Free Asan Akbar and Put the System on Trial?

By Steve Hesske



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

On the long-distance phone a bemused voice, "It's been a week and you're the first one to call. Well, I mean friends have contacted me you know, but you're the first, ah, journalist . . ." I didn't have the heart to tell him that CBS's idea of pursuing the story was to have a bored, condescending 48 Hours producer phone me and ask for my notes, offering nothing in return. I'm talking to Luke McKissak, the man who successfully represented the defendant in the first--and apparently only high profile Army fragging trial. McKissak successfully tried his case over 30 years ago, but the particulars of it have clear connections to today's headlines.

See if any of this sounds familiar:  a pissed off black enlisted man, said to have a bad attitude, said to bear a grudge against other members of his unit, plans afoot to separate him from that unit. No, that's not Sgt. Asan Akbar, the soldier being held for the recent fragging at the 101st Airborne's Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait City, Kuwait. Instead they are the particulars for one Private Billy Dean Smith who was put on trial for his life after a March, 1971 fragging in Bien Hoa, Vietnam left two officers dead (same body count as Kuwait City) and another wounded.

There were no embedded journalists at Bien Hoa like there are with the 101st so there was no damning videotaped evidence against Smith, but there was the next best thing. At Bien Hoa Smith was summoned to the front of his unit's post-fragging formation and arrested by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division in dramatic fashion, the equivalent of declaring him guilty before any potential witnesses. Smith was charged with two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of resisting arrest. If found guilty, Smith would face a death penalty.

The  Army's "evidence" was that Smith hated the Army, hated being in Vietnam, hated his commanding officer and first sergeant, hated the racism that infested the Army in the early '70s, and he had also said that he would get even with his supervisors and that "fragging" was a good way to do it. He also had access to fragmentation grenades. (It's been reported that Asan Akbar was guarding  the grenades at Camp Pennsylvania.)

Smith was also subjected to an illegal search. Much of Akbar's search and subsequent questioning were videotaped, so we'll be able to see how legal those were. The body search of Smith yielded a grenade pin in his pocket. Back during fragging's heyday soldiers would use a smoke grenade lobbed into an officer's hootch or grenade pin left on his pillow as a warning. Also, finding a grenade pin lining the pocket of a combat trooper was about as uncommon as finding lint in your own pocket right now. Furthermore, the pin found on Smith was sent to Japan along with a grenade spoon found at the crime scene, but no match was established even though the Army continued to claim that a scientific connection had been established.

Enter Luke McKissak, pro bono. It was apparent to the then young defense attorney that the Army was determined to make an example of Smith. "I went to Vietnam to investigate and it was apparent that the first thing I needed to do was get a change of venue. We got the trial moved to Fort Ord, California. That was big."

American was fixated at another military trial of the time--one you more than likely are far more familiar with--that of Lieutenant William Calley's, soon to be convicted perpetrator of mass murder at the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.

After the venue change, the astute McKissak used the Calley case to his advantage. "I wrote a letter to (then President Richard) Nixon asking him to intervene on Billy's behalf and also asking why Calley (who had been convicted of 22 counts of murder by this time) was living it up in a bachelor type pad while my guy, who hadn't been tried yet, was confined to a 6x9 cage, seeing daylight one hour a day. I asked if it was because Billy was black and Calley white, because Billy was an enlisted grunt and Calley an officer, and then I invoked the 'mere gook rule.' My guy had allegedly killed white people, Calley had blown away 'mere gooks.'"

McKissak was stunned when he received a reply from a Nixon mouthpiece that essentially agreed about the differences between the Smith Case and the Calley Case. According to Brig. Gen. Lawrence H. Williams, in a letter to McKissak, wrote, without elaborating, "As you pointed out in your petition, the issues of Private Smith's case are in no way similar to the issues inherent in Lieutenant Calley's case."

The defense attorney used the venue change, the vague, troubling words of a presidential spokesman and several of Smith's fellow enlisted men to mount an intense defense. "I put G.I. after G.I. on the stand who not only said they routinely carried around grenade pins, but that they also saw what they felt was an ongoing need in their unit for drastic actions like fragging." Some of the witnesses went so far as to imply that they might attempt a fragging if they felt they could get away with it.

Another big factor in the Smith Case was the institutional racism that permeated the Army at the time, a racism that the Army had actually fomented by turning the enemy in Vietnam into "slopes," or "gooks." Once you begin regularly using these vile epithets to refer to Asians, how much of a leap is it to call a black man a "nigger" or an Hispanic a "spic?" Or an Arab a "sand nigger?"

As journalist Earl Ofari Hutchinson has recently pointed out, while discussing the racial aspects of fragging in Vietnam, "They (black G.I.s) were pushed over the top by what they considered the brutal, racist and dehumanizing actions of white officers. Their hatred was fed by resentment of being drafted and forced to fight in what they considered a racist, senseless war against oppressed colored people."

In a stunning verdict, Smith was exonerated of all charges. Army officials had been endeavoring to downplay racial tension and a black anti-war presence in the ranks, but Senate Majority Leader at the time the late Mike Mansfield (who'd recently opened a Pentagon investigation of fragging when one of his young constituents became a victim) noted, "Fragging I fear is just an outgrowth of this tragic conflict."

McKissak had been able to turn the focus of the trial away from Smith's personal guilt or innocence and toward the Army's racism and its waging of an unjust war. He had given an object lesson for a common anti-war mantra of the time:  "Free Billy Dean Smith and put the system on trial."

Asan Akbar, at this writing, languishes in a military correctional facility in Mannheim, Germany awaiting formal charges. This past Monday a military magistrate, as regards the Camp Pennsylvania attack, declared, " . . .a crime was committed, (and) . . .it is probable that the accused soldier committed the crime."

At the time of Billy Dean Smith's trial a majority of America had come to the realization that Vietnam would go down as one of the bigger horror stories in the nation's history and that there was much credence to the idea that its military was a virulently racist institution. These will be much tougher points to make for whomever defends Akbar, but if they don't bring up the issues of race, class and the pressures of war at every step of the judicial process, then they should be disbarred. I offer the preceding based on the assumption that Akbar won't cop a plea, a clear possibility.

Today's Army may be all-volunteer, but the same class (and race) divisions that marked the Vietnam-era military are present. The distant managers of the invasion of Iraq are mostly white, almost all from the ruling elite (a status that did not require any military service from them). The commanders--from regimental to field--are mostly white, mostly upper-middle class, mostly college educated. The line troops are mixed race, of lower economic status, many of them see the Army as their only career opportunity. We suppose that they are more committed to war and killing than the openly rebellious draftees of Vietnam, but as the slaughter continues let's see what happens. I'm sure most of the first-time enlistees now careening through Iraq at breakneck pace, leaving carnage in their wake, never signed on for this.

Admittedly, grumblings from today's Army seem rare. But the military always keeps a tight lid on negative information and there have been some high profile cases seemingly grounded in racial strife such as the ones where it was revealed that enlisted men at a few American bases were operating on-base White supremacist cells. Again, let's wait and see what happens as the war drags on in Iraq, sand filling every orifice of every troop in the field, those crazed Iraqis actually fighting for their homes and homeland, the grunts and their officers pressured to act as Hoppin' Monkeys for the ubiquitous and insatiable embedded TV cameras. The latter is an extra psychological twister not present in Vietnam.

And, of course, Akbar is a Muslim. According to the Army and its lapdogs, the U.S.'s mainstream media, his motives remain a "mystery." He was "disenchanted," says a military spokesman. But is it unfair speculation to ask if perhaps the sergeant felt resentment toward the brass because he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs? Because he felt that soon he would be ordered to kill other Muslims?

According to The Department of Defense, African-Americans make up about 30 percent of current Army enlistees. There are no exact numbers on how many African-American Muslims serve in the Army, but there are an estimated 2 million+ African-American Muslims living in the U.S. A statistical projection actually indicates that there are more African-American Muslims in the Army now than there were during the Vietnam era. (Thanks again to Earl Ofari Hutchinson for the digits.)

Even if Akbar is tried and found guilty and his motives exposed to be those of a deranged lone gunman, what will be the effects of his deed on other African-American Muslims in the Army? Will there be revenge fraggings? Now that America's racist war-mongering has reached fever pitch (just watch Fox News for five minutes if you don't believe me) and most of America's citizens, especially its warriors, have been conditioned to regard all Muslims with fear and hatred, what will be the effects of the deed on an army in combat, where it's entirely conceivable that Muslims are fighting shoulder to shoulder with White supremacists?

If and when Akbar comes to trial, you can bet the Army -- much like it did with Billy Dean Smith over 30 years ago -- will endeavor to make an isolated example of him. He is an "abnormality," an "anomaly," engaged in "fratricide." Blood madness, directed at one's own, will not be tolerated in today's Army.

But if Akbar's yet-to-be-named defense is half as smart as Luke McKissak was 30 years ago, it will be able to endeavor to clearly demonstrate that racial tension still exists in the Army and that African-American Muslims are not treated fairly. They'll have material to work with.

I'm not ready to say yet whether Akbar, if he did it, is a mere nutjob, or if the Army is wracked with class warfare, racial strife and religious persecution. But the Army is now convinced that one of its own has killed and wounded his officers. Just a short time ago attacks exactly like the one Akbar allegedly perpetrated were a symptom of a far broader malady that eventually disabled a U.S. Military fighting a racist war for reasons of Empire.