I read a speech by Noam Chomsky in which he says during the Vietnam war "soldiers were fragging officers." I, a man too young to have served in that conflict, have heard this before but thought it was just a rumor. Can you shed some light on this dark matter? -Tom, Chicago

I can, but frankly not much-and in my opinion, that's a story all by itself.

Fragging-assaulting a superior officer using a fragmentation grenade or other explosive-was surprisingly common during the Vietnam war. The most reliable figure is 730 incidents from 1969-1971, much higher than in U.S. wars before or since. Oddly, theres no official count of fragging deaths; one unofficial source says 86, another 45.

Prior to Vietnam, assaults against U.S. military officers were rare. World War I saw one incident leading to court martial per 12,700 servicemen, a ratio said to have remained steady during World War II and the Korean war. During Vietnam, the fragging rate rose from 1 incident per 3,300 servicemen in 1969 to a peak of 1 per 572 in 1971.

Few Vietnam fragging cases went to trial, so comparison with earlier wars is risky. Still, these are astonishing statistics, suggesting an army at the point of degenerating into a mutinous rabble. You'd think in the wake of Vietnam the U.S. military would have closely investigated fragging to avoid another brush with chaos. As far as I can tell, it didn't.

I had my assistant Una scour the databases and contact the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the Combat Studies Institute. She was able to turn up only a few short papers on fragging. Here's all that's publicly known:

• Two articles on fragging, "Assaults with Explosive Devices on Superiors" by David Gillooly and Thomas Bond (Military Medicine, 1976) and Bonds "The Why of Fragging" (American Journal of Psychiatry, 1976), were based on analysis of 28 convicted fraggers. This the most detailed research we have. However, each is three pages long.

• The Center of Military History sent us an unsigned two-page report entitled "Murder of U.S. Army Company Grade Officers in Vietnam by Enlisted Men," apparently written in response to claims that 40 percent of captains and lieutenants killed in Vietnam were murdered by their men. Not likely, says the report. About 3,000 such officers died during the war; 40 percent of that number is about 1,200; no way would slaughter on that scale have escaped official notice.

• The tally of 730 fragging incidents comes from Guenter Lewy's 1978 book, America in Vietnam, which cites 1971 army testimony before Congress: 126 incidents in 1969, 271 in 1970, and 333 in 1971. It's unlikely fragging suddenly ceased in 1972, so 730 is probably low.

Why did fraggers do it? Journalist Eugene Linden, writing in Saturday Review in 1972 ("The Demoralization of an Army: Fragging and Other Withdrawal Symptoms") blamed the "futility and senselessness of the war." A more persuasive story emerges when you look at the data points: (a) 80 percent of the murders happened at base camps, not in the field; (b) 90 percent of assaults took place within three days after an argument; (c) offenders typically felt they had been unfairly treated; (d) 88 percent of attackers were drunk or high; (e) on average they'd been in Vietnam for six months; (f) 26 of 28 were volunteers, not draftees; (g) only five were high school grads; and (h) many were loners or had psychological problems.

In short, for all the tales of soldiers assaulting officers they feared would get them killed, a more likely explanation is that fragging was the work of rear-echelon misfits with anger management and substance issues who sulked after getting chewed out and decided to have revenge. The prevalence of drugs couldn't have helped-one study of soldiers returning from Vietnam found one-fifth were addicted to narcotics.

Perhaps it doesn't matter; as of 2008, only two fragging cases had gone to court martial since the beginning of the war in Iraq. In a New York Times article about one, unnamed experts attribute the improved record to increased professionalism stemming from establishment of an all-volunteer army in 1973. Maybe, but most fraggers in Vietnam were volunteers, too. The truth is, we don't really know.

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