In 1972, American journalist Eugene Linden penned an article exploring the causes and extent of ‘fragging’ in United States combat units in Vietnam. ‘Fragging’ refers to the murder or intentional wounding of an officer or non-commissioned officer (NCO) by enlisted soldiers. It occurred for a number of reasons, usually because the officer was unpopular, incompetent or endangered the lives of men under his command. As Linden writes, ‘fragging’ was a symptom of the frustration, disillusionment and trauma suffered by American soldiers in Vietnam:
“Fragging is a macabre ritual of Vietnam in which American enlisted men attempt to murder their superiors. The word comes from the nickname for hand grenades, a weapon popular with enlisted men because the evidence is destroyed with the consummation of the crime.
Fragging has ballooned into intra-Army guerrilla warfare and in parts of Vietnam, it stirs more fear among officers and NCOs than does the war with “Charlie” [the Viet Cong]. To predict who will be the assassin is impossible; it could be anyone, almost as though the act of murder chooses its executor at random. The victim, too, can be any officer or NCO in contact with enlisted men. Officers who survive fragging attempts often have no idea who their attackers were and live in fear that they will try to kill them again.
Fraggings occur amid the detritus of a demoralised army: a world of heroin, racial tension, mutiny and fear. They express the agony of the slow, internal collapse of our Army in Vietnam. Ultimately, the roots of these murder attempts lie outside the military and even the war. They lie in the clash of forces that have brought our army in Vietnam to its present state.
Captain Barry Steinberg, an Army judge who has presided over trials involving fraggings, has described the ritual as “the troops’ way of controlling officers,” adding that it is “deadly effective”. Captain Steinberg argues that once an officer is intimidated by the threat of fragging, he is useless to the military because he can no longer carry out orders essential to the functioning of the Army. Through intimidation by threats – verbal and written – and scare stories, fragging is influential to the point that virtually all officers and NCOs have to take into account the possibility of fragging before giving an order to the men under them.
Fraggings have occurred in every war in this century. The available statistics are too spotty and inconsistent to make any direct comparison, however, they do show a spectacular increase in the number of violent attacks by enlisted men on their superiors. In World War I, which involved over 4,700,000 American military, fewer than 370 cases of violence directed at superiors were brought to court-martial. This low ratio was fairly constant through World War II and the Korean police action. It did not change significantly until Vietnam.
Since January 1970 alone, a period during which roughly 700,000 Americans were in Vietnam, there have been 363 cases involving assault with explosive devices (fraggings using hand grenades mines and the like) and another 118 cases termed “possible assault with explosive devices”. Forty-five men died in those attacks and these figures are exclusive of fraggings by such other weapons as rifle or knife. Officers in the Judge Advocate General Corps have estimated that only about 10 per cent of fraggings end up in court…
During 1967 and 1968 in the Mekong Delta region, ‘bounty hunting’ enjoyed a brief vogue. A pooled amount of money would be paid to the soldier who killed a marked NCO or officer. At present in Vietnam, many fraggings take place in rear areas where the dangers are minimal – and many murder attempts occur without any visible provocation or motive at all…
The infantry or rear echelon officer must be acutely sensitive to both the frustrations of his men and the demands of his superiors. He is expected to make sense of the war when his predecessors and leaders, both military and civilian, have all failed. Chances are he will fail as well – and then he is left with the task of surviving his tour without being court-martialed or fragged. One second lieutenant refused to obey an order from a superior to storm a hill during an operation in the Mekong Delta region. His first sergeant later told him that when his men heard him refuse that order, they removed a $350 bounty earlier placed on his head when they thought he was ‘hard-line’.
The overall futility and senselessness of the war make hollow all the individual acts that constitute it. The Army is stalled in Vietnam; there is no front on which to advance, no cause to fight for that can be convincingly argued, and not even any real sense of withdrawal as we withdraw.”