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A fish stinks from the head first

Posted By David Hackworth On 05/18/2004 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Editor’s note: Eilhys England also contributed to this column.

When I was a buck private in Italy, five-star Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower visited my outfit. Of course, there was no television in those days, so there was no globally televised Bob Hope-type spectacle like last week’s Rumsfeld-Myers show-of-all-vaudeville-shows at Abu Ghraib prison. Instead, Ike walked through the ranks and talked to every soldier in my reconnaissance company.

He stopped in front of me – 15 years old and quaking – and asked: “How do you like the chow?”

“It stinks, Sir.”

“Why?” he asked.

“All we get is Spam.”

“Spam? Why?” he roared to his entourage.

A shaky voice replied that the depots were filled with Spam from World War II, and the supply people were getting rid of it.

“Stop it,” he snapped. “Feed these soldiers proper rations.”

“That take care of it, son? ” he asked me.

“Yes Sir,” I gulped.

I still remember the concern in his voice. And I learned then that if a soldier got to the boss and bitched, the odds were the boss would fix it. I also learned a valuable leadership lesson: A commander must get down on the ground with his troops in order to find out what’s really going on.

Had Army leadership been following Ike’s example, our nation would not be shamed, and our critical military mission in Iraq wouldn’t be jeopardized.

Instead, the chain of command was egregiously AWOL. Army sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and at least one brigadier general, one major general and one lieutenant general shrugged off their duty. And the buck stops far higher.

Even members of the United States Congress – from Hillary Clinton to Roscoe Bartlett – neglected their sworn duty. Their congressional offices received written pleas from concerned soldiers or their families almost from the first atrocity through this past March, when retired Master Sgt. William Lawson blasted off 20 letters to a governor, senators and representatives (see sftt.org for the complete list). But these urgent pleas for help must have received either the routine rubber-stamp Beltway shuffle or were relegated into the old circular filing basket, because not one official took appropriate action. To a one, our elected leaders seem to have forgotten that their primary mission is to represent the American people, not to make the sound-bite circuit or to hustle money for the next election.

Had proper leadership been applied, Gen. Myers wouldn’t have had to duck and weave when he appeared before Congress with the limp excuse that the investigation report was “working its way” to him. Myers is, of course, the same swift four-star who commented after his visit to Iraq last year that maybe the brass had prevented him from talking to any soldiers with serious complaints.

For sure, this toady is no Eisenhower.

Ike and the majority of the World War II generals knew what was going on because they knew the truth was with their soldiers. As did Army commander Gen. Matthew Ridgway, whom I saw during the Korean War walking the front line to talk to his Wolfhound troopers. “Got enough gear and ammo, soldier?” he’d ask. “What’s the situation here?” And in Vietnam, Gen. Willard Pearson, my brigade commander, actually shared a foxhole with me during the battle of Dak To.

These astute leaders followed the Principles of Leadership, which I’m repeatedly told are no longer in vogue in today’s MBA-managed Army. Principles that underscore doing the hard right over the easy wrong.

After cutting their training teeth on these precepts, small-unit leaders of yore would have demanded that any atrocities come to a screeching halt. And if their leaders failed to correct the abuses, they’d have immediately blown the whistle to the inspector general or the judge advocate general.

Today, with these time-tested recourses seemingly MIA, we’re left with the brass protesting too much while blaming only the lowest of the low-rankers.

After World War II, the Nazi generals copped a now-infamous plea for their atrocities: “We were just following orders.” Today, our senior Army brass are hiding behind the pathetic excuse: “We didn’t know what was going on.”

Our Army leaders better memorize the 11 Principles, close up their laptops, put away their PowerPoint briefings and employ a little Ike-style shoe leather quick smart.


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