The most traumatic loss the U.S. military has suffered to date in the war with Iraq may, ironically, have been inflicted not by Iraqi Republican Guards, regular army units or irregular “Fedayeen.” Rather, it may have come at the hands of an American servicemen.
Early Sunday morning Kuwait time, a sergeant assigned to an engineering brigade of the 101st Airborne Division allegedly attacked three tents in which many divisional commanding officers were sleeping on the eve of their unit’s jump-off into Iraq. According to press reports of the incident, Sgt. Asan Akbar rolled three or four grenades into the tents then proceeded to shoot some of those who sought to flee the ensuing fire and carnage. The attack killed Captain Christopher Seifert and wounded more than a dozen other members of the storied “Screaming Eagles,” several so severely they had to be flown to the U.S. military hospital at Ramstein, Germany.
What made this episode so wrenching was not merely that a U.S. soldier would have turned his weapons on his comrades. Such “fragging” incidents have happened before -- notably, during the dark days of the Vietnam conflict, when a demoralized and drug-ridden military comprised of significant numbers of conscripts was fighting an increasingly unpopular war. They are always corrosive to the good order and discipline essential for successful combat operations.
The attack for which Sgt. Akbar is being held at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait is sending shockwaves through the national security community for another reason, though: It could be the precursor for a far larger and more dangerous problem, both for the military and for American society more generally. Call it the “Fifth Column syndrome.”
While details of Sgt. Akbar’s personal history are sketchy at the moment, published accounts indicate that he is a black Muslim convert. Exactly when he converted to Islam is unclear, as is the nature of his adherence. (One report says his neighbors in Fort Campbell, Kentucky saw beer bottles in his trash; another neighbor, however, told a journalist that Akbar had declined an offer of a beer at a social occasion, saying he was a Muslim).
What is clear, however, is that in the days leading up to the attack on the tents comprising the 101st’s Tactical Operations Center, Akbar exhibited unsettling behavior. Evidently, what has been called an “attitude problem” reached a point where his superiors decided the sergeant would be “left behind” when the division deployed into Iraq.
Frank Gaffney Jr. is the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and author of War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World .
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