Defending America
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
22 February 2000

MR. COHEN: BEAT FEET IN RETREAT

The Pentagon frequently has trouble knowing when to retreat. It has a record of defending the indefensible, whether a flawed weapon system, a wrongheaded personnel policy or a no-win war.

Now the Pentagon's engaged in another lose-lose situation: forcing members of our armed forces to roll up their sleeves and submit to a series of untested anthrax shots, supposedly to protect them from a lethal biological agent that a squad of evil empires might spray in their faces somewhere down the track.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who runs that hyperbureaucratic, hardheaded institution, says, "The anthrax threat is real, and we are carrying out a prudent, safe program to counter the dangers."

The troops who get the needle don't agree with Cohen. And neither does a House subcommittee that rocketed the Pentagon last week, telling the out-of-touch-with-the-troops, luxury-loving Cohen to drop the anthrax requirement. The congressional panel concluded the program is neither prudent nor safe.

Cohen -- reacting like Robert McNamara did when told by the Neil Sheehans, Daniel Ellsbergs and John Paul Vanns that Vietnam could never be won the way he was fighting the war -- flat rejected the panel's report.

So the anthrax battle rages on.

As in most wars, the first to fall are the grunts -- and the casualties increase daily. Hundreds of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen -- America's defenders -- are already stuck in a career-destroying minefield for refusing to take the vaccine, and thousands of active-duty and reserve warriors have hung up their suits prematurely as well.

Recruiting sergeants say that potential enlistees hear the anti-anthrax drumbeat and are also giving the services a miss, which certainly doesn't help the recruiting shortfall that's hit all ranks less the Marine Corps. Which means still more empty squads, empty cockpits and short-handed ship crews.

The major concern of the troops is safety. Many believe Cohen and his needle-pushers are off-base on their call, and as during the Vietnam War, few at the bottom have much trust for those at the top. With good reason.

Grunts -- past, present and future -- have plenty of precedents to make them wary of Pentagon promises:

* During the nuclear tests following World War II, infantry regiments were ordered to squat near the A-bomb fireballs and then forced-marched through ground zero while the dirt was still hot. Air and naval crews were similarly used as guinea pigs. Many have died, and many became horribly ill from clearly related causes as the Pentagon ducked and refused to acknowledge the connection.

* Two and a half million Vietnam vets may have been exposed to Agent Orange. Despite thousands of dead and sick veterans, the Pentagon once again refused to admit culpability until the weight of evidence was so strong it finally had to fess up.

* At least 100,000 Gulf vets have died or been floored by an undetermined illness since the war with Iraq ended. Yet the Pentagon still refuses to accept any responsibility and stubbornly insists there's no link with the radiated munitions used there or the untested inoculations our soldiers were ordered to take.

Of all the factors that produce victory, spirit is supreme. But until trust is re-established, the anthrax follies will continue to gnaw away at the fighting spirit of our defenders.

Congress will soon vote on this issue. Surely, if anyone should be protected from anthrax, it ought to be our illustrious lawmakers. It's not that big a stretch to imagine terrorists running through the halls of Congress (or its members' favorite watering holes) spraying anthrax from aerosol cans.

It seems only right that they roll up their sleeves and get the same protection being laid on our troops before they vote on this issue. Of course, being who they are, they should receive preferential treatment and go to the front of the line.

Until they do, the program for the troops should be put on hold. There's no rush unless the Pentagon isn't telling the citizens and the soldiers of this great country the real extent of the threat.

The defense secretary should read Sun Tzu: "Without harmony in the army, no battle array can be formed." Mr. Cohen, anthrax has done a number on the morale of America's army.

Sun Tzu also wrote that the wise general knows when to retreat.
***