A Soldier's Plea for Better Leaders

As in Vietnam, America is floundering under managers who lack the spirit of Jim Gardner

By , David H. Hackworth was the youngest US Army colonel and one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Vietnam. With Julie Sherman, he is the author of ``About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.''

ON Feb. 7, 1966, James Gardner, a Tennessee-born lieutenant, led his airborne commando force to the rescue of a sister unit pinned down in a village in South Vietnam. Hand-to-hand combat was the order of the day. As darkness fell, the advance was held up by four machine guns. The guns had to be silenced. Lieutenant Gardner was ordered to remove the positions at once. He did, singlehandedly, and lost his life. Though he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his gallant action that day - his last words were, ``It's the best I can do'' - Jim Gardner was not just a brave soldier. He'd been an inspiring leader to his men, and in his short 23 years had proved himself a man of great patriotism and moral courage. As a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he'd reported himself for a minor violation of the honor code and was dismissed. He immediately entered the US Army's officer candidate school, which he successfully completed before joining the 101st Airborne Division, the first US-based unit to deploy to Vietnam.

Had he lived, Jim Gardner might be a general or a senator, a vice-president, or even one day a commander in chief. Instead, he died in vain along with tens of thousands of other Americans who were killed in a no-win war, the kind of war the United States has fought since World War II, a limited war without an objective, without a total commitment.

Why has our nation gone to war in recent times with one arm tied behind its back, blindfolded, using its head as a battering ram? We had no victory in Korea. In Vietnam we used 10 times the firepower of World War II, spent $141 billion, lost 58,000 dead and over 300,000 wounded, and still we lost the war.

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MAYBE the reason is that for too long there have been no courageous leaders at the top. No Andrew Jacksons, no men of conviction in the White House, in Congress, or among our senior military leaders - people who have had the guts and will to win, who have had the moral courage to challenge harebrained military adventures such as our inept ``presence'' in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf, to take risks and make the hard decisions rather than compromise and ``go along to get along'' at any price.

That's why we lost in Vietnam, and why I feel our country has been slipping downhill ever since. For too long we have had a leadership vacuum at the top. A government composed more of managers than leaders, managers who are afraid to tackle the tough problems. That's why the Qaddafis, the Noriegas, and the Khomeinis kick us around; why the Japanese and Germans are trouncing us economically; why we're broke with staggering debts to foreign interests; why our educational and social systems have crumbled.

I fear those in charge today do not have our nation's interests at heart. Washington seems a place bereft of idealism and vision, wallowing instead in cynicism and corruption. The fine words of John F. Kennedy, ``Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country'' are uninspiring to those (with our fate in their hands) who are fueled by greed and visions of power.

Our leaders do not get out and see for themselves the problems confronting us, and, just as in Vietnam, no one at the top talks to anyone at the bottom. President Bush believed the bureaucrats' reports on Alaska, believed there was light at the end of the oil slick, just as 20 years before in Vietnam another president believed there was light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, Bush found out the truth in a matter of days - it took the Vietnam-era leaders a decade to discover that the only light at the end of the tunnel was a Vietcong holding a candle.

Our country is being run by smooth-talking, free-spending special-interest groups. Sen. Alan Cranston says the B-1 bomber was good for California. But the plane costs $280 million a pop, and after three of them crashed, it was decided that they would not be able to be flown except in time of war. The B-1 might be good for California, but is it good for the United States of America? Is it good for the American soldier, or is it just another wildly expensive, gold-plated weapon that in reality places our soldiers in harm's way?

For a long, long time, no one's been in charge. That's why during the Vietnam war no general told LBJ to get up off his knees in the Oval Office where he was personally picking the next day's bombing targets (a job any qualified Air Force major could have done with ease) and make the critical decision to declare war and win that war. That's why no general during the Vietnam era demanded, ``Don't limit my power to win'' or tendered his resignation in protest. That's why at any one time in Vietnam, with 550,000 American soldiers in the country, only 60,000 infantry troops were in the field, hunting and being hunted.

THAT'S why since 1981 the US has spent $2.2 trillion on ``peace through strength,'' but can't transport its fighting divisions to Europe, and the commanding general of NATO has admitted that if he can't be reinforced within 14 days he'll have to use nuclear weapons. No one was in charge to demand that generals and admirals provide the cargo planes and ships. That $2.2 trillion was good for the military-industrial complex, but it's not been good for America.

The future of our land and our lives cannot be left solely in the hands of careerist politicians or military managers. We cannot assume that all those ``in charge'' in Washington are concerned with our nation's and our own welfare. Finally, we must put people of the quality of Jim Gardner at the top, people who will live and die by the axiom, ``It's the best I can do'' - for the country, not for self - if we are to survive and thrive.

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