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 intraArmy guerrilla warfare, and in parts of Vietnam it stirs more fear among officers and NCOs than does the war with "Charlie." 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 demoralized 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.
Capt. 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 even 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 courts-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.
In World War I, World War II, and Korea, the typical fragging took place in the field and for the most part during skirmishes and firefights. An inexperienced or overly zealous lieutenant would be shot by his own men while the platoon or squad was preoccupied with the enemy. The victim would be listed as Killed In Action. The killing generally followed a cold reckoning by the men in the unit that the lieutenant was a danger to them. Albeit ruthless, this type of murder at least can be understood as the result of a life or death assessment. Indeed, this type of fragging has occurred in Vietnam, and 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. However, 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. "Rear-echelon fraggings are a complete mystery to me," Jeff Jennings, a JAG lawyer at Camp Eagle, told me. "All it takes is a `How are you, Joe?' and bang, somebody will shoot you."
The prevalence of fraggings, the passionless and often seemingly unprovoked nature of many fraggings, the grisly game of psychological warfare that GIs use to threaten and prepare a victim, and finally the climate of intimidation that effectively cripples numbers of NCOs and officers far greater in proportion than those actually involved in fragging incidents, all differentiate Vietnam from other wars the United States has fought this century. What was in World War I, World War II, and Korea an idiosyncratic yet un-derstandable horror of war has become an obtrusive characteristic of our involvement in Southeast Asia.
Dr. Robert Landeen, an Army psychiatrist, believes that virtually all officers who are fragged are partially at fault. Although persuasive, this argu-ment fails to explain why murder should be the primary resort of dissatisfied troops, nor does it offer any perspective on the changed conditions with which the officer has to contend.
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. The result of this stagnation is visible everywhere in the despair written on the GI's face, but it is suffered most keenly in the rear units. In the field a soldier's actions redound upon him in terms of survival. With a good combat officer the unnecessary formalities are relaxed, and some soldiers actually prefer the countryside, with its booby traps, firefights, and risk of death, to life in the rear, with its secure, lobotomized monotony.
Although the dangers of being in the rear echelon are minimal, the environment is still one of stress. The enlisted men are the pawns of an authoritarian system designed to deploy soldiers in combat efficiently; yet, the dangers that justify its discipline are absent. The system creates its own stress to mach the demands of war; yet without a particular type of war that fulfills the system, only the stress remains. Thus, in the rear, the enlisted men become acutely aware of the authoritarianism of the system and the privileges and luxuries enjoyed by officers; yet, they see little immediate justification for the discrepancies in status because both officers and enlisted men are doing essentially nothing. This resentment sometimes erupts into skirmishes that resemble class war. The officers' club near the 2/11 Artillery at Camp Eagle north of Hue was recently attacked by between twenty and thirty enlisted men. In a well-organized assault employing com-bat techniques, the enlisted men first stoned the building and then hit the confused officers with gas and smoke grenades as they streamed outside to see what the disturbance was. At this point, the EMs' plan had called for the use of an M-79 grenade launcher. Fortunately, this phase was abandoned. The next day the shaken officers called a meeting of the company to discuss grievances.
Indeed, through rigidity, pettiness, or hypocrisy, many officers exacerbate frustrations, but occasionally some of them make mistakes in handling situations they should not be expected to handle. Contending with heroin use in a mutinous unit with strained-race relations is overwhelming to an officer trained only to order and deploy his men. The rear-echelon officer stands over a caldron where the soldier's every atavistic impulse is boiled to the surface by the heat of enforced prox-imity. He is expected to lubricate the wheels of the war machine, but much of the time all he has to work with is vitriol.
At some bases, such as Camp Eagle, it seems as though the commanding officer of every unit leads what in any other war would be singled out as a rare "trouble" unit. Dr. Landeen is correct in assigning partial blame in fraggings to officers, but many inherit units already unmanageable by traditional Army methods.
Heroin is just one contender with a CO for the command of his troops. It is one device the GI uses to live through a tour in Vietnam without be-ing there. The drug-or evidence of it-is everywhere. If you look down through the slats of a base bus station anywhere in Vietnam, you will see dozens of the little glass vials that once contained the 96 to 99 per cent pure heroin. Each $2 vial would sell for as much as $150 when cut to the 6 per cent dosage used in the U.S.A. Dr. Landeen, who was with the 101st Airborne for eight months in 1970, found that in several companies as many as 40 per cent of the men used heroin. Peer group pressure only partially explains the rapid spread of the use of heroin. Bill Karabaic, a drug counselor with the 101st Airborne, told me that for many GIs fighting a war in Vietnam is so confusing and unassimilable that when they are there they feel as though they are in a dream, that they are not really themselves. Because life there is not real, it becomes acceptable to snort skag and to frag the Sarge. That's what your buddies are doing. When the dream stops and you return safely to the States, you will stop-or so goes the dream. "Vietnam is a bad place to be," said Karabaic, "and most people want to get through as quickly and painlessly as possible. Heroin makes the time fly."
Karabaic spoke of a near-fragging connected with heroin. Headquarters com-pany received a new lieutenant fresh out of West Point who immediately alienated his men with his niggling en-forcement of petty regulations. "The first day he was smoked," said Kara-baic. "The second gassed. The third day he was building a frag-proof hootch [quarters]." Presently the lieutenant received an assignment. One of the men he picked to go to the field was a black who had just returned from Amnesty, the Army's heroin detoxification program. As Karabaic described him, "He was still really strung out [suffering from withdrawal] and clearly not ready to go to the field." Yet, the lieutenant ordered the GI into action despite his and Karabaic's protests. The GI refused, saying, "You're crazy." The lieutenant proceeded to make life miserable for the GI. Finally, the GI approached Karabaic and said, "I'm going to frag the bastard." Karabaic argued to no avail. In resignation, he said, "That's murder." The GI replied, "Don't mean nothing." But he hesitated, and as he walked away he handed Karabaic the grenade he had intended to use.
The lieutenant in this unit was simply overwhelmed by the behavior of troops warped' by months of despair to a degree that rendered them incomprehensible to his military mind. Heroin was a problem in that unit before his arrival, but the lieutenant's inability to adjust and to even understand his men almost cost him his life.
The breakdown between this officer and his men points to the interface where our increasingly political, specialized, and mechanized official Army meets its body of enlisted men. The ordinary soldier, rooted in the simple moral and physical verities of combat, instinctively rebels against the Laputan war machine devised sterilely in the minds of strategists and foisted crudely upon the jungle of Vietnam. The tensions at this interface are the climate of fragging, and this climate can explode violently for any number of reasons. Problems such as heroin, unwillingness to work or to conform to basic regulations, and racial tensions will force an officer into desperate im-provisations until the fabric of relationships that schemes the military unit begins to shred, and with it the restraints that control violence. Dr. Landeen asserts that two groups of men who quickly resort to fragging are men with something to lose-heroin users and dealers-and men with a cause, the most obvious being black radicals.
Racial problems fester unabated in Vietnam. During the week I was up north at Danang and Hue, two race riots erupted in the Danang area alone. When MPs were called in to quell the riot at Camp Baxter, they found that whites and blacks had sequestered about the camp stocks of frags, ammunition, and even a couple of M-60 machine guns. A few days later at a de-tachment of Engineers a breach of unwritten mess hall etiquette set off two days and two nights of skirmishes in which five GIs were injured. An unwitting white replacement had sat down at the blacks' table and refused to move when asked to by the blacks.
Some white Army officers try to manipulate racial tensions to get the cooperation and allegiance of the white soldiers. Others use black radicals as an excuse for their leadership problems-the "outside agitator" gambit. However, most disruptions by black radicals occur in units where the general breakdown of morale and discipline is already advanced. A good case in point is the fragging of Capt. John Burke. (This name and those of the other principals involved in the cases cited have been changed for obvious reasons.) Burke tended to connect his troubles with the arrival of three transfers who were Black Power advocates; however, many men in his unit were already deeply involved with heroin be-fore the transfers arrived, and, although racial tensions had surfaced earlier, there is strong evidence that Burke's principal adversary cleverly exploited black radicalism to align other blacks behind him in what was a strictly personal vendetta with the Army. What happened to Burke typifies the predicament of the rear-echelon of-ficer. He was liked; he tried to exercise judgment in leading his troops; still, he was fragged. Because it is difficult to pinpoint where he failed and because Burke did try to prevent the fragging, his case is worth examining.
Burke is a REMF. A REMF is a Rear Echelon Mother Fucker. No matter how decent an officer is, if he commands a rear unit, he is a REMF. Should he be judged "Stateside" because he en-forces nuisance regulations, he is a marked man, but Burke was not "State-side." He was humble, even God-fearing, and the men regarded him as "squared away."
Burke's unit was a 243-man supply detachment that serviced the 101st Air-borne. The fragging occurred during the Laos operation of last winter when. Burke had half his company committed in the field and was forced to exact twice the work from his remaining men at Camp Eagle. Burke's company began to slip from his control when he received the transfers. Monroe, Ewing, and Jones had been sent to Burke because they were too bothersome for their line unit. Monroe, an intelligent, troubled man, had determined that he was going to get out of the Army prior to his being transferred to Burke's company. Once there, he quickly became involved in black activism. Some blacks began to complain to Burke that they were being "shut out" if they were seen 'talking with whites. Monroe, Ewing, and Jones first probed Burke's authority by refusing to go to work.
By being conciliatory, Burke con-vinced Jones and Ewing to return to work, but Monroe continued to refuse. "Why should I be here in Vietnam fighting a white man's war killing Vietnamese when I should be back in the States fighting a black man's war killing whites?" Monroe asked after Burke offered to leave him alone if Monroe would in return offer minimum cooperation. Monroe repeated this exact declaration to the battalion commander and then went AWOL the next morning. A week later, when Monroe was caught with heroin and marijuana in a whore-house in Hue, Burke had him thrown into the stockade.
Burke is a blocky, 220-pound former wrestler; he is a man strong enough to be flexible in administering justice without appearing to be weak. Oddly, it was Burke's flexibility that was his undoing. When Monroe's trial was post-poned, Burke released him on the con-dition that he cooperate. Monroe agreed but again went AWOL. He was recaptured, again possessing marijuana and heroin, but still Burke hesitated to return him to the stockade. Before Burke left to check on his men in the field, rumors started: first that Burke was "down on Monroe," and then that he was "messing with the blacks."
It is moot whether Burke originally had to jail Monroe, but whatever subsequent action he took should have been consistent. Monroe, when brought back for trial, was convinced that he would not receive fair treatment and at the first opportunity went AWOL. Being caught only increased his anxiety. Monroe's entire record was marked with intransigence and indicated that he should not have been in the Army at all. Each little offense built the mountainous case the Army had against him and advanced Monroe's urge to flee; yet, the Army shied from confronting him.
It is impressed on all officer candidates that a basic tenet of military justice is that an offense be met with sure and swift punishment. Here, too, the system is designed for the rigors of war. Whatever its faults, the system is consistent, and the GI knows what to expect when he strays. When one offense is met with lenience and the next with sternness, the GI is left at sea; justice appears to him arbitrary and irrational. In describing the posture be-hind this patchwork justice, Dr. Landeen used the term "passive-aggressive," which will be more fully explained later. The Army alternately ignored, cajoled, and punished Monroe, and it is not surprising that he, confronted with this unpredictable system of order, responded unpredictably. While Burke was away, another of the transfers, Jones, accosted the first sergeant in the orderly room. Holding something behind his back, Jones beck-oned him outside into the night and wordlessly showed him a hand grenade. Hearing of the incident, Burke rushed back to Camp Eagle, where he conferred with the first sergeant and quickly called the company together. He spoke to the men about fraggings, calling such acts "the coward's way out" and saying that his door was open twenty-four hours a day if any man wished to talk about a problem.
The next night an incredible blast ripped through Burke's hootch. He screamed, "Oh, my God," and fell to the floor. Somebody had detonated a claymore mine (an explosive device that fires hundreds of pellets) only a few feet from where Burke slept. Burke miraculously escaped with only a wounded arm. The claymore, it turned out, had been reported missing by the company armorer three days earlier.
Monroe, Ewing, and Jones had been at 'a Black Power meeting that night together with the company armorer. Immediately after the explosion, Monroe was seen running into his hootch and taking off his clothes-while everybody else was getting dressed to run for the bunkers thinking that they were under rocket attack. The armorer was also seen outside at the time of the explosion. This was all that Burke could establish. Witnesses made statements and then retracted them. Other EMs (among them the armorer, who might have been trying to shift blame away from himself) claimed that Ewing and Jones had threatened to kill them should they testify. Monroe, Ewing, and Jones were acquitted of the charge of conspiracy to commit murder. Burke did obtain convictions against Monroe and Ewing for possession of heroin.
However, even had he obtained convictions on the murder charge, Burke still could not be sure that the transfers were the men who had detonated the claymore. Psychoneurotic problems borne of the fragging have shat-tered Burke's Army career, and although he has been moved to a desk job, he still lies awake at night wondering whether he will be pursued. Revengeful individuals have taken pains to keep his fear alive. Six months after the fragging attempt, a black soldier walked into Burke's new quarters at the precise hour of the explosion. He stood there silently until Burke's roommate asked what he was doing. The soldier said, "Don't worry about it," and spun on his heel and left.
The Army is unsure why soldiers are attempting to murder their superiors, and its approach to the problem reflects its uncertainty. Fragging is dealt with mostly on a case-by-case basis. The Army's overall policy consists of trying to restrict access to explosive devices-and, in some cases, rifles-and attempting to educate soldiers to the gravity of the crime nick-named fragging. Symbolic of the Army's plight is that at some bases the men are not even trusted to carry the weapons necessary to fight the war they have been sent to wage. Part of the education program is directed toward eliminating the use of the word "fragging"because the Army feels the term is flippant. It is difficult, however, to imagine that the Army will be successful in stopping the men from saying, "Let's frag the sarge," after years of exhorting them to say, "Let's waste Charlie." Many units acting unilaterally have set up forums to promote communication among officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. The breakdown of communication between the official Army and its enlisted body is critical to understanding fragging, but so far the Army has had scant success in stemming the lethal fad.
The basic question remains: Why murder? The answer is that for many fraggers, the act is not murder and the victim is not human. Private First Class Walt Ross (again, a pseudonym) tried to murder his commanding officer because the PFC was "irritated:"
Ross, a genial, round-faced man, is now in the Longbinh stockade, and his prison pallor contrasts sharply with the deep tan of most GIs in Vietnam. The magnitude of what he attempted still escapes him. At one point before his trial he looked up and asked naively,"Look, wouldn't it save everybody a lot of trouble if I took a Section Ten [discharge in lieu of a court-martial] and
went home?" Later, after he was con-victed of attempted murder and sen-tenced to ten years at hard labor, he was asked how he would have felt had the claymore mines he had rigged actually killed his CO. Ross said, "I'd have been tickled pink."
Ross is a passive man, easily impressed by the impulses of his peers. He seems to have no strong convictions on any matter, not even his own fate. Murder is generally associated with ruthless people driven by desperation or greed, and not with lackluster men like Ross who cannot comprehend that what they attempt is murder. Murder was not in his heart, it was in the air, and what he attempted' is more aptly described by the Army term for killing: to neutralize. Bland, affable Walt Ross is a typical fragger.
Last winter, Ross's armored cavalry unit participated in the Laos operation. It had heavy "contact" with the enemy. This operation took place more than a year after "grunts" (foot soldiers) had started to worry about being the last man to die in Vietnam. Grunts are obsessed with this idea. Survival comes to mean shooting anything that might shoot back or get you shot. Said one corporal, "You go through a village, and you mess up some gooks just to be safe. You know it don't mean nothing because nobody's keeping score." "Don't mean nothing" summarizes the GI's attitude toward the war. "There it is" expresses his defense against it. Because the war "don't mean nothing," you do what you have to do to survive, and if your CO says that means pre-venting North Vietnamese build-ups and interdicting supplies, so be it, and if your buddy is blown up on one such patrol, "There it is." Up to a point.
Ross had come to Vietnam to find adventure. He found booby traps and mines. No matter how careful the grunt is, there are always booby traps and mines. There is no drama; something explodes, some men are legless or dead, and there is nobody to shoot back at. "When a mine blows a limb off, the stump hardly bleeds," said one GI. "The concussion cauterizes the wound, and the flesh sucks up. It kind of works on your mind."
The CO of Ross's unit was hard-driving. His men never had a hot meal and rarely stopped to bathe. After he had canceled several resupply missions, the men began to get angry. "He was always tellin' us to do without . . . tellin' us supplies were on the way and then sendin' us off someplace else," said Ross. "We were-" he searches for 'a word. "We were irritated about the whole thing, about being out there so long. The weather, the rain, the mud built up to an irritable stage." Ross says they saw no way to complain to the CO because he "just couldn't talk to us."
After four months, the unit was scheduled to go inside the perimeter of Khesan for a break. However, the captain volunteered his men at the last minute to stay outside the perimeter. Once more the men had to bust down jungle and set up. "That brought it to a head," said Ross.
At 10 p.m. Ross joined a group of soldiers talking in one of the armored-tracks. Eventually the conversation "boiled down to doing a job on the captain." It was something they had talked about before. "I never heard anyone say, 'Don't do it,"' said Ross, who "just took a fancy to doing it." That was it.
The fragging itself was unbelievably sloppy. Traditionally, GIs warn the intended victim before resorting to violence. It never occurred to Ross that a good scare might reform the CO. On the contrary, Ross stole three claymores, set them under what he thought was the captain's armored-track, and without hesitation detonated them. Ross blew up an empty vehicle (the captain had moved his track earlier in the evening) and injured four enlisted men sleeping nearby. Moreover, the unspooled trip wire Ross had used to explode the claymores pointed like an accusing finger to Ross's sleeping place.
Ross was asked during his post-trial interview whether there was anything in his trial that he thought was unfair. There was one thing that irked him, Ross admitted, and that was that the prosecutor when summing up for sentencing had made him "sound like a criminal." Ross still could not believe that he had committed a crime.
Few fraggers feel remorse for their acts. In a VA hospital on the West Coast, there is an amputee who succeeded in killing his first sergeant without getting caught. He shot his sergeant one day during a firelight because he felt that the sergeant's inability to read a map was getting good men in the unit killed. To this day, he, like Ross, feels no shame. Both Ross's and the amputee's detachment is frighteningly similar to that of Perry Smith, one of the murderers in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Toward the end of the book, Capote recounts how Smith tried to describe his feelings about his having murdered the Clutters:
"I'm human enough to feel sorry for myself. Sorry that I can't walk out of here when you walk out. But that's all." Cullivan could.scarcely credit so detached an attitude; Perry was confused, mistaken, it was not possible for any man to be that devoid of conscience or compassion. Perry said, "Why, soldiers don't lose sleep. They murder and they get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me-and some hangman will be glad to get the work. Just remember, I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I'd really known them, I guess I'd feel different. I don't think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking off targets in a shooting gallery."
Although psychological terrorism was not prominent in either the fragging of Burke or the fragging by Ross, often it is used to intimidate the in-tended victim. First there will be a note, then perhaps a rock, then the NCO or officer might find a dud grenade on his bed. If by this time he has not shaped up, he may find himself fragged.
The Army helps foster this climate of intimidation. Officers at Camp Eagle go through what is termed a SERTS (Screaming Eagle Replacement Training) briefing. There among other basic information the officer hears bits and pieces about fragging, drug use, and racial tension. By the time he sees the sullen, unmilitary faces of the men in his unit he may already be intimidated.
The new officer is prepared to be intimidated partly because in OCS and up to the time he joins a unit he has only scant contact with enlisted men. In OCS he is pitted against tests and other officers, but almost never does he see the men who are going to be required to entrust their lives to him. Enlisted men, resentful of the officer's privileges and demands for respect, look for signs of phoniness, weakness, self-conscious-ness, and ambition when they first see an officer-qualities that may cost them their lives or make living unendurable. If the officer passes this confrontation, his higher status is tolerated. If not, the enlisted men will make his life miserable. However, enlisted men have always been able to make life miserable for officers. Why they should now resort to murder and violence is again the mystery of fragging.
As is evident from the fragging cases of Burke and Ross, tributary to this infra-Army violence is the procedural, disciplinary, and morale breakdown of the Army. However, the key to the vio-lence is the severe cultural divisions that exist in the Army and that are related to and expressed by differing attitudes toward the war.
Many of the NCOs and officers who get fragged are "still enjoying the war." The hardnosed officer and career NCO believe in discipline, often enjoy combat if only as a game, drink beer and whisky, and distrust the alienated and unmotivated crop of draftees that are sent over to Vietnam to fight. Conversely, the grunts and rear-echelon draftees often feel that they are helpless, that they have no avenue of, redress of grievances, that the structure of the Army is stacked against them, and that they were railroaded into Viet-nam at a time when we have admitted it is a horrible mistake and are pulling out. This dichotomy was well illustrated when I visited the 11th Brigade (Calley's outfit) of the "Americal" at firebase Colt 45. An information officer had told me that fraggings were not a problem in this unit and that morale was high. At the base, I heard about one company commander, a cap-tain, who had been injured when he fell -on a punji stick. A couple of his superiors remarked that he was a good, aggressive officer who would be sorely missed. I then spoke to several men in his unit. The medic said, "I don't think there was a single man in this unit who wasn't thrilled when he fell on that stick. He was constantly, putting his men in danger, and he just lacked common sense. That punji stick just cut short the talk of fragging him." His remarks were seconded by assenting nods from other men in the group.
Landeen asserts that in World War II the NCO served the function of absorbing resentment and siphoning off frustrations before they reached a critical level. The NCO was there to talk to nervous and troubled men in his unit and often to mediate between the hard demands of officers and the practicality of the situation. Because of distrust of the drug-using, anti-authoritarian draftee, contends Landeen, the current career NCO often retreats from contact with his men and consorts only with others of his breed." This means a critical tension-lessening relationship has broken down.
Landeen claims that the feelings of helplessness and paranoia felt by thegrunts, most of whom don't want to be in Vietnam, are aggravated by the Army's "passive-aggressive" posture with regard to this anti-authoritarian group. Often NCOs, officers, and the Army will ignore drug use, resentment, and insubordination until they affect the men's work. By ignoring such problems, however, they are not accepting them, because they later will come down hard on the sloppy work that results. Landeen argues that, by being passive when first confronted with recalcitrant or drug-using soldiers but then later getting angry, the Army is actually being aggressive; it is being aggressive by being passive. Relatively minor or insignificant transgressions will be glossed over by the NCO until they accumulate to the point where he explodes. Such explosions further advance the GI's feeling that Army discipline is arbitrary and directed against him by a conspiracy of lifers (career NCOs and officers).
Landeen further feels that the work done in rear units seems "purposeless" to many of the men. This too builds re-sentments. Some officers mistakenly believe that keeping men busy polishing their boots and fixing bunks will keep them off drugs. Others enforce petty regulations because that is what they feel discipline is all about. To the grunt just returned from patrols inthe field, receiving an order to shine his shoes from a smooth-faced officer fresh from the States has become simply unacceptable. For the soldier who has suffered the boredom of the rear all along, an officer who says, "I'm going to shape up this outfit" often provides a focus for all the undirected frustrations of being in Vietnam.
The Army today is composed of a different group of people than was the Army of World War lI. Captain Steinberg feels that in World War II the draft equitably conscripted a fair cross-section of Americans but that as America came to place more emphasis on higher education it became conversely easier for the college-educated to avoid military service as common soldiers. Steinberg feels that the presence of men from all economic and educational classes at platoon level was stabilizing because there would be soldiers in the platoon who would talk out frustrations and argue against quixotic violence. Now, as Ross said, there is nobody to say, "Don't do it." Today the average platoon draws from people who, as Landeen describes them, "come from lower socio-eco-nomic groups and tend to act out frus-trations by taking drugs, getting in fights, fragging-rather than talking as would their more affluent, educated peers:" It is a group that prefers actions to words, and if they want to act, the Army teaches them that one act that solves problems is killing.
We have come full circle: The Army that had once ignored political opposition in its zeal to fight a war now pays the price of its earlier arrogance by seeing that opposition expressed in bloody confrontations within its own ranks. The frustrations that spawn fraggings have to do with the collision of a people who don't accept our mission in Vietnam and those who do. We are still killing people in Vietnam; yet there are no convincing arguments to continue doing so. If you can kill Vietnamese without convincing arguments, you can kill officers without them too, because to the battle-weary grunt the gung-ho, nit-picking officer is as inhuman and remote as the gook.
As our presence in Vietnam becomes increasingly absurd when weighed against our stated goals and intentions, so too do actions once considered absurd come to seem more normal. First the soldier takes out his frustrations on the enemy, then his superiors, then anyone. The gap between what we say we are doing and what we are doing constitutes the absurdity of the war. All reference points for determining morality, honor, and valor have been ripped from their foundations. We will do something abhorrent and then characterize it as an act of valor, and the soldier who received a medal for his act will later throw it away as worthless. There are no anchors chors or fixed points by which the soldier can judge his behavior and measure degrees of rightdoing or wrongdoing; consequently, standards become meaningless.
There is often not even that intimacy of combat which allows a man to see what he has done. Our war is abstract. Our strategy is one of superior fire power-we lay down a wall of fire to make the enemy keep his head down and then move on that advantage. At the end, the enemy is "neutralized," there are dead and mangled bodies, but much of the time nobody knows who killed whom. The intimacy of murder disappears and, with that loss of intimacy, feelings of valor or shame. For the Army this abstractness is tolerable in the war against the enemy, but there is no way of preventing it from turning inward when stress and frustration move a soldier to violence and the only enemy handy is one of his leaders.
Captain Steinberg feels that behind fragging, drugs, and the overall break-down besetting the Army was its sin in allowing itself to be used for political purposes. In doing so, says Steinberg, it prostituted its honor as an instrument of freedom. Without this honor, the ideals that foster valor collapsed. Fundamentally, soldiers cannot be
asked to die in defense of a theory in the minds of policymakers without having the abstractness of that com-mitment ultimately attenuate the very instrument of policy-the Army-to the breaking point.
The legacy of our demoralized Army in Vietnam is beginning to filter back to the United States with our returning troops. The names of vets are beginning to show up on police blotters in towns around points of disembarkation as soldier/addicts resort to crime to obtain the vastly more expensive American heroin. Others return in shackles to finish prison terms they received for fraggings or other crimes committed while they were in Vietnam. And still others return unaddicted and honorably discharged, but deeply em-bittered against the country that sent them to Vietnam to fight. However, for all the poignant confusion that assails the GI, I was struck with his honesty, his lack of cynicism, and, although it may sound strange, his bravery. The GI may be demoralized, but he is no coward, and, though he may be unwilling to be the last GI to die in Vietnam, he will still risk his life for a friend.