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or the United States and its troops, the Vietnam War was a particularly cruel conflict. Because of the Vietcong’s guerilla methods, many faced the prospect of a brutal death. The deep jungle was riddled with traps, and the prospect of an ambush was always at the forefront of any soldier’s mind. Every step they took into the thick foliage could be their last.

You’d assume that under such circumstances, US Army personnel would band together to try to aid each other as much as possible, especially given the extremely difficult conditions they experienced while on the battlefield.
As it turned out, this was far from the truth.

Into the meat grinder

Dissent against authority is prevalent in society. This becomes even more obvious in a military setting. Nobody likes being told what to do, especially if the orders you’re given could lead to your untimely death. In the military, your superiors are frequently the second most despised group of individuals behind the people you are fighting.

Viet Cong soldier crouches in a bunker with an SKS rifle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This didn’t change during the US participation in Vietnam (1 November 1955–30 April 1975). Their leader or NCO was viewed by the typical soldier as the shepherd leading them to the slaughter. Forcing soldiers to patrol the vast jungles of Vietnam, which were virtually always booby-trapped with deadly contraptions, would make anyone despised by the troops they were in charge of.

Because many of the soldiers who served in Vietnam were conscripts rather than volunteers, this hatred was exacerbated. Being forced to face certain death would surely produce some resistance among those who felt disloyal to the cause or had an indifferent attitude toward the war. These factors led to the advent of ‘fragging.’

‘Fragging’

Fragging is a phrase coined during the Vietnam War to indicate the intentional death of a friendly, usually a higher-ranking officer, often with the use of a fragmentation grenade to make the killing appear accidental. Although similar incidents occurred prior to the 1960s, the Vietnam War popularized the phrase due to the prevalence of the practice among US Army ranks and the resulting backlash.

An M-61 Fragmentation Grenade issued to US troops in the Vietnam war. This was commonly used in ‘fragging’ incidents due to its availability and inability to trace the grenade to its user. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Growing in prominence after 1966 and increasing in popularity thereafter, this practice was seen by many soliers as a way to “effective[ly] discourage their superiors from showing enthusiasm for combat.” As the war’s popularity dwindled, so did the soldiers’ willingness to risk their lives for what many saw as a losing cause. To preserve their own lives, several resorted to either threatening or actually performing ‘fragging’ to get their message across to their superiors.

Due to the prospect of fragging, many officers tolerated drug use, laziness, and general insubordination among their ranks. This was a major factor in the development of opium addiction among American soldiers. There were no restrictions in place to prevent people from using narcotics, and the drug was freely and inexpensively available throughout the region, resulting in a real crisis developing.

The death toll from ‘fragging’ is estimated to be over 90 people, with over 900 total injuries across all branches of the US military, a figure that doesn’t begin to capture the magnitude of its impact on the troops in Vietnam. This was one of several factors contributing to the continuous decline in morale in the early to mid-1970s. The United States was unable to continue fighting, and the campaign was called off in April 1975.

United by fear

Few soldiers were caught, and even fewer were convicted for their crimes. Due to the army’s lower ranks’ unity, identifying the culprit of these crimes was often difficult. Even those who were convicted had very light sentences, ranging from 10 months to a maximum of 30 years in jail, which is a rather lenient punishment considering that murder may result in life imprisonment in many parts of the United States.

American POWs recently released from North Vietnamese prison camps, 1973. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This incident exemplifies the depravity of war and the lengths to which many people would go for self-preservation. Many people would be terrified at the prospect of having to take down an opponent they couldn’t see. This possibility grew grimmer as the war progressed and the American forces made little progress.

In order to truly quantify these behaviors, we must first place them in context. Many troops considered fragging as a sensible response and moral transaction because one’s life in battle is generally perceived to be worth far less than in civilian life. To preserve their own lives, they killed their officer. One of the most basic human instincts is self-preservation. When we judge the acts of these conscripts, we must bear that in mind.

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