Stay alert, stay alive
By David Hackworth
I see fewer flags flying these days, and the patriotic flame that burned so brightly after Sept. 11 also seems on the wane. A lot of folks are probably thinking that since what's left of Osama's crazy crew is on the run, the war is over. It's human nature to start taking things for granted again when danger isn't banging loudly on the door.
I hope we don't go back to the fickleness of the Vietnam War.
In 1965, when the 1/101st Airborne Brigade left Fort Campbell, Ky., it was to ringing endorsements from President Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the people. Eighty-five percent of Americans told the pollsters they were "All the Way With LBJ."
Just a year later, the survivors of that storied fighting unit returned from Vietnam to many of the same folks chanting, "Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"
But this time around, we're in a fight that's as critical as World War II. Because our homeland and very survival are once more at stake, the American people can't afford to treat this new war against terrorism like they did Vietnam.
We must stay the course and support this war from beginning to end, remaining ever aware that the brilliant victory in Afghanistan is simply one battle, with at least 60 more ahead. Fighting terrorism is not unlike fighting a deadly cancer. It can't be treated just where it's visible - every diseased cell in the body must be destroyed. Terrorism, too, must be excised wherever it exists, which will take years, and which can't happen without the total commitment and the everyday involvement of the American people.
Just as during WWII when our block wardens and other sharp-eyed patriots looked out for enemy spies, subs and planes, we today must remain as vigilant as our warriors overseas. Not an easily maintained mindset for the most laidback and relaxed citizenry in the world.
But even on the battlefield, a leader's biggest problem has always been alertness. Even with infantry troops - where fast reactions mean the difference between life and death. Grunts on the line, where the enemy wants them dead, still goof off - even knowing that by letting their guard down, they might die.
In order to drill into young men the need to stay alert and stay alive, I used to punish offenders with my fists, boots and rifle butt, and with stockade time. I was ruthless. I'd seen too many kids go down because someone was asleep at the switch. There was no technique or punishment I didn't employ except killing the sorry slackers, and I often threatened that.
Fortunately, it worked. In my last combat tour in Vietnam with a mainly draftee battalion (the 4/39th), we didn't lose one soldier because our opponent got the edge. Now, it's not uncommon for a 52-year-old former battalion member to thank me for kicking his butt and keeping him alive back when he was 19.
We must all discipline ourselves into becoming super soldier-sensitive to weird, suspicious stuff and reporting same to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or local police. Two years ago, for example, a very alert female customs inspector stopped several major attacks by catching a Middle Eastern tourist as he was entering the USA from Canada. The arrest led to the FBI roll-up of a large terrorist network planning on blistering Los Angeles and New York City. Last month, several tips protected nuclear reactor sites. And last week, two sharp American Airlines crew members nailed another terrorist bent on bringing their plane down with explosive devices secreted in his shoes.
And even though friends in the FBI say some of their best tips are coming from alert citizens, we must still make sure our info gets attention. Remember, the Bureau received advance warning of the 9-11 kamikaze attacks before it got lost in the maze. Since that's the nature of bureaucracies, you-the-citizen must take your wartime home-front responsibilities seriously enough to follow up and make sure that everyone assigned to protect us is as much on the ball as you are.
As I drilled into my troops for more than a quarter of a century in training and battlefields: "Stay alert, stay alive."
And don't forget to make a New Year's resolution that you'll support our troops in this long, hard war until "It's over, over there" and here, too.
Col. David H. Hackworth, author of "Price of Honor" and "About Face," has seen duty as a sailor, soldier and a military correspondent in nearly a dozen wars and conflicts, from the end of World War II to the recent meltdown in the ex-Yugoslavia.