Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Fragging - what it says about our Vietnam experience, and the future

A longtime friend I made during my tour in Vietnam recently sent me this article about an ugly reality of our participation in the Vietnam conflict:  fragging.  Fragging is the deliberate murder of officers and non-commissioned officers by their own troops.  It's a sort of fratricide, often accomplished by using a fragmentation grenade, or "frag".  While I was serving in Phu Bai, there was an attempted murder of a senior officer by leaving a frag at his trailer doorstep - as the story went, the pin was pulled very nearly out, and balanced on one of the steps, with idea that he would jar it loose when he went up the stairs in the dark, the grenade would fall to the ground, the pin would fall out, and ... BOOM!  Apparently, purely by luck, it fell in such a way that it actually pushed the pin back in further.  This officer was widely known for being a strict disciplinarian who was very tight about military discipline even in a combat zone, going so far as to give out Article 15s for minor chickenshit things like having your hands in your pockets.  He was widely disliked by many of the troops in our unit, and evidently someone decided to do something about him.  Fortunately, the attempt failed.  It was a sort of message to the command cadre of our unit, however, and not a good message.  Even "in the rear with the gear", fragging was a reality they would have to accept.

How could morale deteriorate so far as to lead to young men being willing to commit fratricide in our Army and Marine units?  How could American soldiers find themselves contemplating murder of their own commanders?  The article I mentioned says:

As the U.S. began to withdraw its military forces from Vietnam, some American enlisted men and young officers lost their sense of purpose for being in Vietnam, and the relationship between enlisted men and their officers deteriorated.

This is a rather mild statement of the situation I experienced during my time in Vietnam.  I was in Vietnam during the time when US military involvement was being drawn down and troops being withdrawn.  The entire nation was divided deeply by the war, with an ever-growing opposition within its whole population.  Given that many of the troops were draftees -- that is, unwilling participants -- the growing disaffection within the military itself is relatively easy to understand.  Now, put those unwilling young men in a combat zone where the threat of death and murder hung in the air everywhere (even in the rear areas) as an ugly miasma, and the deterioration of morale is pretty much inevitable.  The morality of war is often ambiguous in the real world, despite what lofty ideals might be used to motivate it.  General William Tecumseh Sherman understood the ugliness of war and sought to end it by any means possible, as quickly as possible.  There seemed to be no end to the killing in Vietnam.

We in Vietnam were neck deep in a war that had been mismanaged in most ways from the start, with nebulous goals and no "end game" strategy, except to kill all the Communists.  When we finally did fully withdraw, it was not "peace with honor" as President Nixon tried to make it out to be - we simply abandoned South Vietnam, and it was quickly overwhelmed by the Communists because its government had little popular support.  The US government had propped up a series of Vietnamese governments that were corrupt and had no connection to their own people.  Common Vietnamese with whom I spoke did not want US troops to be there as an occupying force.  In that atmosphere of uncertainty about our reasons for being there, is it hard to imagine why the troops were rather disinclined to participate in a process where they could be killed for no higher purpose than being cannon fodder in an apparently endless conflict that had little hope of achieving a lasting peace?

While I was in Vietnam, I could sense the uneasy but constant undercurrent that might cause young men to contemplate fragging.  For example, we learned that if our compound were ever to be overrun, our own bombers would come in and carpet bomb the place to prevent enemy access to the intelligence information in our local "spook shop" - an Army intelligence office.  If they were willing to bomb all of us within our perimeter, why should we feel some overwhelming loyalty to the command?  They didn't have our backs, so why should we have theirs?  Would we want to stand and die at our posts for no obvious purpose?  If our involvement in the war was so lacking in any moral justification or worthy goal other than fighting an ideology, why would we choose to support our so-called "leaders"?

I'm not justifying the immoral and traitorous actions of anyone who committed the act of fragging.  They did something very wrong and have to accept the personal responsibility for those deeds.  But I am saying that if you weren't there and never experienced the loathsome, poisonous atmosphere that made the unacceptable seem acceptable, you have no basis on which to judge those unfortunates.  Can you be so certain of what you would have done without having experienced it for yourself and been confronted with those situations?  I think not.

We as a nation were experiencing very nasty internal divisiveness as the Vietnam War wound down.  Consider the parallels to today's divisive political and religious atmosphere.  I'm not saying the situations are identical, of course, but I am saying that a lack of unity of purpose can lead us to a position where unacceptable choices become acceptable; where divisions devolve into civil war and fratricide.  We've been here before.  There are important lessons in our history I hope we can learn from regarding the possible perils of such divisiveness.