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Still Gettin' Fragged

J. D. Pendry

I don't like Monday morning quarterbacks who are always trying to fix yesterday, but it's important to think about what happened yesterday. Doing so, gives us insight on why things are they way they are today.

In the Guardians of the Republic: A History of the Noncommissioned Officer Corps of the United States Army, Doctor Ernest F. Fisher, JR's history of the Army's noncommissioned officer corps, the Doctor highlights some leadership decisions and other phenomena that, when studied, help us better understand today's leadership environment.

During Viet Nam - mid 60's to early 70's - there was a critical shortage of middle grade noncommissioned officers in the Army. Some of the decisions made to counter that problem along with other leadership challenges of the time tell us a lot about today.

A good starting point for this discussion is the Noncommissioned Officer's Candidate Course (NCOCC) created to alleviate the NCO shortage. The reasoning General Howard K. Johnson used to determine the length of time needed to produce a Sergeant or Staff Sergeant prepared to lead in combat is interesting. His logic was that if the Army could produce a platoon leader in twenty-two weeks, a Lieutenant, then the same amount of time should be sufficient to produce a combat arms Sergeant or Staff Sergeant team or squad leader.

The flaw in that logic is that while it's true the Army produced technically competent Lieutenants in that amount of time, it's also true they were sent to units with noncommissioned officer and officer leaders having years of experience. With the help of experienced leaders, primarily noncommissioned officers, the Lieutenants learned about soldiering and what it took to lead soldiers effectively. Now, consider what happened when the noncommissioned officers in the unit had as little (or maybe even less) experience with soldiers and leading as the junior officers did. That was often the case for the products of the NCOCC who were referred to as Shake and Bakes - named for an instant food product of the time. The blind went to help the blind lead 19 year old Privates into combat.

In fairness to General Johnson, let's put ourselves in his position. What other options did he have faced with the reality that Viet Nam's repeated combat rotations had decimated the middle grades of the noncommissioned officer's corps to the point their strength was not sufficient to support the Army? He only had one other - let the best 19 year old privates become the NCO leaders in Viet Nam. At least the NCOCC program provided us with NCO leaders having some amount of training to help them lead. To the General's credit, he picked the best option available. We still ended up with inexperienced leaders, at the ground level where leadership is the most crucial, trying to lead soldiers in combat.

Another phenomenon of this period was accelerated promotions. These same Lieutenants and Sergeants, our small unit leaders, could expect to become Captains and Sergeants First Class in just a couple of years if they lived. This gave us leaders who were literally propelled through their most important developmental time. We took children from kindergarten and slammed them smack dab in the middle of a college frat house. Many Platoon Sergeants were never Privates outside of basic combat training and most Company Commanders barely batted an eye at being Platoon Leaders. Where do you suppose these leaders are today? That's simple. If they're still around they're leading our Army - from the very top of it without ever experiencing it at the true ground level.

We've talked a little about how we built the on the ground leadership in Viet Nam, and alluded to where those leaders are now. So let's add another piece to the story.

In Viet Nam, there was a growing rift between career officers, senior noncommissioned officers, and the inexperienced benefactors of accelerated promotions - both commissioned and noncommissioned. Several factors contributed to this rift. Many career NCOs harbored animosity toward the Shake and Bakes who obtained in a year or two the rank it had taken them a dozen or more years of hard work to get. Maybe that clouded their opinion, but many also viewed the Shake and Bakes as being overly friendly with their men showing more interest in being their pals than their leaders. From the perspective of the career soldiers, this led to a breakdown in discipline. Compounding the problem, the unit level officer leadership was in the hands of junior Lieutenants and Captains often rotating through on very short, ticket-punching command tours - another phenomenon of the time. These inexperienced officers were closer in thinking, for any number of reasons, to the inexperienced mid level NCOs and soldiers than they were to the career senior noncommissioned officers and officers. They often viewed tried and true methods used by senior NCOs to maintain discipline and order as too harsh or too old Army. Because of this they often failed to take disciplinary action on cases of blatant disrespect and insubordination shown by malcontents toward lifers. This sent a signal that such behavior was acceptable. Tolerance of it by inexperienced leaders created a dangerous leadership environment in a place where unchecked drug and alcohol abuse, insubordination, and malingering was commonplace - and hand grenades were plentiful.

In Doctor Fisher's book he cites one source as saying that approximately 500 fragging incidents occurred from 1968 to 1972 and another source as saying 363 occurred between 1970 and 1972. About 62 percent of these attacks were against officers, mostly company commanders. The majority of the remainder was against NCOs, Staff Sergeant and above. Fraggings were a manifestation of a dangerous environment of over familiarity, non-adherence to standards and lax discipline created by inexperienced leaders. Most of the offenders in fragging incidents were never identified or caught - gives you a warm fuzzy feeling when you think some may still be around and leading, doesn't it?

Ok, so what does all of that have to do with today? If we apply some logical thinking where it leads us should not be a surprise. If the unit level leadership in Viet Nam built an environment conducive to fragging incidents and they are in charge of the Army now, what kind of leadership environment have they built for us? Allow me to take a stab at answering that. It's an environment where leaders who stress standards, discipline and mission are still getting routinely fragged. These fraggings won't blow you up, but they taint professional reputations and end careers. Today's fraggings are more sophisticated than tossing a hand grenade into someone's hooch. But, the same kinds of soldiers are doing them. Now, all too often, when a leader holds a malcontent to a standard he or she gets fragged with an Equal Opportunity complaint, a Sexual Harassment complaint or the latest craze, a Reprisal complaint. All of which are investigated no matter the source of the complaint - with the fragging victim more often than not presumed guilty until it can be proved. At least, with a hand grenade you know the outcome pretty quick - modern day fraggings drag on for months or even years.

Both types of fraggings have the same affect ultimately. The Army loses good leaders and an environment where leaders are hesitant to enforce standards and discipline is created. It's a very dangerous environment for a military service. Yep, it's thirty years later and good leaders are still gettin' fragged.

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