Return Of 'Fragging' Echoes Earlier War
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The alleged grenade attack by U.S. Army Sgt. Asan Akbar on U.S. soldiers in Kuwait stirred disturbing memories of the murderous attacks by American soldiers on each other during the Vietnam War. There were a reported 209 "fragging incidents" during that conflict. The targets of the attacks were mostly junior field officers, and the men who killed their officers were in many cases African Americans.
They were pushed over the top by what they considered the brutal, racist and dehumanizing actions of white officers. Their hatred was fed by resentment of being drafted and forced to fight in what they considered a racist, senseless war against oppressed colored people.
The problem of "fragging" first leaped to public attention in the 1971 trial of Billy Dean Smith. Smith, like Akbar, was an African American. He was accused of killing two white officers. Though he was eventually acquitted, the trial quickly turned from a focus on Smith's personal guilt or innocence to larger questions of Army racism and the waging of an unjust war.
At the time, military officials continued to downplay racial tensions in the Army and denied there was any substantial black antiwar opposition in the ranks. Then Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield came closer to the truth, saying, "Fragging, I fear, is just an outgrowth of this tragic conflict."
Akbar, whose alleged attack killed one American and wounded 15 others, will likely be charged with murder and possibly treason. In his trial, the issues of race, class and war that dominated Smith's trial could again be fiercely debated. Furthermore, Akbar is a Muslim, and the fragging incident raised intense speculation that he allegedly committed his deadly attack because he felt persecuted by Army brass for his religious beliefs, or harbored resentment for being required to fight a war against other Muslims.
Is Akbar just a tragic and isolated head case, or do other African American Muslims harbor their own racial and religious hostilities toward the Army? Before Akbar's alleged attack there had been no public hint of disloyalty by blacks within Army ranks, and only scattered reports of racial or religious conflict within the military. But the Army has always kept a tight lid on information about racial conflicts. The Army is portrayed as a racial and religious nirvana where blacks can acquire the education, skills and training to advance their careers.
According to Department of Defense figures, African Americans make up about 30 percent of Army enlistees. While there are no precise figures on how many African American Muslims serve in the Army, the number of African American Muslims in America is estimated to be more than 2 million, so their numbers in the Army have almost certainly risen.
There is no evidence yet that Akbar was a member of, or had any connection with, the Nation of Islam. The overwhelming majority of African American Muslims leaders are orthodox or Sunni Muslims. Still, the Nation of Islam has deeply influenced many blacks. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's well-publicized tirades against U.S. policy toward Arabs and Muslims, and his public ties to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi are hardly a secret. Farrakhan has repeatedly attacked Bush and his Iraq war policy.
Even if Akbar's alleged attack was merely the desperate act of an embittered or mentally unstable Army enlistee, the danger is that the fragging could spell even more trouble for African-American Muslims. In this time of war fever and terrorism fear, much of the press and many Americans reflexively regard Muslims with deep suspicion.
That's what happened in the case of John Muhammad, the alleged beltway serial sniper. Even though his ties to the Nation of Islam were fleeting and tenuous, the Nation was immediately fingered as a culprit and the press briefly stirred more public fear and hatred against black Muslims.
The Army will almost certainly do everything it can to make an example of Akbar, if and when he comes to trial. It will attempt to send the stern message that any hint of disloyalty or rebellion within the ranks will not be tolerated. It will also do everything it can to deny that racial or religious tensions exist in the military, and will insist that African American Muslims are treated equally and fairly.
Whether this is true or not, and whether Akbar was driven by personal demons or real or perceived racial and religious persecution, one fact remains: American soldiers killing other American solders is again a terrifying reality that the Army can't duck.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, ( email@example.com) a columnist and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).