Fun, fun, fun in South Carolina

By David H. Hackworth
web posted December 18, 2000

"It's such fun."

"Oh, I love it; it's so much fun."

"We're just having a real fun time."

***

"Fun" was the buzzword during my visit earlier this month to Fort Jackson, S.C., where boy and girl recruits were in residence for nine weeks supposedly learning to shoot, salute and stay alive on a battlefield.

Fun has never been a word I'd use to describe basic training. My training sergeants, who had just fought a vicious war with the Japanese and Germans, sweated skills into the 'Cruits that they'd learned the hard way in places like Guadalcanal and Anzio. The tough lessons they and other noncoms taught kept me -- and later many of those I led -- alive.

Pain, not fun, was the operative word back then. But things have changed big time in today's consideration-for-others-oriented Army.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Barrett, who runs Fort Jackson, told me, "Our purpose here is to provide opportunity." I challenged that nonsense and said, "General, I thought it was to train for war." He dodged the issue and plowed on through a two-hour-long PowerPoint briefing filled with mind-numbing facts and figures designed to make the case for how efficient today's training system really is.

Efficient it seems, but my battlefield experience as a rifleman, rifle squad leader, platoon sergeant and platoon, company, battalion, brigade and division leader or adviser shouts that at Fort Jackson and throughout the Army's basic-training system, recruits aren't graduating prepared for the harsh realities of ground combat.

Barrett, whose battalion suffered the highest number of friendly-fire casualties in the U.S. Army during the Gulf War, certainly should know how essential hard, repetitive training and iron-disciplined soldiers are to battlefield survival. He and his superiors should know too that future battles won't all be fought long distance, Serbian War-style by missiles and aircraft; many will be slugged out along the lines of 1993 Mogadishu, where well-trained U.S. Army soldiers' skill and determination helped most of them survive a very bad fight.

Barrett's argument that at Fort Jackson he isn't training infantryman but rather folks who'll be cooking the beans and bringing up the bullets doesn't wash. In warfare 2001 and beyond -- where there won't be any fronts -- soldiers who do the logistics and run the airfields and all the other support stuff will be as fair game as the grunts thrusting bayonets into the enemy's bellies. Now that once-behind-the-lines installations have become prime targets, the soldiers being trained at places like Fort Jackson must be able to defend them.

And besides, it should stay SOP that every soldier be capable of performing as a rifleman. As in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, many rear-echelon types may end up in rifle squads when the chips are down or there's a shortage of infantry replacements.

Army leaders based around the globe are telling me how badly disciplined and trained their new replacements are. An infantry platoon sergeant in South Korea recently summed it up for most: "God help us if we get into a real war." From what I saw at Fort Jackson, I can't help but agree. The discipline, combat-range marksmanship and physical fitness were so poor, the new soldiers plain couldn't cut it on any of the battlefields where I've put in time.

As a soldier or reporter I have seen the elephant in a dozen large and small conflicts. I know -- like all the other vets who've had the elephant in their face and charging -- that if a soldier isn't trained and disciplined, his/her chances of making it through are lousy.

I've been told Barrett put out the word that I'm a "disgruntled old man." I'm cool with the "old" part of his alleged comment. But I think "been there, been burned" and "don't want it to happen to your kids or mine" ring a lot more true than "disgruntled."

Congress has got to get on the stick and not fall for the sort of snow-job briefing and slick tour Barrett tried to lay on me. They must make the Army retool Fun Camp USA and approach basic training in the same no-nonsense, get-ready-for-war manner as the U.S. Marines.

Its recruits are still being prepared for Iwo Jima-like combat. And from my observation, it's still not any kind of fun.

One of most decorated soldiers in American history, Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) is the author of the syndicated column Defending America.Sign in for the free weekly Defending America column at his Web site. Send mail to P.O. Box 5210, Greenwich, CT 06831. © 2000 David H. Hackworth

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