Lap dogs or tigers?

By David H. Hackworth
web posted November 15, 1999

Everyone on Sen. John Warner's (R-Va.) Armed Services Committee is worked up because British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson didn't blindly follow the orders of NATO commander U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark.

Last June, Clark ordered Jackson, then the NATO commander in Kosovo, to push the Russian troops out of Kosovo's main airport. Jackson told Clark, "No, I am not going to do that. It is not worth starting World War III."

Remember, Russia still has thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs pointed at us, and it would make many a hard-liner's day if the launch order was given. Jackson -- who's since been promoted to full general, presumably, in part, for the wisdom of this decision -- wisely concluded that the gain of winning King of the Mountain against the Ruskies wasn't worth the possible pain.
Sure, discipline is essential in the military. But soldiers should not be robots and blindly follow dumb or illegal orders.

Back in 1817, Napoleon said, "Insubordination may only be evidence of a strong mind."
Of course, look who's talking. Insubordination came naturally to me from buck private to full colonel. I found it easy to find ways around obeying or passing on orders that would cause my guys unnecessary hassle or blood. Or orders that were just flat stupid, like Gen. Westmoreland's early Vietnam War, guaranteed-to-get-troopers-killed rule of engagement order: "Don't fire at the enemy until he fires first."

Maybe I was born with rebellion in my genes. Family legend has it that in the 1770s, my Revolutionary War ancestor John Hackworth told his CO, "Captain, yar' attackin' the wrong hill. Ain't goin' with ya'. But follow me, I'll take ya' up the right 'un."

In Korea or Vietnam, if I got an order that was stupid -- like sending my soldiers into minefields to count enemy dead -- I'd "Wilco" (will comply) that order -- in this case from Col. Ira Hunt, my superambitious fruit-case boss at the time -- then tell my troops to ignore same. My loyalty was to my troops and their tender bodies, not some Perfumed Prince's career. And I know a lot of limbs and lives were saved that way.

British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson won the most decisive naval victory of the 19th century at Trafalgar in 1805 after not "seeing" his commander's signal to "discontinue (the) engagement." He explained later, "I have only one eye; I have a right to be blind sometimes."

In 1914 at Tannenberg, German corps commander Gen. Hermann von Francois repeatedly disobeyed orders. He ended up bagging 90,000 prisoners, destroying a complete Russian army and winning a major victory.

During the Korean War, my patrol captured a squad of Chinese soldiers. By the time we got back to our front lines, it was dark. It was a nine-hour hike to the battalion C.P., and since some of the POWs were wounded, it would have taken more than half of the men in my rifle platoon to get them back for interrogation. Because my CO needed my soldiers to defend the front, he ordered me to shoot them. I told him to get stuffed.

If Lt. William Calley's soldiers had refused to follow his insane order -- which killed between 300 and 400 unarmed Vietnamese women and children at the village of My Lai -- one of our country's most shameful acts wouldn't have happened. And perhaps the Jane Fonda gang's term "baby killers" wouldn't have become part of the cruel legacy of the Vietnam War.

During my first four years in the Army, I had total obedience hammered into me. But 20 years later, I'd learned that the best way to run an outfit was to drop the Prussian "Yes, Sir; No, Sir" nonsense. At the end, I encouraged my soldiers to challenge my orders and sound off. It worked. Many a time a youngster came up with a far smarter idea than mine, which made the operation better and saved lives.

Maybe Warner and committee, besides trying to eliminate all the waste and redundancy in the services, should find out if our all-volunteer armed forces' leaders are lap dogs or attack dogs with the chutzpa to stand up and be counted.

If I were in Warner's boots, that would be my priority.

One of most decorated soldiers in American history, Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) is the author of the syndicated column Defending America.

Current Issue

Archive Main | 1999

E-mail ESR



1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.