23 July 1997
KOREA: ARE WE READY FOR WAR?
Last week for almost thirty minutes, North Korean rifle, machine gun and artillery fire cracked across the Demilitarized Zone's Central Front, near my old 27th Raider's patrolling grounds. Per the standard drill, Southern troops responded in kind in the longest running on again, off again standoff in modern times.
Were these the first shots of the nightmare war predicted last April by high-ranking North Korean defector Hwang Jang Yop or just another shoot out of the sort that's been going on since the 1953 cease fire that never really happened?
South Korea has 815,000 combat soldiers on high alert along the DMZ, while North Korea has 1,054,000 soldiers leaning forward in their foxholes awaiting the banzai order. In the middle of this potential killing field, where everyone has their finger on the trigger, sit 37,000 very vulnerable U. S. air, ground and naval personnel.
The 2d Infantry Division is the main U.S. ground force, and they're forward deployed, well within communist artillery range. But if war comes, will these two brigades be ready to fight? Here's what members of the "Indianhead Division" have told me in the last few days:
A platoon leader: "It's amazing. We're no farther away from war than the time of flight of an incoming round. In 35 seconds, we could be facing instant death, yet we struggle to get parts for our vehicles.
When Vice President Gore visited, we towed our deadlined vehicles out of the motor pool to display a false front of neatly maintained, precisely lined up tanks and vehicles that were supposedly ready to fight."
A company commander: "We lack the ammunition to train, and yet we jump through hoops to show visiting VIPS like Newt Gingrich how combat-ready we are by laying on costly live-fire demonstrations. During these dog and pony shows, critical ammunition is wasted that's needed to train and instill confidence in our soldiers who face an unpredictable, totally irrational enemy. When will our leaders realize 'Go is more important than Show?'"
An Infantry platoon sergeant: "I'm lucky to have half my soldiers out for training. The rest are either sick or lame or off on some detail such as policing the post, or being a jock. The turnover is a joke. Every time I learn someone's name, they're gone. My platoon has turned over more than once in the ten months I've been here. How can I build a fighting team or mold a cohesive unit?
A First Sergeant: "This place (Camp Casey) is morale, welfare, and recreation Heaven and it's all an opiate for the troops. It's got a Burger King, Popeye's, Robin Hood Sandwiches, Anthony's Pizza, Baskin Robbins Ice Cream, Amigos TexMex, a bowling alley, huge swimming pool, softball diamonds, video rental stores, shoppettes, a PX, commissary, library, theater, book store, golf course, three all-ranks clubs, and a partridge and a pear.
Yet, the camp's been within artillery range of the DMZ for 45 years, and there's still no bunkers except the drainage ditches. If the bad guys attack, we're all either instant cinders, mincemeat or biologically contaminated corpses.
I have raised this survivability problem with the brass. They reply 'We don't want to show the North that we're on too much of a war footing. It might provoke them.' Doesn't anyone with eagles and stars care for their troops' welfare anymore?"
A staff captain: "I wonder how much these guys will appreciate all these goodies (at Camp Casey) when the shells are raining down, and there's no place to duck."
A staff major: "We've got an (infantry) air assault battalion sitting directly across the DMZ in the middle of one of the enemy's main avenues of approach. When the balloon goes up, they won't even make it out of their barracks, let alone to their choppers. They'll be like grapes between the toes of a French wine maker."
A commander: "We are short key leaders. As soon as a captain leaves his company, he's off to a higher priority assignment. Duty in a troop unit is no longer high priority."
In 1950, the 2d Division, along with the rest of the U. S Army, wasn't ready for the North Koreans, and they paid a heavy human price. Will history repeat itself?