The Forgotten History Of 'Fragging' In Vietnam

Senate candidate Roy Moore was reportedly among those officers targeted by their own men.
11/26/2017 09:39 pm ET
Universal History Archive via Getty Images

Fragging – the murder of officers and sergeants by their own troops – was in the news recently when it was reported that Roy Moore, currently campaigning in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat, risked being killed by some of his subordinates in Vietnam.

After graduating from West Point in 1969, Moore served in Germany as a lieutenant and then he was promoted to captain and given command of the 188th Military Police Company in Vietnam in 1971. This came during the final years of the war when men who were violent, drug-addled, or disturbed became a significant presence in the Army and Marine Corps, causing a serious breakdown of discipline. In 1971, Colonel Robert D. Heinl wrote in Armed Forces Journal, “Our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.”

The term “fragging” was derived from the fact that a fragmentation grenade was rolled into the area where an officer or NCO was sleeping. When it exploded, no fingerprints could be found. The target was often a leader who was hated because he was incompetent in leading men, or excessively harsh in his discipline, or overly aggressive in waging war (putting the lives of soldiers and Marines at unnecessary risk just so that he could gain glory and advance his own career).

In addition to thousands of threats that were never carried out, there were confirmed reports of at least 800 fraggings or attempted fraggings in the Army and Marine Corps, with 86 men killed and an estimated 700 wounded.  “But this was probably only the tip of a deadly iceberg,” says historian James Westheider. The true figure may never be known.

According to Westheider, many officers felt unsafe simply because they were authority figures. During his second tour in Vietnam at Duc Pho in 1968-1969, Major Colin Powell (later a four-star general) said he was “living in a large tent and I moved my cot every night, partly to thwart Viet Cong informants who might be tracking me, but also because I did not rule out attacks on authority from within the battalion itself.” Captain Thomas Cecil, who was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in 1970-1971, “was so worried about attacks on his life that during his last month in Vietnam, he slept in the military intelligence (MI) bunker, and only his battalion commander knew where he was at night.”

In his autobiography So Help Me God, Roy Moore said that when he took command of his company in Vietnam, “drug use was widespread and insubordination was commonplace.” He immediately enforced strict discipline. “I administered many Article Fifteens, disciplinary charges filed against insubordinate or disobedient soldiers,” especially drug users.

As a result, he said, he received threats of death by fragging. “I became a marked man,” he said. Claiming that he was not intimidated, he refused to soften his discipline. He did, however, take precautionary measures to reinforce his sleeping area. “I placed sandbags under the bed and in the walls of my quarters.”

Moore learned that “a known drug user by the name of Kidwell” was planning to kill him.  “Several weeks passed before I was called one evening and informed that Kidwell had shot First Sergeant Howard and was coming for me. Armed with an automatic rifle and my 45-caliber pistol, I proceeded to company headquarters, only to find that Kidwell had been taken into custody and was sitting in my office. I made arrangements for a prompt court martial and was relieved that First Sergeant Howard had survived.”

Army veteran George Lepre’s book-length investigation of hundreds of fraggings (Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam) found that most of the attacks occurred after dark in Army and Marine Corps units — they were rare in the Air Force and Navy. Innocent bystanders sometimes became “the unintended victims of the attacks,” and the families of fragging victims usually were not given the true details of what had happened to the deceased.

Most fraggings occurred inside camps, while out in jungles and rice paddies, a different method was used by infantrymen who wanted to kill “bad officers,” according to Robert Nylen, a combat infantry officer and author of Guts. “Sometimes, an errant bullet struck an incompetent fool amid a firefight. Problem solved.”

According to military historians, murders of superiors have been rare in America’s recent wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – because the military draft was ended in 1973 and an all-volunteer armed force was instituted. Efforts were made to exclude criminals, drug addicts, and misfits.

Hamilton Gregory, a Vietnam veteran, is author of McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Men in the Vietnam War, plus the Induction of Unfit Men, Criminals, and Misfits, and he appears in a YouTube video entitled “McNamara’s Folly.”

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