The Best Defense

Best Defense bookshelf: 'Fragging,' the Vietnam War's characteristic crime

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.

(p. 118)

The Best Defense

The most likely apocalypse in our future: An Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange

By J. Dana Stuster
Best Defense bureau of nuclear warfare

George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, confessed to his audience, "Those who really know what's going on in Pakistan's nuclear complex aren't talking about it, and those who are talking, including myself, don't really know what's going on in Pakistan's nuclear complex."

He also said that when he was contacted for the event, he told Richard Weitz (full disclosure: Richard Weitz is a non-resident senior fellow at Center for a New American Security, where Tom is a senior fellow and I intern) he didn't think it should happen at all, saying "When Americans, especially, talk about nuclear issues and concerns, in particular about the security of nuclear weapons and fissile materials in Pakistan, that gets heard in many ways in Pakistan and almost all of them are not helpful." The discussion, he said, feeds a narrative in Pakistan, veracity aside, that the United States is only interested in self-preservation, its efforts are far from philanthropic, that it is anti-Muslim, playing favorites with India, and leading a concerted effort to denuclearize Pakistan, possibly with Israeli or Indian aid.

The discussion continued, despite the caveats.

The point that all three panelists expressed was simple but important: U.S. fears of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, while valid, overlook the greater threat of a nuclear conflict with India. The fuse to ignite a war has been lit before -- at Kargil in 1999, after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and most recently, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 -- but a nuclear exchange has been prevented each time. With each of these incidents, though, the fuse has been cut shorter.

The greatest risk for nuclear war in our time is the scenario in which a Pakistan-based terror group with ties to Inter-Services Intelligence launches another attack on India ("another Mumbai" is the catchphrase, but it won't necessarily have to be of that scale or spectacle and is widely considered a matter of when, not if) and this touches off a sequence of escalation that results in a nuclear strike and response. It's nearly happened before. Aparna Pande, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, described the strong pro-nuclear strike faction in Indian politics after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the common sentiment of, "if Pakistan can cross the border and hit us, why can't we hit back?" The answer is: because it's a short fuse. That simple fact, and the peril it implies, has been enough in the past, but it might not be good enough next time.

This is a global problem. "The impact on the United States is potentially larger than people realize," said Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University. He described studies in which nuclear war was simulated using atmospheric models developed for climate change research, "and if cities are actually burned it can cause enough soot to go up into the upper atmosphere that will stay for a long time, to seriously interfere with global agriculture." The resultant nuclear autumn could cause famine, and not just in South Asia. 

The bad news is that Pakistan's nuclear program is expanding -- it's set to become the fourth largest nuclear power, it is developing smaller, more mobile bombs, and it is building more nuclear reactors to churn out bulk supplies of weapons-grade uranium. The good news, though, is that (as far as we can tell) Pakistan has an effective security program in place. The bombs are under the purview of the military, the most stable and competent institution in the country. They are kept disassembled with the components kept in separate buildings, at secret facilities that both India and the United States would be hard-pressed to find. The sites are guarded by thousands of troops being watched by a meticulous internal affairs bureau to screen out extremists. It might be sufficient if Pakistan were not one of the most threatening and most threatened countries in the world.

Infiltration remains the greatest tactical threat to Pakistan's nuclear security. There will always be a way to slip through a screening process -- in 2009, members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan attacked the Pakistani Army headquarters in military uniforms carrying forged IDs, and previously at least two men affiliated with al Qaeda infiltrated then-President Pervez Musharraf's security detail and attempted to assassinate him. The insider threat remains, but as Bunn pointed out, there are only so many security measures that can be put in place that will actually improve Pakistan's already thorough security.

Ultimately, it's the threat -- both in Pakistan's domestic terror threats and in Indo-Pakistani relations -- that needs to be reduced. 

The nuclear issue is only going to become more important as greater emphasis, both here in Washington and in South Asia, is placed on the threat posed by Pakistani militant groups. A journalist for the Pakistani Spectator, in worried and urgent tones, told the panel that, with the prevailing popular opinion in Pakistan, the United States is "pushing Pakistan in the corner, and they are depending more on the weapon because Pakistan is literally collapsing." It will be up to the international community, and largely the United States, to help buttress Pakistan's faltering democracy. The success or failure of stabilization efforts in the next several years will determine which cliché the Pakistani bomb will become: common ground, bargaining chip, or loose cannon.

The event, "Nuclear Security in Pakistan: Issues and Implications," was sponsored by the Hudson Institute and Partnership for a Secure America. Audio of the event is available online at the Hudson Institute's website here.

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