IT ONLY TAKES THE RIGHT LEADER

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

In 1950, the U.S. military was kind of like Gary Cooper in "High Noon": surrounded by bad guys, outgunned and not at all up for a shootout. The Soviet Union was making ugly noises all along the Iron Curtain; Yugoslavia's Tito was threatening to take Trieste; Red China scarfed up Tibet. Then North Korea slashed south with a powerful army, smashing everything that stood in its way.

Our armed forces were at less than quarter strength of what they'd been just four years before, when we took out Hitler and Tojo. From Harry Truman down, leadership had bought into a weak secretary of defense's unproved notion that A-bombs, naval and air power could prevail. But the wonder weapons failed. And by the end of that year, our forces in Korea had suffered the worst defeat in U.S. history.

Then a miracle happened. In December, the commander in Korea, Walton Walker, was killed. He was replaced by an extraordinary leader -- Matthew Ridgway -- who took a beaten, dispirited Army and gave it a steel spine and two iron fists. In 30 days, he turned defeat into victory.

Fifty-one years later, our forces are similarly depressed and depleted, and we live in an even more dangerous world.

Just check out the news you usually don't get on the tube:

* The Middle East is about to explode with unparalleled violence.
* Iraq is menacing all points on the Gulf/Middle East compass.
* Red China promises Taiwan will go the way of Tibet.
* Ex-Yugoslavia continues to suck our forces deeper into a no-win, ever-expanding quagmire -- pretty much the same scene that's going down with Colombia and its neighbors.
* Terrorism and attacks using chemical and biological weapons are no longer an "if," but a "when."
* Information warfare hacker hits, capable of shutting down America's latest Industrial Revolution and sending the dot-commers back to making coffee at Starbucks, have become daily events.

Of course, the world has always been a perilous place, and there have always been wars and "rumors of wars." Since our country was founded, for instance, we've seen our capital burned by British troops and our country savaged by a four-year-long Civil War. There were World Wars I, II and Korea, where we were caught with a rusty bayonet; Vietnam, with its eight years of pain; then finally our 100-hour triumph, the Gulf War.

What's new -- and what ratchets up the risk -- is that there are no more George Washingtons, U.S. Grants, John Pershings, George Marshalls, Matthew Ridgways, James Hollingsworths or Norman Schwarzkopfs in soldier suits. I can't name a single serving Army, Navy or Air Force senior officer with even a fraction of the true-grit leadership of any of the above men. Our senior military leadership, less the Marine Corps, is bankrupt, kaput, fini. There are no more steel-jawed watchdogs, only slick, sweet-smelling lapdogs.

Our current crop of star-wearers are mostly corporate CEO types, Perfumed Princes who got to the top by a sick system that's become increasingly entrenched since the Korean War. Too many are mirror images of Gen. Wesley Clark, who strutted his stuff during the recent Serbian disaster. Clark's now keeping busy blaming that pathetic showing on his former pals in the Pentagon, conveniently forgetting that as the commander in chief of the NATO forces, he had the option of resigning if not allowed to run his war his way.

The Perfumed Princes are on a new campaign -- carpet-bombing SecDef Donald Rumsfeld. They fear that his military revolution designed to prepare our armed forces for the threats ahead might ruin their sweet deal. But the Pentagon's never had anyone in charge as smart and as tough as Rumsfeld. If anyone can take on the top brass and blow them away, it's The Donald.

Soon he'll pick the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I hope his choice isn't a space-cadet whiz kid or a Russia expert, but a leader cut of the same cloth as our military giants of the past.

A George Marshall or Matthew Ridgway could turn our very sick military around before you can say: OUR KINDER, GENTLER MILITARY WILL LOSE THE NEXT WAR.

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Http://www.hackworth.com is the address of David Hackworth's home page. Sign in for the free weekly Defending America column at his Web site. Send mail to P.O. Box 5210, Greenwich, CT 06831.

(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.