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Suddenly, the big breaking headline shocker is that our line soldiers in Iraq have a major morale problem.

Except that anyone who’s plugged in knows that military morale is lower than today’s interest rates – and not just in the Iraqi desert, but pretty much right across the black-boot board.

“Why? Aren’t they all volunteers?” you ask. “Why don’t they just shut up and do what they signed up for?!!”

The answer’s a no-brainer: We’ve tasked half the force we had in 1991 with twice the missions. More than 500,000 GI Joes and Janes are deployed in 120 countries. And a chunk of rubber or a military force can only be stretched so far before it snaps. That’s what the troops are trying to tell us – that they’re getting to the breaking point.

While there’s no easy solution, a good beginning would be more leaders who know and love their troops enough to put their welfare ahead of their own stars and bars. Truth-tellers who are unafraid to lay their careers on the line and stand up to dumb, uninformed decisions such as SecDef Les Aspin’s refusing to send tanks requested by a field commander in Somalia or SecDef Donald Rumsfeld’s cutting the number of troops recommended by his generals for the invasion of Iraq.

Truth-tellers who stand tall and stick to their guns with any and all civilians, from the president on down, over what our forces are capable of doing, the probable consequences of jumping into places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and how running-sore commitments like these degrade their outfit’s ability to defend America from international terrorism.

Now, fortunately, John Abizaid, who’s just taken over Central Command from Tommy Franks, has had the guts to call the conflict in Iraq a “Guerrilla War,” over his boss Rumsfeld’s deep denial that it was any such thing. Then Abizaid leveled with his troops in Iraq and told them the ground truth – that their tour would be extended, to stop bitching to the press and to suck it up.

Eric Shinseki, the last four-star who dared to stand up to the SecDef, had his head handed to him after he predicted 200,000 peacekeepers would be needed in Iraq once the sand settled. But I’m betting Abizaid won’t be cowed by Rummy’s bully-boy routine. And it’s about time someone who knows the score stood tall for the troops and took Rummy to task.

Good military leaders like Abizaid are connected with their people. They know what’s going on in the trenches because they’ve been there, leading from the front.

Early in the Korean War, I frequently saw Matt Ridgway, my Army commander at the time, on the forward edge; and later in the war my division commander, Joe Cleland, was always up front, dodging incoming and talking to his soldiers.

But during five years in Vietnam, I witnessed only two generals who spent real time with the troops – San Antonio’s Jim Hollingsworth and now-deceased Willard Pierson. The rest buzzed around in their choppers, providing guidance from a safe distance and perhaps landing occasionally for five careful minutes to “set the example” and collect another medal for “heroism.”

And it’s gotten drastically worse since. In fact, the quality of the senior leadership in our military has been in a steady downward spiral since hands-on leaders like “Chesty” Puller, “Bulldog” Halsey and Matt Ridgway began to be replaced by bright, well-educated, me-first managers long on PowerPoint presentations but short at walking point. Self-serving, super-smooth MBA types looking to make their move from the Pentagon to plummy destinies with America’s major companies.

A manager who’s out of touch is no big deal on Civvy Street unless the company goes belly up. But on battlefields, soldiers die.

If I were in John Abizaid’s combat boots, my next order would be for every division commander to spend two solid 24-hour blocks every week with a company doing exactly what the troops do, and for every brigade commander to do the same with a platoon.

You better believe the top would be in touch with the bottom in a George Patton minute. And the present huge disconnect between the brass and the grunts would disappear as quickly as a foul smell in a strong wind.

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