DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
26 September 2000

WAR-FIGHTERS OR WAITERS?

Hang on for breaking news: An Army report has concluded that American paratroopers are overly aggressive.

Tell this to former enemy soldiers from Germany, Japan, North Korea, North Vietnam and Iraq. They'll say "old news" and show you their scars.

Having led paratroopers in combat, I can assure you the baddest and most aggressive warriors that ever slogged through the Valley of Death are soldiers who drop from the sky.

Famed paratroop leader James Gavin said if a man will jump out of an airplane, he'll fight.

And fight they will. The renowned paratrooper aggressiveness is a combination of the nature of the beast, unit spirit and a lot of hard training.

Now this same trait has gotten one of the proudest parachute units in our Army -- the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment -- in a world of pain because members of that outfit "beat and manhandled" ethnic Albanians while in Kosovo.

Of course, what's not reported is that these warriors from the outfit the Germans called "the devils in baggy pants" were shot at, booby-trapped, grenaded, stoned and manhandled by the ethnic Albanians before our troopers finally did an eye-for-an-eye on their attackers.

Nor does the average American know that a few months before the 504th deployed to Kosovo as peacekeepers, they'd been preparing to assault into that foul swamp to get up close and nasty with the Serbian army. Along with the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division, the 504th trained for that mission following the time-honored axiom of American paratroopers: "Take no quarter. Give no quarter!"

As luck would have it, instead of fighting their way into Kosovo, they were sent over there -- with almost no special training -- as warm-and-fuzzy peacekeepers. But just because there was a change in mission, their warrior ethic and fighting skills didn't suddenly get left behind at Fort Bragg, N.C.

And this underscores the problem the U.S. military has these days as its forces RoboCop their way around the globe: how to switch fighters into peacekeepers overnight. How to go from kill-or-be-killed to directing traffic in snake pits like Bosnia and Kosovo and doing Meals On Wheels around the rest of the world.

Warrior training is ingrained; it's like a correct parachute-landing fall. You hit the ground on the right points of contact without thinking. You operate on total automatic. You must in order to avoid the bone doctor or a body bag.

How many World War II and Korean vets still take cover when a car backfires? How many Vietnam vets automatically scan for tripwires and mines when hiking in the woods?

You can't make a Rottweiler into a golden retriever in two or three lessons. Nor can a few weeks of peace training convert battle-prepared warriors into cherubic choirboys.

There just isn't enough time in the annual training cycle to have it both ways. In fact, there's barely enough time to turn untested soldiers into combat warriors.

When the 504th Parachute Regiment deployed to the Gulf in August of 1990 as the tip of the spear that was eventually stuck into Saddam Hussein's vaunted Republican Guard, it was nowhere near good-to-go when it hit the ground in Saudi. It took five months of tough desert training to get up for the lethal game.

Here was a unit that in 1989 had 365 days to get it together for war at Fort Bragg, yet it still wasn't ready when the whistle blew. In 2000, there's even less time for combat training because of the President Clinton-mandated and Gen. Hugh Shelton-approved sensitivity and Consideration of Others training.

When the Canadian Airborne Regiment ran into 504th-type troubles in Somalia, its government resolved the issue by deactivating one of the finest units in the Canadian Armed Forces.

That shouldn't happen here, even though Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, who commanded the division when these incidents occurred, certainly won't take the heat for his boys or resign in the now totally politically correct Army. But he should at least tell the yo-yos running the Pentagon that race horses shouldn't pull plows and war-fighters can't be Brownies.

I'll bet my old jump boots that if General Gavin still commanded the 82nd, he'd tell the Pentagon where to put its investigation that will further reduce the seriously endangered warrior ethic. Or -- for sure -- he would've walked.