DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
October 25, 1994

WHERE ARE THE SENIOR LEADERS WHO CARE?

On August 21st, I waited on a hill overlooking Port-au-Prince. From this vantage point, I'd be able to see the men from the 82nd Airborne Division drop from the sky to secure Haiti's main airport.

As an old sky soldier, I knew how the "troopers" must be feeling as they sat, cramped on their inbound aircraft, guts churning, adrenaline pumping, following the daring tradition of those who jumped in combat before them in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama.

There are few battle rites warriors go through like jumping into enemy territory. It's a wild adventure executed by a special band of men, offset with the pride of later wearing a bronze "combat jump" star on their silver wings.

The night was a beauty: tropical warm, a sky full of stars and a big silvery moon. It was so bright I was able to pass the time reading unaided and wondering about the full moon, which should have had alarm bells ringing from the platoon leaders who lead those of dying age to the Pentagon Chief who runs the whole lash-up.

A rule as old as the parachute is: thou shalt not make a combat jump under a full moon. The risk is too high.

I wasn't concerned the Haitian Army would fight. I did worry, though, about what the fanatics -- the thousands of paramilitaries known as Attaches, many of whom had sworn to stop the invasion at any cost -- could do to our warriors with automatic weapons.

A paratrooper, the finest fighter in the world once on the ground, is vulnerable while descending under a full moon, not unlike a deer caught in a hunter's spotlight. A few hundred crazies could butcher scores of our men before they hit the ground.

My fear was that many of the jumpers would be targets in a floodlighted shooting gallery. Certainly, their commanders shared my concern. They make their decisions about how battles will be fought using the age-old formula: weather, terrain and enemy.

The President -- the commander in chief -- said the invasion would occur on that Sunday night. Had he waited beyond this date, there could not have been a military solution to his Haitian problem. Congress was reconvening on Monday, and the mood there was to stop the invasion.

Had Jimmy Carter not stepped in and done his peace dance, the aircraft would not have turned around, and our airborne warriors would have jumped under the worst possible conditions.

My complaint is that no one stood up to a president who lacks the military experience to know the danger his forces faced, and said, "Mr. President, political factors should not override tactical considerations when our soldiers' lives are at risk. We must move the jump forward one week or cancel it."

Just as in Vietnam and Somalia, not one general in the U.S. military sounded off about bad tactics. Chairman John Shalikashvili went-along-to-get-along, as did all the rest of the brass, down to the humble platoon leaders. All were into see-no-evil, some motivated by politics, some by glory -- since, of course, the U.S. Army would strut their stuff on a televised world stage and one-up the Marine Corps.

The leadership remained as quiet as the tombstones that would have marked the graves of those who would have died, because no one had the courage to speak the truth.

Back in World War II, senior commanders were a different breed. They'd have fought this bad decision, and if they couldn't have turned it around, resigned before they would have allowed their "troopers" to be dropped on a lighted killing field.

Why does the U.S. military no longer promote to the highest ranks officers who put their soldiers ahead of their careers and the tired game of interservice rivalry? This has been the sad pattern since the end of WWII, and explains the disasters and all the wasted young men from Vietnam to Grenada to Somalia.

The senior ranks promotion system doesn't work. Moral courage is no longer a requisite in today's armed forces. Until it is, men will be chopped up on Hamburger Hills or slaughtered in Mogadishu slums because chicanery will win over soldiers' welfare every time.