Is America's military ready for war?
Geoff Metcalf interviews readiness expert David Hackworth

Editor's note: Just four days prior to Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Geoff Metcalf interviewed retired Col. David Hackworth, the most decorated U.S. soldier alive today. During the interview, Hackworth, a WND columnist and military readiness expert, uttered what would turn out to be a most prophetic statement: "In my view, the biggest threat is not the Middle East, is not Taiwan, but it is terrorism. And it's internationally imported terrorism brought to the U.S.A. ... Today's interview provides a unique view into the readiness problems the U.S. armed forces face as the nation prepares for war.

By Geoff Metcalf
Q:You just finished a new book. What is it?

A: It is a new book, and the editor is sanding it at this moment. It is a sequel to "About Face." It's the story of an infantry battalion in Vietnam, non-fiction. It's a battalion that was considered totally hopeless, filled with conscripts and "shake and bake" leadership that in six months became rated the best fighting battalion in Vietnam. That was in '69. It is the story of "from hopeless to hardcore." It has been sold as a movie to the folks at Castle Rock, and my editor says he likes what he's got.

Q: Cool. I look forward to reading it. Now, when are you going to write a sequel to "Hazardous Duty"?

A: In order to do that, you have to be out in the boonies, and I'm not sure I'm fit to do that. And I'm almost positive my wife would say, "No more!" because every time I went on Desert Storm or to Mogadishu or Haiti or one of these crazy places, I came within seconds of getting blown away. The business is a dangerous business; not just soldiering but writing about soldiers. I think the only way to have a real good sequel to "Hazardous Duty" is to be there -- see the battlefield, smell the battlefield, and report it. Any other way of writing such a book would be the way most books are written -- in somebody's office, and I'd rather not do that.

Q: Let's cut to the chase. One of the primary reasons I wanted to speak with you was about readiness. Where are we at? There are a couple of hot spots percolating -- the Mideast for sure; this China threat seems to be escalating. What kind of shape are we in militarily?

A: I would say that in the 56 years that I've been a soldier or a reporter about soldiers, I think that our military is in the worst shape that I've seen it. You might say, wait a minute we've got these Abrams tanks and F-15s and all of that. Well yes, we do have a lot of hardware. But most of it is Cold War dated. Most of it is really tired. A lot of it is worn out. That's a problem, but you can go to war with junk and you can win as long as you've got fire in your belly. What bothers me about the regular U.S. military -- that's the Army, Navy and the Air Force -- less the United States Marine Corps ...

Q: So far.

A: And this illness is creeping into that fine institution.

Q: I saw a story recently where some people were whining, so they changed the regulation so that female Marines can wear lipstick with utilities.

A: With fatigues. Yeah. It's happening to the Marine Corps. The bottom line is that the warrior ethic is being punched out of the Army, punched out of the Navy. Except in rare squadrons, it doesn't exist in the Air Force. And our military has become this big corporation where political correctness and kinder, gentler stuff is the prevalent attitude. But what wins wars are dedicated, patriotic, motivated soldiers who really believe in what they are doing, and we don't have that. Hey, I can't say categorically that every one of our 1.3 million serving folks is that way. But with a large number, there is no difference between the U.S. military today and with what they have in the belly, and with the post officer looking at his watch at 4:30 -- it's time to go home.

Q: But Hack, you and I both know that the largest part of the problem is in leadership.

A: Yes indeed.

Q: And the perfumed princes you've got in the Puzzle Palace are sad. I mean, is there a Smedley Butler anywhere anymore?

A: I don't know. I would hate to say there is, and I would hate to say there is not. I know of a guy who is going to take over Fort Jackson who has a miserable commanding general right now. When I interviewed him for a story not long ago, he bragged to me about commanding a battalion where he had the most casualties during Desert Storm. Well, I just happened to have written a piece when I was with Newsweek. There weren't casualties inflicted by the Iraqi's. They were self-inflicted, friendly fire, fratricide, Americans shooting Americans. So I went, "Bingo!" Wait a minute, general, you're the guy that commanded the battalion that had the most friendly-fire causalities. His face turned beet red. Obviously, he shouldn't have mentioned that. Here's a guy that's running Fort Jackson, which is the biggest training facility in the U.S. Army. It trains about 80,000 new soldiers a year. And he's taking great pride that his battalion was able to shoot itself up the most. So these are the kinds of people that are in charge.

Q: So what does the Army replace him with? Another bozo?

A: He's being replaced by a young brigadier general named Barda, maybe an ol' guy that you know -- Special Forces, Ranger, commanded a Ranger Company, a Ranger Battalion, jumped in Grenada, jumped in Panama when we went in there in '89 -- a real warrior. So the fact that they are brevetting this guy to two star to replace this guy I think is worthless -- Maj. Gen. George Barrett, the guy that commanded that battalion with fratricide -- that gives me hope that the Army still has some warriors.

Q: I just recently saw an Associated Press story announcing the Army is going to get rid of a thousand helicopters.

A: Yeah, across the board in the U. S. military the equipment is old. In the main, it's worn out. During eight years of Clinton, there was no modernization of equipment. There wasn't enough money to buy spares. The U.S. military, specifically the Army, is basically out of small arms ammunition. Beretta ammunition, M-60 ammo, M-16 ammo, training rounds for mortars and artillery and all the rest are in short supply. You know what the Army brass does. They buy what is essential and they say, "Look, if we get in a shooting war, Congress is going to pour a whole bunch of money into us and we can go buy a whole bunch of ammunition." In most cases, except for special units like Ranger Battalions and some Special Forces units, the United States military -- the Army, the Air Force and the Navy -- are in really bad shape. And I don't see any correction on the horizon. I see a new secretary of defense who came in with lots of promises saying, help is on the way, as did the president. And there hasn't been any help.

Q: Training kind of equals readiness. I know in the past one of the problems troops have faced is they get pulled off mission-oriented training to go pass out food or blankets or direct traffic. Is that being fixed?

A: That's another broken promise on the part of George W. Bush. When he was running as a candidate, Bush was saying, "Why are we in the Balkans? Why are we in Bosnia and Kosovo? When I become president, there are going to be changes made." And when he became president, he visited Europe, and I guess the Europeans said, "Look, if you want your defense shield, then shut up about pulling your people out of the Balkans." This is my guess. And so suddenly, we're not only staying in the Balkans longer, but we're now in Macedonia. I know we're going to stay in the Balkans for a good spell, because my contacts tell me Camp Bernstall, which is in Kosovo, cost $360 million. It is a very, very well-built, plush kind of camp -- none like you ever had. I mean, they have cappuccino bars, pizza parlors, McDonald's and the whole works, movies and video libraries and all the rest.

Q: I've got to tell you, during Ranger school I would have killed someone for a Snicker's bar.

A: You wouldn't have to at Camp Bernstall. The lease we have signed there is for 99 years, so it ain't like we're getting out of there tomorrow.

Q: Wait a minute! President Clinton told us we were only going there for a year.

A: I went there with the First Armored Division in 1995 with that promise of one year. Well, we've been in Bosnia going on seven years, and I reckon we're going to be in that part of the world for a lot longer. Let's look at the impact it's having on the U.S. forces. Let's say you take the 3rd Battalion of the 502 in the 101st that you probably served with, and you take them out of Fort Campbell -- a very elite, good airborne unit -- and you send them over there. Now they're no longer doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is breaking things and killing people. They're directing traffic. They're running little patrols and doing border checks.

Q: So what happens when you take a unit and you assign them to some non-mission-oriented something or other, and every year, regardless of where they are, they still have to take that O.T.E. (Operational Training Evaluation), and they are going to be evaluated on their mission readiness. What happens?

A: They don't make it. What happens is that the time they are in a place like Kosovo, they lose their operational skill, their ability to meet the enemy and defeat the enemy. Then when they return back to Fort Campbell, we'll say in this case, they have to retrain. They have to retrain and go through all the tests to become combat proficient. And at the same time, they are getting ready for another mission somewhere else -- maybe "peacekeeping" in Sinai. So the end result is we have too many of these missions that have nothing to do with combat readiness that are simply dulling the edge of the military sword. And going back to something you said earlier, you said, "Wait a minute, Hack, this can be resolved by leadership." Boy, were you dead on there.

Q: Hey, it happens once in a while.

A: There are no bad units; there are only bad leaders. If we had a romping stomping chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff instead of someone like the new candidate -- who is going to be a "space cadet" -- things could be turned around in six months. We need the kind of leadership that Matthew Ridgeway gave us during the Korean War and also as Army chief of staff, like the story of the battalion I just finished writing about. This unit turned around and became the best in 60 days. But we don't have any evidence of that kind of leadership because most of the senior leaders were appointed by whom in the last eight years?

Q: That bad guy -- the serial philandering, chronic liar, the dark prince.

A: Right! And he picked guys that went along with all that political correctness and [philosophy that] yes, boys should go to basic training with girls, and they should have fun together instead of sweating hard, getting hard, developing a good tough standard that will get them through the military training and into combat. So the top superstructure of our military has been staffed with people who have gone along to get along and sold their soul to the company store. Luckily, we do see guys like this Gen. Barta that's taking over at Fort Jackson who might have the gumption to stand tall and say, "Hey, look, mixed training. That's boys and girls, and it doesn't work." I wrote a piece for GQ that will be coming out in November about when I went down to Jackson and interviewed all those guys for a couple of weeks. That's what that piece is going to say -- that it just doesn't work. The Marine Corps was smart enough to realize that no way could you have boys and girls take training together, and they've separated it.

Q: Yeah, but they did get pressure from on high to homogenize training.

A: Yeah, when they were being pressured from the top by the Pentagon and the White House, who said, "You will have mixed training," I've been told that 60 Marine generals said, "We're going to resign in mass." And that was the end of it.

Q: Hooah! Semper Fi! And assorted other exclamations my editors would delete.

A: You need that kind of leadership and that kind of courage to buck the political system. I was very hopeful that George Bush would come in with all these promises, but I'm not seeing it. I'm seeing almost an extension of what Bill Clinton was about.

Q: Let me ask you about Don Rumsfeld, because I had great hope for him.

A: Me, too!

Q: He's supposed to be a real hard ass. He told the Chinese when they were griping about missile defense, "Get used to it. We're going to have it. That's it! End of text. Next question?" But now we're hearing he may be on shaky ground.

A: As a young man, Rumsfeld took the Army -- you were in the Army at the time, right after the Vietnam War -- and he built that Army up. He built it up to such a point that it did such a number on Iraq during Desert Storm -- 100 hours and it was all over. He built a really tough Army. And he's gone into the Pentagon with the right ideas, but ...

Q: But he's having a cruel reality check with these perfumed princes.

A: Oh, boy, is he ever, and not only the active ones, but the real power groups are these retired admirals and generals who have just got so much strength. They've just kind of locked him in a corner and told him, "You're not going to make changes." Basically, what the Pentagon has been for the last 50 years is a bank. They get $300 billion, and they say, "Here's a hundred billion for the Air Force, a hundred billion for the Army and a hundred billion for the Navy. You guys spend it as you want to."

Q: And how did they spend it?

A: These guys went out and bought whatever little toys and boys they wanted to buy.

Q: Even that's not the whole story. Recently, we had [Sen.] Trent Lott who whizzed away something like $460 million on some weapons system the Navy didn't want and doesn't need that he wanted for his district.

A: He wanted it for Mississippi. He bought ships the Navy absolutely didn't want, the same way that Gingrich bought airplanes the Air Force didn't want. Right now, we're faced with another base closing. The Pentagon is coming down with a list of bases that should be closed. They are redundant. The military has 25 percent more bases than they need because of the force. We've gone from 2.2 million to 1.3 million today. We don't need all of these bases and their infrastructure. But the porkers -- those are the people in Congress -- they say, "Oh, no. We can't close those bases. If we close those bases, we'll lose jobs on those bases. The communities will suffer, and I won't get votes. I'll be 'Condit-ed,' and I'll be out of there." And they probably won't be re-elected.

Q: You said there will be no sequel to your book "Hazardous Duty." How about my favorite, "Price of Honor"? Are we going to see Sandy Caine again?

A: Yep. As soon as I get this current book out. And by the way, "Price of Honor" is now out in paperback, and it's in all the stores. It's 6 bucks. It was a bestseller. My wife assures me Sandy will be back.

Q: Hey, if the boss says so, it will be so. Will we see our military diminish even further as liberals in both parties presume to integrate or homogenize our force structure into NATO or some wannabe U.N. military entities?

A: I think what we are going to see, as you see the tax surplus disappearing, is less money for the Pentagon. The Pentagon has this real running sore from the last 10 years of neglect. They desperately need money to fix what's broken and to modernize and to buy newer and next-phase equipment.

Q: Meanwhile, the administration is "jonesing" on missile defense.

A: Yeah, and that's the scary part. What we've got, it seems to me, is an almost reckless rush to get us into this Star Wars defense shield. Every expert I know -- and I'm talking about the grunt experts, the guys that are the low-level engineers that build these things and operate these things -- says it probably won't work. Now, we've been down this road with Ronald Reagan and Star Wars I, and now we're into Star Wars II. Precious bucks that are in short supply are going to be in further shorter supply because we're going to be spending it on a system that is totally uncalled-for. There is no immediate military risk to have a missile-defense system, and secondly, it probably won't work. A time tested rule is if you don't have a combat-effective force, you get into trouble. We know this from experience again and again: Casserine Pass, Guadalcanal in WWII, Korea, the beginning of the Vietnam War and even the beginning of Desert Storm. When Schwarzkopf went out there, he went out there with old 15-year-old Abrams tanks with a 105 on them. They weren't the upgraded stuff that went to war six months later.

Q: But isn't part of the missile-defense system the deterrent threat? Whether it works or not, if it can intimidate the Chinese into not doing something, isn't there some strategic benefit there?

A: I don't see China as a threat with no more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The ex-Soviet Union, Russia specifically, now has about 8,000-9,000 operational intercontinental ballistic missiles -- many of those MIRV, meaning with three warheads. If you ask who's the threat, Russia has the same number of missiles as we do, and yet we never blew each other apart back when they were the Soviet Union because of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). It seems to me if we had only 100 missiles, we could tell every capital that had missiles, "Look, Iraq, take a good look at Baghdad. If you fire one missile at us, it's going to be a glass factory." Now let's go to Iran. To Iran, the same trip is applicable to you. This MAD thing that kept the U.S. and the Soviets from blowing each other away would be, I think, enough deterrence to stop this. We have to find a system to provide a decent shield of protection from missiles, but we shouldn't rush into it, Geoff, until we have tested it, got all the teething problems out of it so the damn thing works. Then we should build it. But we shouldn't build it when it's highly improbable today that it will work.

Q: Let me ask you to prioritize potential threats. Russia, China, our involvement somehow with the Israelis and Palestinians, or Iraq, Iran, Syria or any combination thereof?

A: I think the most explosive one on the horizon, right as we talk, is the Middle East situation. Because if the Palestinians and the Israelis can't reach some settlement -- and the military solution is not the solution -- then there's going to be a war.

Q: What the hell has been going on since September of last year?

A: There has been a hell of a firefight going on for the last several months, hundreds and hundreds of casualties, and that war will immediately suck in Iraq, who is chomping at the bit to get into it. Syria, certainly Iran, who knows about Egypt, certainly Jordan, and it will be war that will pull the U.S. into it. We talked about our military state earlier. Are we ready for it?

Q: Frankly, Sharon is employing what I think is the best strategy he can use now. The Israelis have a list of something like 450 terrorists. Find them and kill them. The U.S. sure isn't going to do it for you. Israel fed a list to the CIA to give to the Palestinians in the vain hope they might do something. Arafat can't do jack-spit anyway, even if he wanted to, and he doesn't. He can't control Hamas. He can't control Hezbollah. He can't control the Islamic Jihad. So the best thing for Sharon to do is kill the terrorists one at a time. Then "maybe" they have a shot at something potentially substantive.

A: The only way to deal with terrorism is to out terror them.

Q: Oh, you read my book?

A: That's right! The French proved that in Algiers. And when they won their war, DeGaulle sold them down the drain. That's a fact. And if you know you're a terrorist and you're going to buy the farm, you are going to have second thoughts about it. OK, the first major threat is the Middle East, our getting sucked in there backing up Israel. The next one is an explosion with Taiwan. I don't think that is very likely. The Chinese have got 5,000 years of history of this war game, and I'm kind of a student of the Chinese. When they make noise in the East, as they are doing now toward Taiwan, they are doing something in the West. And I don't think they are going to take a chance of losing the $80 billion-a-year business with the United States to take this little island that will eventually become theirs over time. They can just take their time. Sure, they're making a lot of noise and blowing a lot of military force there building up their military. But Red China is not a serious threat to the United States for at least 10 years.

Q: I've talked with some guys who disagree with you 180 degrees -- Steven Mosher, Chuck DeVore, Bill Gertz.

A: Oh, there are a lot of people who do. There are a lot of people who are into developing, causing and creating another Cold War.

Q: What about Iraq?

A: They would be part of the exercise going on now in the Middle East. Look at our very methodical blowing away of their radar. Every day we seem to close down a system.

Q: Every time they build a new one with the help of newer whiz-bang Chinese fiber optics, we blow it up again.

A: Yep. And there are a lot of Chinese over there helping them. The bottom line is it seems to me we're preparing the battlefield, opening up a nice big avenue that we can go steaming into. If you look and see where the radars are we've been taking out, they are all along the area where you would have a confrontation -- the Jordanian area where Syria, Jordan and Iraq all come together.

Q: So what do you see as the biggest threat to our strategic national security?

A: In my view, the biggest threat is not the Middle East, is not Taiwan, but it is terrorism. And it's internationally imported terrorism brought to the U.S.A. that almost struck us a couple of years ago on January the first in Washington state and in New York City. Luckily, a customs inspector up in Washington state picked up a guy, opened up the boot of the car and found a lot of explosive devices. Within a few weeks, the FBI did a brilliant job of rolling up a gang of about 50 people. But to me, terrorism is the biggest guy.

Q: Is Russia a spectator? A catalyst? A kibitzer?

A: I think Russia is just frankly on American food stamps just trying to survive from a military viewpoint, notwithstanding they have those 9,000 ICBMs. When you're looking in your crystal ball and asking, "Who is next?" let's go back to 1989. Here we were busily supporting Iraq, giving them arms, giving them munitions, giving them chemicals to build war-fighting equipment, and suddenly in 1990, our good friend Iraq attacks us. So it's really hard to know whom you're going to be fighting next.

Q: You've got to watch those sneaky Canadians.

A: But the thing you've been hammering on is you've got to be like the Boy Scouts -- READINESS! We've got to have a military that can go in any direction at any time and be prepared to stand tall and do the job. Just having that deterrence will give us the muscle to stay out of war because people are going to say, "Don't fool with those guys; they've got a big bat under their bed."

Q: When is your sequel to "About Face" going to be out and available?

A: It will be out Memorial Day 2002. But getting back to the theme of what we've been talking about, and going back to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. The guy walked in there with the experience, with the brains, with the strength, the ability to turn the Pentagon around and make the necessary changes. I fully support what he is about, and I hope he is successful. The U.S. military desperately needs reform. We've got to streamline it. We've got to really get it into the 21st century.

Q: Well, he's been talking about what you've been talking about. He said he wanted to do a comprehensive study of the overall force structure and potential current and future threats and reorganize the military to deal with the future. Prepare for the next war, not the last one. You've been telling me that for years.

A: Yeah. I think what we've got to do with him is cut him some slack. So many people, both Democrats and Republicans, want to bury him and get rid of him. But there is so much redundancy in our armed forces, so much duplication, so much waste. For example, the United States Army is spending $7 billion building light brigades that will be highly mobile and will be running around in little armored cars. They can go to a battlefield in a few hours and have a brigade deployed within 96 hours.

Q: Sounds kind of like the Marines.

A: Yeah. Why do we want the Army to do that when the United States Marine Corps already does that and is equipped that way and has been doing it for years? Why do we need that kind of duplication? Why don't we say, "Look, Army, we'll take the 7 billion bucks and we'll give it to the Marine Corps." Or merge those two organizations.

Q: Blasphemy!

A: I have no problem with taking the United States Army and merging it with the United States Marine Corps. And Geoff, do you know what I would call it?

Q: What? The United States Marine Corps?

A: Right on! Just get rid of the Army. What we've got to do is get ready for the next war. And the next war, as we've been talking about, is a war of terrorism. It is a war in the cities. It is an information war. Look, every other American home today, right now, has got a computer. They are on the Net. Only a few months ago, half of our Net was being shut down by overseas intruders.

Q: The Chinese actually formed a separate branch of their military about year ago just to deal with cyberwarfare.

A: That's right. So we've got to get ready for that. We've got to get ready for the next war, not the last war. That's been our cross to bear since we became a republic. We're always fighting the last war with the equipment, mentality, strategy and leadership. What we've got to do is have people who have got vision, and I think Rumsfeld, who is a guy who is in his seventies, nevertheless has the vision and the strength to turn this thing around.

Q: If the administration will let him.

A: What he needs to do is to go in there and grab a bunch of generals and admirals who were appointed by Clinton, thump their heads together and boot them out. And he's got to tell that strong lobby of army and navy admirals and generals to get lost or he's going to take their pensions away.

Q: But part of the challenge is you throw out all the dead-wood perfumed princes and you turn around and start looking for O-6s to turn into generals, and you find more of the same.

A: You're going to have to do what George Marshall did in 1940 when war was on the horizon. The Japanese were coming; the Germans were coming; and he just fired 60 generals -- thump! He said, "Where's that guy Eisenhower? Ike, you're now a general. Where's that Major Patton? George Patton, Georgie can you take this division?" And Patton took that division, and we know what he did with it. One thing I would like to say is, I deal probably daily with some 200-500 serving members of our armed forces by phone or by e-mail, and we've got some wonderful kids serving us, some wonderful kids.