- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Just when you think there is not much new to say about a subject, along comes a book that overhauls your understanding of that subject.
I say this because I just finished Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam, by George Lepre. I’ve been reading about Vietnam full-time now since early last summer and so wasn’t surprised to see how the Army fell apart in Vietnam, for example going from 47 drug “apprehensions” of soldiers there in 1965 to 11,058 in 1970 (p. 113). Or that one U.S. Army division, the ill-fated Americal, in 1970 had 5,567 NJPs and courts-martial.
What did surprise me in this illuminating book was the basic profile of soldiers who fragged NCOs and officers (that is, tried to kill them with hand grenades). In this carefully researched study, Lepre reports that:
–Most fragging occurred in the noncombat support units in the rear, not in front-line combat units. (p. 31)
–The attacks often killed the wrong person: “of all the army officers who are known to have died in fragging incidents during the Vietnam War, only one was the intended target of the assault.” (p. 44)
–Four would-be fraggers were killed in their own attempts to assault others. (p. 47)
–The last Vietnam fragger to get out of jail was William Sutton, who was released in 1999, his time extended by a parole violation. (p. 200)
–Not all fraggers left the military. Staff Sgt. Alan G. Cornett Jr., who was in Special Forces, fragged his unit’s executive officer, Lt. Col. Donald F. Bongers, who was wounded but not killed by the grenade blast. Cornett was convicted, did a year’s confinement, some of it at Fort Leavenworth’s disciplinary barracks — and then served another 17 years in the Army, retiring in 1989 as a master sergeant. (p. 82)
–Most fraggers already had had a brush with the military justice system before committing their fragging offenses (pp. 76-77). More typical of fraggers than Cornett was PFC Richard Buckingham, a cook in the 538th Transportation Company. Lepre goes on:
The government eventually withdrew its charge against Buckingham, which who would have faced his second court-martial in the space of a year: in June 1970 he had been tried in West Germany on charges of rape and sodomy, and was acquitted. Buckingham left the Army in 1972 but couldn’t stay out of trouble: only weeks after his discharge, he strangled a seven-year-old girl to death and was sentenced to life imprisonment. A judge released him in 1999 in the belief that he “would not pose an unacceptable risk to society” but Buckingham was quick to prove him wrong: in 2002, he was sentenced to serve several more years in his native Ohio for assaulting yet another female.