David H. Hackworth
March 15, 1994
SOLDIERS LEARN BY DOING
Last August, three mines exploded on the dusty roads of Mogadishu killing four U.S. Army soldiers, wounding six and destroying three vehicles. These explosions triggered Bill Clinton's unleashing US Green Berets and Rangers to hound down Somali clan leader Mohamed Farah Aidid.
In 1983, when a terrorist-delivered bomb burst into a USMC billet in Beirut, it not only killed 244 warriors -- it forced Ronald Reagan to pull U.S. forces out of Lebanon.
Mining incidents against U.S. advisors in the early stages of Vietnam caused LBJ to crank up US military response first with bombs and then ground troops, a commitment which ultimately grew to 550,000. During the long war that followed, almost sixty percent of U.S. casualties -- 240,000 soldiers -- came from mines and boobytraps. Deadly devices littered the jungle trails, rice paddy dikes, base areas and lines of communications -- many made out of discarded C-rations cans and dud U.S. explosives.
One battalion in which I served had over 600 soldiers blown apart by mines during a six month period. The sky would be blue, the jungle a lush green and then "Bang". "Medic," "Medic," and before the dark smoke had blown away, a brave "doc" would rush through more mines to tend to the fallen.
Mines tore off legs and arms, blew out eyes and terribly disfigured their victims for life. They didn't always kill, like a slug between the eyes, but they were always physical and psychological disablers.
The effect mines had on fighting spirit was devastating. Mines clobber morale because they are unseen, and there's no way to fight back. They frustrate warriors. The greatest shame in the US Army's history was the massacre at My Lai where Vietnamese civilians were murdered by American soldiers, who, after weeks of seeing friends blown away by mines and boobytraps, went mad.
More than anything else, casualties from mines, as was the case with Lebanon, literally blew our forces out of Vietnam. It just took more time and more mines.
I believe many cases of Post Vietnam Stress Syndrome are a result of the carpets of mines our soldiers were forced to wade through. Try living for 365 days under the stress of not knowing, every time you take a step, if you're going to lose a foot, a leg or a life.
Because they're cheap to buy, easy to make and nightmarishly effective, mines are mainly the weapons of poor, have-not armies. They're the weapons of choice of terrorists and guerrillas from Angola to Belfast to Zambia.
12 million mines were used in Afghanistan, 20 million in Angola, and 60,000 mines are laid a week in the Balkans. The United Nations estimates that today there are at least 105 million mines spread across 62 nations -- "One mine in the ground for every 50 people on earth."
At the height of the Vietnam War, when mines ripped off hundreds of legs per week, a trainee enroute to Vietnam got only 8 hours instruction on mines. Today, in spite of the current wholesale use of mines, the horror of the Vietnam and Somalia experience, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps still don't stress mine training. Nor do they have a firecracker-like training device for maneuvers to replicate what our soldiers can expect on future killing fields -- a simple, cheap gadget that explodes and splatters the "casualty" with red dye to make the point. The subject is simply ignored by the brass. Perhaps it takes too much imagination to weave mine training into exercises or perhaps, like chemical warfare, it's too dull and doesn't have the glamour of tanks thundering in the attack.
A bright serving infantry major said, "You're right. We're guilty. We have too many other training hoops to jump through to spare time for mines." A major general said, "It's a subject we've badly neglected."
Former Vietnam Ranger and disabled vet, Bud Bresciani says, "The brains of the brass must be scrambled." Scrambled or not, it's time our generals examined the past so our warriors won't go through that hell in the future. Soldiers learn by doing and they'll do on the next battlefield exactly what they did in training.