by Steve Hesske
March 25, 2003

U.S. Army officials have been quick to spin the puzzling, horrifying attack on his own superiors allegedly perpetrated by "Muslim soldier" Sgt. Asam Akbar, described as a disgruntled platoon leader with an "attitude." The assault by fragmentation grenades and automatic rifle fire left 12 soldiers wounded and one dead at Camp Pennsylvania, a 101st Airborne base camp at Kuwait City, Kuwait on the Iraqi border.

The next day George Heath, a civilian spokesman for the 101st, spoke from the unit's Fort Campbell, Kentucky headquarters, "Incidents of this nature are abnormalities throughout the Army, specifically the 101st." I'll leave it for someone else to figure out how accurate Heath's statement is regarding today's Army. However, I can tell you that not that long ago attacks, very similar to the one at Camp Pennsylvania, on U.S. Army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) by their own men were common even in the 101st Airborne.

I haven't been reading about or listening to or watching much of the Warnography being transmitted by America's mainstream media lately, but after Camp Pennsylvania, I ratcheted up my news consumption because it rekindled memories that are not that distant. But as I listened and read and watched quite a bit more intently these past couple of days, no writer, no newscaster, no politician, pundit, or cabinet member, no so-called analyst once wrote or uttered the magic word that is, in my opinion, a key to the Akbar Case:  Fragging.

When an American soldier killed or attempted to kill one of his superiors in Vietnam the act was called fragging because the weapon of choice, as is the case in Kuwait City, was a fragmentation grenade. As the Vietnam conflict dragged on the Army rank and file, including many draftees, resorted to a variety of methods to endeavor to kill their superiors, so fragging became a comprehensive term that indicated any attempt on the life of an officer or non-commissioned officer (NCO) by one or more of their subordinates. These attempts, as you shall see, were often successful.

Despite strident denials of its existence that continue to this day, fragging is a significant part of America's involvement in the Vietnam war, especially the latter years of that involvement.

According to 27-year army vet and former Vietnam combat commander Lt. Col. Robert Heinl Jr. writing in 1971 in ARMED FORCES JOURNAL, "With extreme reluctance (after a young West Pointer from . . .Montana was fragged in his sleep) the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970 have more than doubled (to 109) from the previous year."

Texas A&M historian Terry Anderson adds, "During the years of '69 down to '73 we have incidents of fragging--that is shooting or hand grenading your NCO or officer who orders you out into the field. The U.S. Army itself does not know exactly how many . . .officers were murdered, but they know of at least 600 cases, and they have another 1400 who died mysteriously." According to Anderson, in the latter stages of America's stay in Vietnam, the Army was not at war with a Vietnamese enemy but with itself.

Perhaps the most infamous fragging incident in Vietnam actually involved the 101st Airborne when that unit's Lt. Col. Wendell Honeycutt ordered and led a fruitless, costly charge on Hamburger Hill, high ground with no strategic value. The U.S. took horrible casualties but "won" the hill, only to abandon it a short time later. Hamburger Hill is often viewed as a key event in bringing home the idea for officer and enlisted man, for Green Beret and peace protestor, for young and old all across America, that the country's involvement in Vietnam was futile and pointless.

In the aftermath of Hamburger Hill, G.I. SAYS, one of many underground papers published by enlisted men in Vietnam at the time, offered a $10,000 bounty for the killing of Lt. Col. Honeycutt who, despite the heavy losses incurred by the 101st, bragged that he had been successful in his mission which was to kill the enemy and destroy his equipment. The colonel, despite several attempts on his life, probably mostly done by his own men, completed his Nam tour and returned home safely.

Bounties on the heads of reckless, clueless field commanders who thought nothing of putting their troops in harm's way then became commonplace in Vietnam, but with much lower price tags, usually in the $50 to $1000 range.

Hamburger Hill was not the only mutinous incident involving the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. A couple of years after the bloody battle for the worthless hill, 13 black soldiers with the 101st became known as "the Phu Bai 13" after they refused combat orders, forcefully took over a barracks and issued a list of demands, some of which were met by the brass.

Congressional hearings held in 1973 estimated that less than 3% of all NCO and officer deaths in Vietnam between '61 and '72 were the result of fragging. But this percentage only took into account those killings done by actual fragmentation grenade. The practice of fragging in Nam expanded to include handguns, automatic rifles, booby traps, knives and bare hands as weapons of choice for increasingly pissed off enlisted men. The Judge Advocate General's Corps (the Army's legal branch) estimated that only about 10% of all fraggings resulted in someone being charged.

It should be noted that fraggings and other insubordination in the Army spiked at a time when, according to Col. Heinl, writing in '71, "The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in the century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our Army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having . . .refused combat, murdering their own officers and NCOs, drug-ridden and dispirited when not mutinous."

Today's "All Volunteer Army of One" often seems to be the antithesis of the preceding description or so we are told, so it seems, every minute of every day. To be fair, saturation television coverage has given me the impression that many of today's soldiers are dedicated, disciplined, sharp, committed to the mission.

But there are negative universals in all warfare. Lousy nutrition. Cramped, dirty, awful living conditions. Terrible weather. Unreasonable often senseless demands made by supervisors. And what Michael Herr describes in DISPATCHES, his new journalism account of Vietnam, " . . .long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror." Therefore, I'm not quite ready to write off the alleged murder and maiming at Camp Pennsylvania as an "anomaly" (as it's now being called by the television networks). It took years of bad policy, pointless bloodshed and half-witted cowboy field commanders in Nam for fragging to manifest itself. In the Iraqi theater a fragging has occurred three days into the war. I think I'll wait and see before I accept the "isolated incident/abnormality" explanation.

Two years ago, in a piece about outbreaks of mutiny in America's military, Kevin Keating noted, "The crisis that racked American society during the Vietnam war . . .wasn't profound enough to create an irreparable rupture between the rulers and the ruled, or to give rise to a full-fledged revolutionary crisis. The U.S. was still coasting on the relative prosperity of the post WWII economic boom. Life wasn't as bad for as many people as it is now, and that's why U.S. involvement in a similar protracted ground war could have a much more explosive impact on American society."

A conscript or draftee Army is much more inclined to the type of sedition wrought and witnessed in Vietnam which is one of the main reasons America's military is now all-volunteer. But with the U.S. now the moral arbiter for the world and a global policeman for capitalistic law and order, even an all-volunteer force will begin to feel the profound strain of such an undertaking, mostly because the American class distinction between the ruler/planner (the corporate elite) and the ruled/worker (lower to middle class) remains intact from the time of Vietnam. If Iraq turns out to be a war that the U.S. can't win quickly or simply walk away from, then combat refusals, equipment sabotage and fraggings would become anything but abnormalities. I offer this speculation with no sense of anticipatory glee, but there it is.

Steve Hesske is a Vietnam era vet who teaches writing and works as a freelance writer in Montana.  

Back to "World At War"