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Military staffers are busier than PX cashiers on payday evaluating the lessons learned from the recent fireworks in Iraq. And that process is important. The stakes are too high not to get this long-term fight with terrorists dead right.

A case will soon be made for smart hardware and weapons to at least partially replace the current level of active-duty soldiers. While the right smart stuff is, of course, the way to go, if Cold War submarines and fighters such as the F-22 aren’t culled from the weapons cache, it might well be goodbye ground troopers and the continuation of contracts for too many obsolete, gold-plated war toys. And it will be happy days for the war merchants, their always-available-at-the-right-price porker pals and the bean counters, who are more into systems than warriors.

Hopefully, our system of checks and balances will kick in, and Congress will ask if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are correct models to use for drastic changes to our force structure before Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his civilian slashers seriously weaken the time-tested force that defends our country.

Let’s face it: Not only were both ragtag enemy armies incapable of really fighting back, vast money transfers also convinced many Afghani and Iraqi senior commanders to cut and run. And with Iraq, it wasn’t just a 30-day bombing campaign that prepared the field. So many missions – more than half a million – were flown over that country in the decade before we pre-empted Saddam Hussein from doing whatever he planned to do with his infamous inventory of yet-to-be-found doomsday weapons, it was a surprise to some that there were any targets left to “shock and awe.”

But, as always after major operations, there are scores of basic lessons that must not be ignored, no matter what surgery the Pentagon bureaucrats and dilettante reformers ultimately perform. And one critically important lesson that has nagged at me for years is the inability of our Joes and Jills who bring up the rear to fight as infantry.

Since George Washington, all U.S. Army soldiers have always been trained first as riflemen. That skill has kept a lot of people in the rear with the gear alive and won a lot of fights, from our War of Independence to Korea – where “Scooter” Burke led his unit’s cooks in a counterattack that saved his company – to Vietnam – where Hank “The Gunfighter” Emerson dispatched his battalion’s clerks and mechanics to save a company of besieged paratroopers.

In Iraq this time around, there were no neat front lines. The guerrilla enemy was everywhere – ambushing convoys and striking hard at our Army’s soft underbelly. And many of these attacks proved the fallacy of one of the U.S. Army’s frequently touted maxims: “We fight as we train.”

Too large a number of Army rear-echelon folks failed the course when put to the test because they weren’t trained to fight as grunts in Initial Training or when they joined their regular units. In many noncombat units today, this kind of live-or-die training gets brushed off by leaders who say: Who needs this grunt stuff – we’re ordnance, maintenance or transportation. Even during large training exercises, these vital survival skills are too often given only lip service.

No question the 507th Maintenance Company could’ve used the “more sweat on the training field, less blood on the battlefield” infantry training on that shameful day when its nine-vehicle convoy of ordnance troops took a wrong turn and bumped into a small enemy force in two pick-up trucks. Gun for gun, the 507th outnumbered the Fedayeen, but still got clobbered to the tune of nine dead and five prisoners of war. Few 507th soldiers fired back because their weapons were clogged with dust. Hello? A soldier’s weapon on a battlefield clogged with dust?! And those who weren’t killed or captured straightaway ran liked scared jack rabbits – led, sadly, by their fleet-footed captain.

Congress is presently investigating this sorry display of cowardice and incompetence. Let’s hope it has the smarts to conclude that the Army must return to the standard where every soldier truly is a rifleman first.

The Marines still follow this rule, and when their support units in Iraq bumped into stay-behind fanatics, they did what Marines have been doing well since 1775: killed the suckers and moved on.

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