The Bitterness of Sgt. Akbar

Is Sgt. Asan Akbar--the Louisiana soldier who allegedly lobbed grenades at and fired on members of the 101st Airborne, killing one and wounding 15--merely a man with an "attitude problem," as the Pentagon asserts? Much of the press describes Akbar as "disgruntled," "acting out of resentment," or—as the New York Post reports—a traitor, a loner, and a Muslim.

The truth is probably far more complex than that.

Most papers report the story like this: a bitter loner--probably an antiwar activist who can't bear to fire on fellow Muslims--rolled grenades into the tent of American soldiers. One publication straying from this story, the Financial Times of London, describes the events: after a series of explosions ripped through the camp, followed by a series of gunshots, fired--according to witnesses--at soldiers as they exited their tents. One soldier said he glimpsed a figure in the doorway of his tent. "I couldn't pick him out of a line-up," he said. "But he was clearly dressed in a US uniform." According to the soldier, the figure said, "We are under attack sir!" When things calmed down, soldiers held two Kuwaiti translators, who were later released, and also sought a civilian in a white t-shirt and khakis for questioning. They found Akbar hiding in a bunker with a shrapnel wound to the leg and a grenade in his gas mask case. Charges have not yet been leveled.

If Akbar is indeed, as it appears, the culprit, he's not such an isolated case. "Fraggers"--soldiers who attempt to kill officers by using grenades, or fragmentation devices--were quite active in the Vietnam War. But in Vietnam, it wasn't a common problem until several years into an ugly conflict that grew unpopular in the States and, through time and extended suffering by GIs, within the military. Last September in La Voz de Aztlan, writer Ernesto Cienfuegos chronicles the treatment of minority "grunts" in the US military: "Chicano and Black soldiers were being ordered by white officers to be the 'point men' during reconnaissance missions. Minority soldiers rebelled against these suicide missions and started retaliating against the whites officers who usually stayed behind the lines."

Historian Howard Zinn also traces the evolution of the antiwar movement inside the military in his book "A Peoples' History of the United States"--a movement that came in large part from ordinary enlisted men, many from lower income groups or ethnic minorities. He writes of one case with striking similarities to Akbar's:
A twenty-year-old New York City Chinese-American named Sam Choy enlisted at seventeen in the army, was sent to Vietnam, was made a cook, and found himself the target of abuse by fellow GIs, who called him "Chink" and "gook" (the term for the Vietnamese) and said he looked like the enemy. One day he took a rifle and fired warning shots at his tormentors. "By this time I was near the perimeter of the base and was thinking of joining the Viet Cong; at least they would trust me. " Choy was taken by military police, beaten, court-martialed, sentenced to eighteen months of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. "They beat me up every day, like a time clock." He ended his interview with a New York Chinatown newspaper saying: "One thing: I want to tell all the Chinese kids that the army made me sick. They made me so sick that I can't stand it."
In Akbar's version, the crime may be looking--and praying--like the enemy. An African American, he was kept out of the first Gulf War because of his faith (he converted to Islam and changed his name as a boy). Akbar reportedly told his mother, "Mama, when I get over there I have the feeling they are going to arrest me just because of the name that I have carried."

One of his neighbors tried to come up with an explanation for the behavior of which Akbar is accused: "I know he didn't like his unit that much. He didn't get promoted. I had asked him how that had worked. A lot of people feel that (discrimination) is there at Fort Campbell."

Discrimination in the military goes back to pre-Vietnam conflicts where units were segregated, but came to a head during Vietnam, the first war where troops were integrated. The Guardian writes,
Black servicemen were frequently sentenced to longer terms than their white counterparts and, once inside a military prison, black Muslim inmates were refused copies of the Koran… But, most disturbingly, black Americans were dying at a disproportionate rate and this only inflamed their indignation, as one black private remonstrated: "You should see for yourself how the black man is being treated over here and the way we are dying. When it comes to rank, we are left out. When it comes to special privileges, we are left out. When it comes to patrols, operations and so forth, we are first."
In today's US military, there's no clear evidence that minorities are dying at higher rates than whites. Nonetheless, Rep. Charles Rangel in January called for reinstating the draft because minorities and the poor make up a disproportionate percentage of military personnel. Indeed, from 1995 to 2000, the number of minority enlisted rose from 28 percent to 38 percent (compared to 30 percent of the national population), and the officer corps grew from 11 percent to 19 percent. But while studies on minorities in the military have been somewhat plentiful, little has been written on Muslims--especially black Muslims--in the military, not to mention the even more rare examination of Muslims serving in conflicts in Islamic nations.

The evidence suggests that Akbar did kill and injure U.S. soldiers--a human tragedy within the larger horror of an unfathomably cruel war--but the prevailing message from the American media, a noncommittal shrug, seems to ignore the systemic problems in our armed forces: by and large, enlisted soldiers come from lower economic backgrounds and are increasingly from ethnic minorities. Clearly, those making the decision to go to war aren't dodging bullets on the front lines. As is often cited, only one of the 535 members of the Senate and House who authorized this war have children or grandchildren in service (the Progressive Populist, I'm told, puts the figure at five). Even the commander-in-chief George W. Bush, who bailed out of his military obligations with the Texas Air National Guard and was accused of using his father's influence to land such a plum Vietnam-era assignment, has never seen combat.

But whether Akbar is mentally ill or whether the stress of combat made him so--or whether he represents a lineage of intramilitary resistance to institutional racism and classism--we'll probably never know. It just seems too easy to simply dub Akbar a guy with a grudge and leave it at that, especially when historical precedent suggests there may be other factors. It's too easy to merely accept, as one report does, that "where [Akbar's] bitterness may have come from remains a mystery."

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