BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
25 April 2000
CALLING GENERAL EMERSON
Twenty-five years ago, Saigon fell. South Vietnam changed management
from pseudo-democratic corruption to full-on communist corruption,
and finally ... finally our nation began the slow healing process
from a war that shook it to its core.
As an institution, the U.S. Army came out of the war seriously wounded and shell shocked. Its senior leadership was under attack by its own: the junior officers who had fought, led and bled in Vietnam.
These officers felt used, and they charged that the brass had blown the war by not standing tall and telling the politicians the truth -- that the war was not winnable because of the way it was fought. Many said the men they'd led had been betrayed and that their dead brothers had died in vain.
Most vocal among the angry officers were the students at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., those attending the Army's Command and General Staff College. A thousand strong, mainly captains and majors, average age 30, they were the Army's best and brightest, the future generals, the real studs.
In the early 1970s, at the home of the staff college, there was open defiance. At conferences, the students -- many with two or three combat tours in Vietnam -- verbally attacked senior officers by calling them "ticket punchers." They blamed them for not employing the right tactics and strategy and for the insanity of the "body count" that was destroying the honor and the very soul of the Army.
These Young Turks accused the senior Army officers of putting their individual careers over their duty and their oath to country. The students charged that self-serving careerism had oozed down from the top of the Army and was infecting the complete institution. They demanded change.
The Army leadership ordered a blue-ribbon study group composed of its most talented officers to come up with solutions to the problems cited by the Leavenworth students and also by students at the prestigious Army War College, who'd said pretty much the same thing, although far more diplomatically.
Headed up by "The Gunfighter," Gen. Hank Emerson, one of the Army's most savvy young stars, the study group concluded that the students were right on target: The central problem was bad senior leadership. The Army implemented most of the study's recommendations, and the Army slowly got well.
The proof of the pudding, you ask? Try Desert Storm. The Leavenworth students back in the '70s were the Gary Lucks and Barry McCaffreys who were the generals that commanded the corps and the divisions that kicked Saddam's butt, cinching a magnificent victory in 100 hours.
Now, long after the Lucks and McCaffreys have retired, 760 students at Leavenworth are again on the warpath. In a survey recently requested by the Army chief of staff, they toasted the senior Army brass for bad conduct, saying the careerism that brought down the Army in Vietnam is back as ugly as ever and that they want "a clean sweep of the leadership." They say their generals are selfish egoists only interested in their next promotion and in denial concerning the Army's many problems.
Like the '70s-era dissenters, they're unsparing of the current crop of generals -- whom they're now on record as not trusting. They've accused the brass of being disloyal, lying, micromanagering and "throwing subordinates under the bus to protect or advance their career."
The survey underscores that the generals are totally ignoring the leadership principles they learned as young lieutenants. Nor are they in touch with the folks at the bottom.
"Our senior leaders are incapable of listening because the system has told them how good they are so many times that they really believe they are some kind of special animal. They need to wake up to their shortcomings and allow the rest of the Army to contribute."
For more than five years, many of these officers -- and battalions of their soldiers -- have given me this same message. I've passed it on unvarnished, eyeball-to-eyeball to more than 60 Army active-duty generals -- and to you.
I hope there's at least one Gen. Emerson still in the saddle with the guts to tell the Army chief of staff -- who did have the wisdom to appoint another study group -- that these young heroes have got it as right as their fathers' generation did.