David H. Hackworth
Column 5


Of all our warriors, the infantrymen have the dirtiest, most. Dangerous jobs, which they do 24 hours a day under the nastiest conditions – meeting the enemy face to face and destroying him with his hands.

The infantrymen are the soldiers who take and hold ground in our wars; they're the "grunts" who hunker down and slug it out with the enemy. The only way they can get off the killing field is on stretchers or in body bags. All the rest of our trillion-dollar military machine –the Air Force and Navy and the folks in the rear with the beans and the bullets – exist to support them.

The shame of it is the infantrymen are forced to perform their grim duty with yesterday's junk. They went into World War II with gear and ammo that their fathers used in World War I. In 1950, in Korea, they fought the communists with the same machine guns and automatic rifles that their older brothers had used against Hitler and Tojo and their grandfathers had used three decades before against the Kaiser. In Vietnam, they were given the untested M-16 rifle, which was called a "jammer" by the troops because it failed more often than it fired. The rest, of their gear was basically tile same as their dads had at Normandy in 1944.

The Gulf War was more of the same. Our ground-pounders trudged through the sand with the gear their dads used in Vietnam 30 years before: jungle boots, their water drainage holes taped to keep out the sand; the modified M-I6 rifle, with a condom stretched from the end of the barrel to the bolt to keep out the grit; a very worn M-60 machine gun; and a gas mask issued when Ike was president.

The brass and politicians talk a lot about looking after the welfare of the infantrymen, but their promises seldom become part of the defense budget. I've been trying for years to figure out why. It never made sense to me that the guys out in the mud taking the biggest risks always faced the enemy with yesterday's rifle and a lot of other worn-out, garage sale specials.

Finally, I worked it out: the boot, rifle and uniform makers don't have the dough to fill congressional purses. Only the big outfits who make all the billion-dollar stuff, like General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas and United Technologies, can feed the lawmakers' hungry cash boxes with big bucks from Political Action Committees (PACs) -- and PAC dough is what keeps the politicos coming back to Washington term after term.

The 1994 budget calls for taxpayers to shell out $261 billion for defense, even though the United States doesn't have a serious foe. Even though all authorities say the Cold War is over, most of the defense money earmarked for hardware will go toward more Cold War toys: missiles, ships, bombers and submarines. Only a pittance will go to replace the worn-out tools our infantrymen will need the next time a war lord or renegade general decides to burn our flag or drag American soldiers' bodies through the streets.

Most lawmakers don't understand that our infantrymen's gear is Third World stuff. Few congressmen have seen combat, so few know the importance of equipping our guys down on the ground with the best fighting gear America can provide. Not many have kids in uniform. It won't be their sons who will take on an enemy tank with a weapon that couldn't knock out a pickup truck or try to stop an enemy charge with a worn- out machine gun.

In the next decades of New World Disorder, there will be many Bosnias, Haitis, Somalias and other nasty little ankle-biters -- places like Mogadishu, where the smart stuff failed and the grunts with their old gear again became the ultimate weapons. It's time this sorry tradition ended and the grunts be given the right stuff to win. Then they'll have a better chance to make it back alive.