In June 1971, Colonel Robert Heinl published a controversial article, The Collapse of the Armed Forces, in which he claimed the US military was on the brink of disaster. Heinl cited examples of ‘fragging’, combat refusal, desertion, drug use and racial prejudice:
“The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not nearly mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.
Intolerably clobbered and buffeted from without and within by social turbulence, pandemic drug addiction, race war, sedition, civilian scapegoatise, draftee recalcitrance and malevolence, barracks theft and common crime, unsupported in their travail by the general government, in Congress as well as the executive branch, distrusted, disliked, and often reviled by the public, the uniformed services today are places of agony for the loyal, silent professions who doggedly hang on and try to keep the ship afloat.
The responses of the services to these unheard-of conditions, forces and new public attitudes, are confused, resentful, occasionally pollyanna-ish, and in some cases even calculated to worsen the malaise. While no senior officer (especially one on active duty) can openly voice any such assessment, the foregoing conclusions find virtually unanimous support in numerous non-attributable interviews with responsible senior and mid-level officer, as well as career noncommissioned officers and petty officers in all services.
Historical precedents do not exist for some of the services’ problems, such as desertion, mutiny, unpopularity, seditious attacks, and racial troubles. Others, such as drugs, pose difficulties that are wholly ‘new’. Nowhere, however, in the history of the Armed Forces have comparable past troubles presented themselves in such general magnitude, acuteness, or concentrated focus as today.
By several orders of magnitude, the Army seems to be in worse trouble. But the Navy has serious and unprecedented problems, while the Air Force, on the surface at least still clear of the quicksands in which the Army is sinking, is itself facing disquieting difficulties. Only the Marines – who have made news this year by their hard line against indiscipline and general permissiveness – seem with their expected staunchness and tough tradition, to be weathering the storm.
To understand the military consequences of what is happening to the U.S. Armed Forces, Vietnam is a good place to start. It is in Vietnam that the rearguard of a 500,000 man army, in its day and in the observation of the writer the best army the United States ever put into the field, is numbly extricating itself from a nightmare war the Armed Forces feel they had foisted on them by bright civilians who are now back on campus writing books about the folly of it all…
“Frag incidents”, or just “fragging”, is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs. With extreme reluctance (after a young West Pointer from Senator Mike Mansfield’s Montana was fragged in his sleep) the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970 (109) have more than doubled those of the previous year. Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units. In one such division – the morale plagued Americans – fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week.
Bounties, raised by common subscription in amounts running anywhere from $50 to $1,000, have been widely reported put on the heads of leaders whom the privates and SP4s want to rub out. Shortly after the costly assault on Hamburger Hill in mid-1969,the GI underground newspaper in Vietnam, “G.I. Says”, publicly offered a $10,000 bounty on Lieutenant Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, the officer who ordered (and led) the attack. Despite several attempts, however, Honeycutt managed to live out his tour and return Stateside.
The issue of “combat refusal”, an official euphemism for disobedience of orders to fight – a soldier’s gravest crime – has only recently been again precipitated on the frontier in Laos by a mass refusal to recapture their captain’s command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other secret operation orders. As early as mid-1969, however, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division, flatly refused – on CBS-TV – to advance down a dangerous trail.”