Lately, I’ve had a sense of déjà vu witnessing the rage boiling in America: voters sending death threats to Republican representatives who voted for a bipartisan infrastructure; school board meetings blowing up in fights over reading lists; passengers punching airline crews in the face over wearing a simple surgical mask; and countless other expressions of fury completely disproportionate to the events that prompted them.
I’ve seen this kind of anger before, 50 years ago in Vietnam. Back then I was a young journalist investigating and writing about an epidemic of “fragging”, which is what we called the murder of officers by their own troops. Here’s a sample of the piece I published in the Saturday Review, back in 1972:
Fragging is a macabre ritual of Vietnam in which American enlisted men attempt to murder their superiors. The word comes from the nickname for hand grenades, a weapon popular with enlisted men because the evidence is destroyed with the consummation of the crime. Fragging has ballooned into intra-Army guerrilla warfare, and in parts of Vietnam it stirs more fear among officers and NCOs than does the war with “Charlie.” To predict who will be the assassin is impossible: it could be anyone, almost as though the act of murder chooses its executor at random. The victim too, can be any officer or NCO in contact with enlisted men. Officers who survive fragging attempts often have no idea who their attackers were and live in fear that “they” will try to kill them again. Fraggings occur among the detritus of a demoralized army: a world of heroin, racial tension, mutiny, and fear. They express the agony of the slow, internal collapse of our Army in Vietnam. Ultimately, the roots of these murder attempts lie outside the military and even the war. They lie in the crush of forces that brought our Army in Vietnam to its present state.
Fraggings were not unique to Vietnam. They happened in many wars, usually on the front lines when the enlisted soldiers in a given unit conspire to rid themselves of an officer considered dangerously incompetent. But, in the closing years of Vietnam such attacks mysteriously and dramatically increased in the rear echelons—even as the war was winding down and the danger to the average enlisted man was receding.
At the time I heard different reasons for these rear echelon fraggings, including racial tensions and rampant drug use. But there were other issues that had clearly set the stage for the outbreak.
One was the deterioration in communications between the enlisted ranks and their immediate officers. Another was that few in the ranks understood why they were still in Vietnam at all. A third was that as the war dragged on, the more crafty and connected individuals learned how to avoid the armed services—or if they had to serve, learned how to avoid the front lines.
This was a change from World War II, where the enlisted ranks consisted of a cross section of society. An example: My dad was a classical pianist; he ended up in the jungles of New Guinea. But in the last years of Vietnam, the ranks were dominated by the kind of men who didn’t have the connections or social capital to get out of service. They disproportionately less-educated and—not unreasonably—resentful of the fact that they hadn’t gotten deferments, or Air National Guard postings the way many in the upper classes managed. And if you couldn’t talk your way out of the ranks you were also more likely to act out rather than talk out your frustrations.
The non-commissioned sergeants and corporals—who traditionally mediated between commanders and soldiers—tended to be lifers and were as alienated from their conscripted troops as the college-educated officer corps above them. So when someone in a unit started muttering, “Let’s frag the lieutenant,” the sergeant was less likely to hear about it. And there were fewer other voices in the unit to say, “That’s murder.”
The United States is not a war zone—not yet, anyway. But even so, I sense some parallels in the unprecedented rage and fury we see on all sides of our polarized society. From the shooting of a congressional baseball team practice to the storming of the Capitol.
One of the commonalities is a widespread sense of limitless grievance. It’s not just that one side feels put upon by the other—it’s that both sides see themselves as victims of the other. And what’s worse, both sides feel a sense of powerlessness to redress those grievances. Then there’s the siloing of our media consumption: In Vietnam, isolated units of soldiers found in each other sympathetic audiences and no dissenting voices. So today, anyone who blames some hated party or group for their frustrations easily finds validation among the like-minded people and news feeds that constitute our closed communications bubbles. We’re a big country, and even if there only a small percentage of the population dives down the rabbit hole of conspiracies and demonization, that’s still millions of people, and unlike pre-interconnect times, those aggrieved and willing to act can now easily connect with others who share their views.
In our current struggle with ideologies and identities, the most aggrieved are rallying to figures who profit from justifying and stoking their anger, rather than to leaders arguing for compromise and practical solutions. Yet while there is evidence of this disastrous development on both right and left, it is impossible to ignore the fact that for four years the president of the United States himself was the most angry, most persistent, and most opportunistic figure inflaming the nation’s sense of intolerable grievance—his presence magnified by obsessive coverage from the media ecosystems that amplify our political disagreements.
And while it’s one thing for a president or his media enablers to tell their chosen audience that their anger is justified, it’s another to call on them to act on that anger with violence.
There’s another parallel between the rear echelon fraggings of Vietnam and our current epidemic of rage. When I interviewed a soldier who had been convicted of trying to kill his commanding officer, he seemed to have no sense that he had done anything wrong. At one point he told me that he would have been “tickled pink” had he succeeded, and before his trial he asked the prosecutors whether it would save a lot of trouble if he took a discharge instead of court martial. That disconnect from reality resonates with the attitude of many of those who invaded the Capitol on January 6, many of whom either have no sense of the gravity of that insurrection, or believe that they were entirely justified in their actions.
The military’s problem with internal warfare was solved when we exited Vietnam and switched to an all-volunteer army. In other words, the military didn’t solve the problem—they changed their personnel and then relocated. Alas, that option isn’t available to us when our unit is the whole of society.
We’re going to have to solve our rage problem right here at home. And we know from the long experience of many nations that rage and blame breeds rage and blame. The worst possible mistake would be to underestimate its consequences.