Wanted: A Committee for the Protection of the Grunts
by David H. Hackworth

When the Afghan campaign was red-hot and bombs and missiles were exploding with deadly precision in every direction, all that gee-whiz smart weaponry the military-industrial-congressional complex has been pushing since the Vietnam War was front and center on the tube.

We saw $2 billion B-2 state-of-the-art long-range bombers stay in the air longer than an Irish wake, and saw unmanned aircraft armed with missiles bring death and destruction with the push of a long-distance button to targets as small as individual enemy soldiers on donkeys. Push another button and presto -- there was Gen. Tommy Franks from his Florida command center, courtesy of video conferencing.

No question that smart weapons and systems help win battles. But a critical component of war is still the grunt -- and his place in the metaphorical mud seriously sucks. Bush and boys need to begin with the basics and start doing better for our guys out there on the line.

Take the glimpses we caught of our Marines and Army soldiers digging foxholes in Afghanistan. Their entrenching tools were basically the same as that sorry shovel -- about the size of a child's beach toy -- the grunts used at Normandy and Iwo Jima and in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

Having dug more than a few foxholes, I know firsthand the pain and exhaustion of digging in. Which brings to mind a 1932 Fordson tractor I once owned -- and treasured -- that dug 10 good holes in an hour with its auger. One auger-outfitted Hummer vehicle could dig in a rifle platoon in an hour.

Then there's the CH-46 helicopter, a 40-year-old dinosaur held together by green duct tape, wire and Marine dedication. Not exactly the right stuff for the extreme dust and danger of Afghanistan. Why the Marines don't ground this accident-waiting-to-happen and borrow Blackhawks from non-deployed Army units is another one for the SecDef's list.

The grunt's M-16A2 rifle has also been around since Vietnam, where our troops uniformly damned it. Updated, with most of the bugs ironed out, this 5.56 mm fly swatter still rates only average in reliability, functioning and grunt confidence. Given a choice, most Special Forces soldiers would go with the upgraded World War II Soviet AK-47. A top SF warrior with whom I shared a foxhole in Desert Storm says, "We have no doubt that come hell or high water, the AK won't let us down." The standard issue Beretta pistol is worse than a Saturday night special, while the "new" machine gun -- not much of an improvement on the World War I model that I had in my weapons squad in Korea! -- has been in use since 1962.

The Marines have just issued a boot that every leatherneck I've talked to loves, but soldiers call the Army's "lousy." They say it's "too heavy," "soaks up water and takes hours to dry" and has "insoles made of flimsy pieces of material" that most grunts throw away and replace with a self-purchased civilian product. And the "soles chip, clog with mud, wear out quickly and don't absorb much shock," making them bad news during long hikes. No, these beauts aren't made by our enemies, but by Altama Footwear, which has got such a sweet deal with the brass that it's OK for soldiers to display the name tags as if they were Tommy H. The Army, which just spent $35 million on the equally hated black beret, claims it wants to replace this circa 1969 boot, but there's no dough.

The generals and congressional porkers prefer gold-plated stuff like the B-2 -- which flew only six missions over Afghanistan because it's not waterproof and needs more maintenance than Joan Collins -- to foxhole diggers, rifles, pistol, machine guns and boots. Smart weapons and smarter systems always get priority because porker power bucks are always part of the package. Grunt gear throws off only chump change.

The Senate has three surviving combat grunts. As a legacy, they should form a Committee for the Protection of the Grunts to make sure the folks who pay the high price on our behalf finally get better weapons and tools. There are committees for everything else: birds, trees, whales. Certainly, our Grunts -- and we've been burying a lot of these brave warriors lately -- are our most precious endangered species. Let's start treating them as such.

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(c) 2002 David H. Hackworth
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