News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Friday, October 26, 2007

Old Iron Tits, we need you now!


Old Iron Tits does not refer to Madonna. It refers to General Matthew Ridgway. The troops called him Old Iron Tits because he wore two metal cannisters clipped breast high on each side of his shoulder harness as he toured among them on battlefields. One of them was a hand grenade and the other a first aid kit. They characterize the kind of soldier he was.

Gen. Ridgway’s brilliance as a military commander is chronicled in David Halbertstam’s posthumously published book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter. The book is excerpted in the November Smithsonian magazine.

Most old soldiers are tremendously troubled by the war on Iraq. That it is an inane exercise in vainglory for George W. Bush and his Orwellian followers is of prime concern. But to people who have served in the military and not under current orders to obey military commands, the conduct of the war and the heedless dangers and waste of lives of our military is a profound subversion of American patriotism and duty. The history of Matthew Ridgway's intelligence and leadership become significant for the alternatives they suggest to what we are doing now.

I served in the Cold War during the Sputnik era, but the heat of Korea was still radiating through the military and diplomatic corps. Gen. Ridgway and his Commander in Chief at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, rescued the country from the vainglorious disaster into which Gen. MacArthur had plunged the country. In the mid-1950s, Gen. Ridgway's examples and policies were on the minds of every soldier. He understood that America's superior military resources were under technological challenge by the Soviets and China, and he urged and lead in preparing for a new kind of military. He believed that the key to a competent and effective military was intelligence, and the effect of his policy was that every soldier was not only a fighting man but an intelligence gatherer. Those of us who spent long nights on the dark and cold Rhine in heated vans in front of humming control boards did not only keep the weapons ready to fire, we constantly processed information that our radar networks and our guards recorded and reported. We were periodically debriefed on our interactions with people we met off post. Matthew Ridgway's influence was behind this intense activity.

Douglas MacArthur was relieved of command and replaced by Ridgway in circumstances much like what Bush and Cheney have led us into in Iraq. Halbertstam quotes Ridgway: "There isn't any question that MacArthur wanted to go to war, full war with Communist China. And he could not be convinced by all the contrary arguments." Truman relieved MacArthur of command and Ridgway was appointed to lead the U.S. out of incipient defeat. MacArthur had convinced himself that China would never come to the aid of the North Koreans and he sent his troops into a trap in which 300,000 Chinese troops badly defeated American forces. Ridgway reversed the matter in a matter of months. Like MacArthur, Bush and Cheney ignored any intelligence that interfered with their consuming desires to go to war in Iraq. But there is no Commander in Chief above them to fire them and replace them with a Ridgway.

But mostly, Ridgway adhered to the values of the American republic. He understood that America in war is not a military enterprise based upon executive authority. As Halberstam explains, the politicians who authorize and implement a war have to face political realities and pressures that field commanders might not know about or understand. He knew that lives would be sacrificed in a legitimate war, but he knew the price: "All lives on the battlefield are equal, and a dead rifleman is as great a loss in the eyes of God as a dead General. The dignity which attaches to the individual is the basis of Western Civilization, and this fact should be remembered by every Commander." It is doubtful that those presiding over the first decade of the 21st century ever knew this principle, let alone forgot it.

Halberstam says that Ridgway's obsession with accurate and thorough intelligence came from his superior intellectual abilities and his genuine conservatism: "the better your intelligence, the fewer of your men's lives you were likely to sacrifice." This is another measure of good, competent commanding that is lost in our contemporary blustering at war.

Three major events stand out as Ridgway's superior intellect, ability, and soldiering. He commanded the airborne invasion of France on D-Day in 1944. He reversed a humiliating and dangerous defeat in Korea. And when the U.S. was pressured to enter Vietnam and help the beleaguered French, he wrote a strong and detailed memo to Pres. Eisenhower asserting what a tremendous cost and endless morass such an invasion would be for America. Eisenhower quickly decided against entering the Vietnam conflict.

Ridgway would never stand up in the front of the U.N and recite the Bush-Cheney cant for entering Iraq. Colin Powell blemished an otherwise distinguished and honorable career by not putting the intelligence he cited to the kind of test for accuracy, verification, and reliability that Gen. Ridgway had established as the standard for military decisions.

All soldiers want to be proud of what they do. They do not, as in Lincoln's militia days, have the right to vote on who exercises direct command over them. They depend on their commanders to do what is right and to insure that sacrifices made on the battlefield are not done for vainglory or blustering incompetence. And they depend upon their Commander in Chief and staff officers to insure that any sacrifice asked of them serves the purposes and principles of their country, not the self-serving schemes of those who place power over the welfare of the country.

I was fortunate that I served in the era of Ridgway and Eisenhower. A very strong case can be made that if men of their caliber were in place today--such as Generals Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark--we would not be flushing America's human and economic resources down the drain of Iraq. Nor would we be moving toward disaster in Iran.







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