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Hazardous Duty in Iraq

A.K Gupta Jun 28, 2005

No one, except perhaps the Pentagon, knows precisely how many military personnel were dispatched by disgruntled GIs in Vietnam, but the problem was so pervasive that in 1971 military historian Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. wrote in the official Armed Forces Journal, “‘fragging’ is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers]…. Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.”

According to historian Gabriel Kolko, author of Anatomy of a War (perhaps the single best study of the Vietnam War), there were a minimum of 788 officially confirmed cases of fragging from 1969 to 1972, resulting in 86 deaths. Another historian, Terry Anderson, contends, “The U.S. Army itself does not know exactly how many… officers were murdered. But they know at least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1,400 that died mysteriously.” He adds that by 1970 the army was “at war… with itself.”

Fragging was the most obvious sign that the U.S. military was disintegrating. Heinl noted that, “The armed forces still in Vietnam are on the brink of collapse. Separate units avoid or refuse battle, kill their officers, are full of drugs and are without enthusiasm when not on the verge of mutiny.”

By the early 1970s, rebellious grunts crippled the U.S. military not just in Vietnam but worldwide. A congressional inquiry uncovered “literally hundreds of instances of damage to naval property wherein sabotage is suspected.” This included acts that took entire warships out of action. Mutiny even spread to U.S. Air Force pilots, the elite of the elite. In Vietnam, pilots diverted missions, failed to show up to protect bombing runs and even refused orders.

Today, the Pentagon is haunted by the spectre of another guerrilla war without end. While the alleged fragging incident by Martinez is only the second case in Iraq, it also appears to signal a breakdown in the armed forces.

After completing a recent trip to Iraq where he visited with U.S. and Iraqi army units, Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned, “We are getting toward the end of our capacity… The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are incapable of sustaining the effort. Our recruiting is coming apart. The National Guard is going to unravel.”

The unraveling includes recruitment rates that have fallen by as much as 40 percent; reports that 5,500 U.S. military personnel have deserted since the start of the Iraq war; the mutiny by an army reserve transportation unit in October 2004, which disobeyed orders to undertake a supply mission they called “suicidal;” and in the same month the refusal of an Iraq-bound national guard platoon in Mississippi to conduct training as a protest against conditions at their facility, Camp Shelby.

Another recent incident points to the breakdown in discipline and command. On June 20, a military hearing was conducted at Fort Sill, Oklahoma for Sgt. David Freyaldenhoven who has admitted to killing Staff Sgt. Terry Robbins while arguing over alcohol last Feb. 10 at Camp Taji, just north of Baghdad. Freyaldenhoven claims self-defense. According to witnesses at the hearing, Robbins had a tendency to pull his gun “during card games and arguments at camp,” as well as threatening to “shoot the Iraqis they were training if they didn’t listen or perform better.”

The episode reveals that despite Robbins’s violent temperament he was left on duty. Also, the Pentagon forbids alcohol in war zones, but according to a report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Capt. John Vanlandingham, “testified that alcohol was easy to find at Camp Taji. ‘Oh, yeah, everybody knew you could get alcohol,’ he told the court by telephone.”

The backdoor draft aside, these breakdowns in military discipline are happening in a volunteer army, which is more ominous than discontent among draftees. With casualty rates increasing once again among U.S. forces, it seems certain that the military machine will continue to fall apart.

This is probably causing nightmares for the Pentagon brass, but at least it’s the silver lining of the Iraq war – a mutinous army is only a danger to itself.