Beware of Mission Creep
by David H. Hackworth

The killing last week in Afghanistan of Special Forces Sgt. Nathan Chapman calls to mind the battle portrayed in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

Its two-and-one-half hours of gore do capture the great heroism of the Army's 75th Rangers, Delta Force and the 160th Special Forces "Night Stalkers" air crews, as well as the dogged fanaticism of their Muslim irregular opponents. But since the film shows the relentless horror of the firefight out of context, the gross stupidity of the politicians and generals who went along with a dumb op can only be inferred.

This catastrophic fight proved that no one -- from the president to the secretary of defense to a squad of top brass -- had learned a thing from Vietnam, where American soldiers were also inexorably slaughtered because those on high didn't understand the enemy, the objective or the nature of the conflict -- or the value in pulling out when it was so clear to even the grunts in the mud that it was a no-win war.

When George Bush the Elder sent our forces to feed the Somalis, I went over and reported from the foxholes of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, another fine outfit that fought well during the Mogadishu disaster. The longer I stayed, the more I could smell Vietnam. By the time I headed home, the stench of mission creep hung heavy in the air.

When Bill Clinton dispatched a Ranger Task Force to capture a two-bit warlord and changed the mission from feeding to fighting, I asked to go back. But -- according to an insider -- Army Gen. Thomas Montgomery didn't like the idea of my nosing around on the ground and killed my request to go out with the Rangers.

On the day of the bloodbath, Oct. 3, 1993, I was at Fort Carson, Colo., with Special Forces Col. Dave Hunt. "Where's the tanks, where's the air cover?" Hunt roared. By the end of the day, I knew as much as the generals or the bungling bureaucrats in the Pentagon and White House, all of whom were now into max damage control.

I also knew that the most basic rules of combat had been egregiously violated, there was no go-to-hell plan, and the only thing that saved the day was extraordinarily brave soldiering. And I knew, too, that Sgt. Casey Joyce, the Ranger son of an Army pal, had been killed.

The death of Casey, whom I'd known since his birth, made this tragedy very personal. So I went to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., and interviewed the wounded, and then went to Fort Benning, Ga., where I talked to a bunch of Rangers from battalion CO Danny McKnight down to individual Ranger grunts fresh from the fight.

Long before the excellent book "Black Hawk Down" was written or the movie was made, I told the story in Newsweek, in this column, in my book "Hazardous Duty" and during scores of media interviews. Crushed over the needless casualties, I felt the least I could do was get out the word to prevent future such tragedies.

But today, as we burrow deeper into Afghanistan, the still-unlearned lessons of Vietnam and Somalia are blowing in the winds of that bloody land. For sure, we're already wearing out our welcome with the wild and wooly AK-47-toting locals. And as in Somalia, the longer we stay, the longer the casualty list.

An Army major tells me: "Chapman was ambushed by a terrorist hit squad. Word is Al-Qaida paid off one of the tribal leaders who met with the soldier and got him after he left the meeting. These cats will cut our throats as fast as they'll cut each other's when cash or power are concerned. We can only trust them when we have a gun covering them."

We can't expect Hollywood or a press corps and a Congress composed mainly of non-veterans without much feeling for the profession of arms to either be the keepers of the truth or sound the alarm. Perhaps our only hope is that the vets of wars past will rise up and say: "Stop mission creep in Afghanistan. We've been there too many times before. No more unnecessary white crosses and stars. Punch 'em hard and get out while the getting's good." is the address of David Hackworth's home page.
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(c) 2002 David H. Hackworth
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.