DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
17 Feb. 98

STANDING TALL: OUT OF FASHION?

With Iraq, the military solution ain't the solution.

"It just won't work!" is what I've been told a thousand times in the last week. The messengers have been corporals and colonels, grunts and generals. They've whispered it over the phone and barraged me with email.

These good folks are as serious as cancer, but they must remain anonymous. To go public is a career killer.

Things have changed since Valley Forge. Back then, in my distant grandfather's time -- he served with the Bedford, Virginia, Militia -- he wouldn't have had a problem telling General Washington he was about to make a mistake.

"Hey, George, you're going to charge the wrong hill. It's that one over thar. Follow me."

Back then outspokenness was viewed as the American way, not as an act of insubordination.

Our armed forces have changed since 1776, when they were made up of citizens who regarded serving in the forces as a painful duty, not a job. Until after the Vietnam War, citizen soldiers were the main combatants in times of major wars.

These draftee armies wanted to kick the enemy's butt and get home. They didn't care much about military protocol, nor were they into the Prussian heel clicking which has slowly infected our military since the end of WWII.

A change has occurred among the senior leaders too. Few with stars sound off like George Patton or Lewis "Chesty" Puller did in their heyday. Today, most generals and admirals salute and go-along-to-get-along.

This careerism sickness starts among the eager beavers somewhere between the ranks of major and brigadier general. Once it hits, these leaders deep-six their integrity and willingness to stand tall. Maybe the brightness of their stars dulls their brains and makes them forget their oath of office: To defend America, not their careers.

The last leader who stood tall against a no-win war was Army General Mathew Ridgway. He told Ike in 1954 that if we tried to bail the French out of the mess they were in Indochina, we'd find ourselves sinking into the swamp right next to them.

Ike agreed, but this act ended Ridgway's brilliant career. The normal SOP second term as chief of staff didn't happen. He had upset the Washington-based Military Industrial Congressional Complex by stopping their next profitable war.

Ten years later, a new generation of senior brass remembered what happened to Ridgway -- perhaps the finest warrior-thinker-leader the U.S. Army has had since John Pershing -- and eagerly signed off on Indochina II. None had the guts to forego career for principle.

We know the results of the Vietnam War -- 400,000 Purple Hearts and our nation torn asunder.

Just one Matt Ridgway could have stopped that bloodbath.

The biggest bitch I get today from the troops -- too many leaders from the rank of major/lieutenant commander on up are into serving themselves, not their troops. Most -- not all -- are only concerned with moving upward and they don't give a damn who they walk over to get to the top.

A recent Army study said almost 60 percent of those interviewed didn't trust their leaders. I suspect the Navy and the Air Force would come out even worse. Only the Marine Corps would get a passing grade, and now I hear careerism's infecting the leathernecks too.

One of my heroes, former Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson, knew from the start the Vietnam War was bad. He drove to the White House, sat outside in his staff car and took off his four stars to hand them to LBJ. Then he thought, if I quit, this act alone won't stop the madness.

He stayed on. But so did the madness.

And until the day he died he regretted his decision.

Not one general or admiral sounded off about the insanity of the Vietnam War. Today there are hundreds of guilt-ridden old generals and admirals from that era that don't like what they see in the mirror.

In 20 years, will there be another generation of retired senior officers who will hurt all the way to their graves because they didn't stand tall and tell the president that he's about to do something LBJ-stupid in Iraq?

The end