit for withdrawing the Army from Vietnam, but in fact it was the rebellion of lowranking GIs that forced the government to abandon a hopeless and suicidal policy.

Vietnam GIs: They Helped Stop An Imperial War

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To whom it may concern,

A Richard Strain was mention, in your article, as one involved in a "fagging" episode at Long Binh in April of 1971.

I have been looking for a Richard Strain for a few years. The last time I saw Richard was in 1970. I was stationed at Vandenberg AFB, Calif, at the time and he came to visit me. I'm not going to ask you for any info on Richard, but would it be possible for you to locate him for me and give him information on how he may contact me? I'm not at all sure if this is the same friend. The Richard Strain I've been looking for grew up with me in Yonkers, N.Y..

I've gotten no hits on locator sites. Please, if you can help me locate him would you please foward the following information to him?

Many thanks for any info.

Don Carroll
257 State Rd.
Great Barrington, MA 01230
Phone: 413-717-4181

Sincerely Yours, Don