DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
April 9,1996

TALKING THE TALK WITHOUT WALKING THE WALK

Fifty years ago, during bayonet training, my squad leader got too close and ended up with the blunt end of an M-1 rifle in his chops.

Blood and teeth fragments splattered everywhere. I knew I hadn't endeared myself with my sergeant, but when Col. Ball, the regimental skipper, rushed up, I thought, "Here comes KP for life."

"Great training," he thundered, slapping me on the back and grinning like he'd just won the lottery.

The colonel wasn't a sadist. He had fought his unit up the rugged Italian spine to northern Italy, where he was now putting us green re placements through his hard-learned battle drill, and he knew the importance of realistic training.

Col. Ball displayed a leadership trait I seldom see in the modern U.S. Army: being there. He was always with the troops. He walked the line to see if our holes were deep and if we were alert. He stood behind the chow line to make sure the cooks gave us our share. He inspected our tents to make sure we were warm and clean, and he hiked alongside us with a full combat pack as we sweated through his 'blue devil" speed marches.

Today, I seldom see high brass -colonels and generals - staying out in the field with their warriors. Too frequently, a chopper lands, a starched, sharp-looking figure appears and streaks through the ranks, shaking hands and patting backs, then flashes off in his flying machine.

In Somalia I hung out with a rifle company for two weeks, and not one senior visitor stayed with the unit for more than 15 minutes. No one stuck around to find out what the grunts' gripes were or to notice that they didn't have decent drinking water and were being forced to wear their full kit in 110 degree heat. They zipped in and out.

In Bosnia I stayed with a rifle company for a week. Again, choppers landed and visiting firemen rushed around doing their presence thing. But no one stayed long enough to find out there were no showers, the tents were infested with rats, the chow was lousy and mail and newspapers were AWOL.

In Vietnam, this kind of leadership was called "the squad leader in the sky syndrome." It played a major part in our getting our butts kicked. Few brass hats got down on the ground and learned the nature of the war.

In Bosnia I watched 5,000 soldiers stand in freezing conditions at the Tuzla airport for hours, waiting for Bill Clinton. A caring general would have dismissed them when it was determined Clinton would be hours late because of bad weather.

A good leader would have met the president and said, "It was just too damn cold to keep my people out here. I've got six kids around the stove in my quarters - let's go talk to them there."

Once, in the States, I stood with a general as a unit returned from a 25-mile march. He hadn't hiked with the outfit as Col. Ball had. He just stood at the side of the road looking grand and playing cheerleader.

After the outfit passed by, I pointed out there were an unusual number of stragglers. The general was embarrassed and said, "I've got to shape this outfit up."

I said, "It's not the soldiers' fault." He gave me a blank stare. I said, "Look at every straggler's feet. They're all wearing jungle boots. Not one soldier with proper hiking boots has fallen out."

Had he hiked with the troops, he would have realized that the jungle boot was not made for speed marches.

Today's top brass talk a lot about how they care for the troops and want to look after them, but I think for too many this is just mouth over deed.

Technology is partially to blame for this breakdown in traditional leadership. The brass today have evolved a management style that's placed helicopters and laptop computers between them and their troops.

A principle of leadership is: Know your troops. Our Army's top brass should apply it. They would find we have one hell of an Army, which would benefit from some old-fashioned attention.