DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
Feb. 13,1996

ARE THE RISKTAKERS BEING BRED OUT?

Back in the old brown-shoe Army, it was no big deal if a young leader failed. Because the top kicks and colonels knew that was how the young bucks learned, they encouraged their charges to go out and roll the dice and take chances.

They knew that to do it right, these greenhorns had to do it wrong - to fall off their horses, bleed, grow scabs, limp, heal, get back on their ponies, fall off and go through the entire process yet again.

Finally, after enough falls, the new guys would learn how to stick to that sucker and ride off into the sunlight.

It was called 'freedom to fail," and it was the best way to learn.

Freedom to fail produced a bunch of great leaders stretching from the Civil War right up past the Korean War. Grant, Pershing, Patton, Halsey, LeMay and Abrams struck out more than a time or two before they commanded great armies and fleets.

They, on occasion, had a beer too many, ran their ship on a reef, crashed an airplane or automobile and stood up and shot their mouths off when they should have sat down and bitten their tongues.

But their leaders looked the other way, didn't write up their trespasses and let them grow and become wise.

After the Korean War things changed. Managers like William Westmoreland started replacing warriors like Matt Ridgway, and management came to be more important than leadership. Harvard became more important than Fort Benning, and computer analysis, more important than common sense.

By the time the Vietnam War exploded, the corporate managers were in charge. They had cloned themselves and placed a majority of their own in charge of the fighting units.

These politically correct perfumed princes were clever paper shufflers and chart makers, but lousy war fighters, and they lost the first war in America's history.

These newfangled careerists, always clever with words, have been able to use their inbred ability to pass the buck to blame everyone else but themselves for Vietnam.

"We won all the battles," they continue to rationalize, "'but we lost the war because of the presidents and other politicians, the press and the people."

Besides being swift liars, most of these sleazebags knew very little about the training and development of young leaders. So under their post-Vietnam management calculus, the guidance became 'One strike and you're out."

And this became the standard.

Since 1990, because of the post-Cold War reduction in force, things have gotten worse. So far, three out of every 10 serving soldiers, sailors and airmen have received pink slips. Many of these victims of the draw-down were extraordinarily talented leaders.

This widely swinging reduction ax has created a climate of fear, uncertainty and apprehension in the ranks from corporal to colonel.

Virtually every leader in every service is now running scared. One dent on the fender and you're out on the street begging for a job selling advertising space with your hometown newspaper or racing the clock delivering pizzas.

In the military of 1996, there's no room for making an error or being second best. Failure means a bad mark on the efficiency report. And in today's military, the personnel managers are looking for the slightest flaw, the smallest defect to meet their downsizing quotas.

As a result, all the young warriors are walking a very fine line. No one wants to take a chance. No one wants to make a wave or even a ripple.

No one can afford to fail.

So the best thing to do is nothing. Don't grab the bull by the horns or you might get gored. Don't pick up the slack when the mission is falling or you might get zapped.

Now, any fool knows a military that avoids risks is a military full of losers. Boldness and initiative are what win wars and make things happen.

A generation from now, today's corporals and captains will be the command sergeant majors and generals, and they'll be running the show. If the risktakers have been totally bred out, perhaps we'll end up again with the type of losers in charge who lost the Vietnam War.