Fragging in the Vietnam War: Myth, Media, and Memory
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
Restriction TypeAuburn University Users
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This dissertation examines the memory and media presentation of the phenomenon of fragging in the Vietnam War. Soldiers have attacked officers throughout history, but this study focuses on the rash of incidents in the latter stages of the war where enlisted men attacked officers or NCOs on-base in rear areas with M-26 fragmentation grenades or other explosives. While some soldiers involved in fraggings may have experienced the horrors of war, many served as rear-area support personnel. Fragging has largely been remembered as a heroic act of self-defense or as part of a principled, even legitimate, act of protest, a framing referred to in this study as the classic paradigm. According to data revealed in court-martial and CID records, and in the work of George Lepre, the fraggings for which information exists were motivated by numerous causes (racial animus, indiscipline, boredom, drug use, protection of illegal activities, personal vendetta) in relatively safe rear-area units. This more accurate memory of fragging is referred to as the alternate version. This narrative has been misremembered for many reasons, but it probably began to be exaggerated and mischaracterized as a way to intimidate officers. Thus, regardless of the actual mundane motives, fraggings and talk of fraggings became a part of the language of battlefield democracy of the Vietnamization era, wherein tacit, informal negotiations often determined what tasks soldiers would do and what on-base activities would be tolerated. This state of indiscipline in turn added to growing belief that the U.S. military should end the draft and transition to the All-Volunteer Force. Battlefield democracy may have a legitimate role in a constitutional democracy, but that role should not excuse cold-blooded murder or drunken attacks on the "wrong man," as frequently occurred in fraggings. Fraggers who killed other men should be remembered as killers, even if they were victims of a draft and questionable U.S. foreign policy. Ignoring or celebrating the misdeeds of enlisted men feeds a cycle of belief in the permanent rectitude of U.S. troops and results in an unreasonable hesitance to criticize the actions of soldiers. These dynamics make further costly military adventurism far more difficult to oppose. Chapter 1 of the dissertation focuses on the case of Billy Dean Smith, a Black GI who was prosecuted and exonerated for a fragging incident. Smith made dissent, race, and appeals to famous activists central to his defense. This most famous of fragging cases does not conform to the classic paradigm. Chapter 2 addresses other incidents of fragging and reveals a variety of motives which do not conform to the classic paradigm or fit any idea of battlefield democracy. Chapter 3 focuses on how the first few decades of postwar historiography almost universally presented fragging as noble, desperate self-defense, or as a legitimate element of battlefield democracy. Only in recent years have some historians broadened the view of fragging. Chapter 4 examines the representation of fragging in cultural sources like literature and film. Vietnam War literature provides many examples of the classic paradigm. Most Vietnam War films do not address fragging, but those that do tend to have a varied, and thus more accurate, take.