Book Review – George Lepre, Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Lubbock, Tx, 2011)

George Lepre’s excellent book is the first academic study into the Vietnam War phenomenon known as ‘fragging’, where US servicemen sought to murder other American soldiers using fragmentation grenades. He estimates there were up to 1,000 attacks that resulted in at least 57 deaths. His publication examines why soldiers perpetrated these crimes and how the military authorities reacted to the problem.[1]

From 1965 to 1968, incidents of fragging were virtually unknown. However, in 1969, 96 instances were recorded, in 1970, 209 and in 1971,222.[2] As the number of episodes increased so the US presence in Vietnam was rapidly reduced from the 1969 peak of 543,000 personnel to fewer than 200,000 two years later.[3] The vast majority of attacks occurred in non-combat units in garrison type environments.[4]

Lepre provides a convincing explanation for perpetrators motivations and why the phenomenon started to occur from 1968/9 onwards. He examined the records of the 71 combatants convicted of crimes to scrutinise whether there were common characteristics. He found most were younger than average, came from ‘broken homes’ and two-thirds did not complete high-school. According to their psychiatric reports, offenders lacked maturity, possessed low self-esteem and were rated as poor soldiers.[5] Many soldiers came to Vietnam troubled men and became further troubled by their experience, sometimes leading them to commit violence.[6] While some men committed violent acts because of their backgrounds, inadequacies or nature, this cannot explain the motivations of all ‘fraggers’.[7]

Much of the explanation for fragging incidents were closely tied to domestic events in contemporary America. With the growth in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, there came a greater political awareness amongst black soldiers and a greater demand for equality. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968 exacerbated tension between some black and white soldiers that resulted in some racially motivated fragging incidents.[8]

Another key theme was a strong reaction amongst many soldiers to authority, evidenced by the fact that nearly all fragging incidents were against those in leadership positions. Some soldiers begrudged authority, others had personal disputes with their officers and a few resented ‘lifer’ career NCOs and officers, whom they believed wanted to ‘advance to the next rank at their men’s expense’.[9]

Lepre believes that ‘perhaps the single most important issue’ was that of illegal drugs.[10] Illegal narcotics were freely available in Vietnam and many offenders were under the influence of illicit substances when they committed their crimes and many leaders were targeted by soldiers because they sought to crack down on their illegal drug use.[11]

These events all came against the background of Vietnamisation, a policy that Nixon announced in 1969. This policy marked the gradual withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and the handing over of the fight to South Vietnamese forces. However, US forces continued to deploy in combat operations during this period and this affected morale as many men saw little point risking death in a cause and their country was abandoning.[12]

Lepre argues that the military’s response to the fragging phenomenon was ‘uneven’. Though they responded with a wide range of initiatives such as restricting access to grenades and vigorous initiatives to investigate, prosecute and punish offenders, few perpetrators were caught.[13] The only way in which fraggings could be ended was to end the war.[14]

The methodology of this book is forensic, for example, Lepre’s research debunks many accounts of ‘fraggings’ in post-Vietnam war literature.[15] It also tackles many of the myths and legends around ‘fragging’ and correctly places ‘fraggers’ as criminals rather than folk heroes.[16]

It is required reading for those with an interest in the Vietnam war but it also offers a case study for scholars with an interest in civil-military relations and combat motivation. It offers a fascinating insight into both the disintegrating morale within an armed force and how the social and political problems of a civilian society can negatively affect fighting units engaged in active operations.

[1] George Lepre, Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Lubbock, Tx, 2011), p.220.

[2] Ibid., pp.47-51, 57.

[3] Ibid., pp.43, 57.

[4] Ibid., pp.31-34.

[5] Ibid., pp.66-81.

[6] Ibid., p.126.

[7] Ibid., p.127.

[8] Ibid., pp.100-112

[9] Ibid., pp.83-100.

[10] Ibid., p.126.

[11] Ibid., pp.112-114.

[12] Ibid., pp.20-21.

[13] Ibid., pp.128-184.

[14] Ibid., p.219.

[15] Ibid., pp.209-216.

[16] Ibid., p.3.