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Mess hall blast reflects incompetence

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Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 10:00 pm | Updated: 6:29 pm, Wed May 16, 2012.

Like every vet I've talked to, I was anguished and angered when nearly 100 Americans were blown up -- 18 of them dying in the blast -- by an infiltrated suicide bomber at lunch last week in a large mess tent in Mosul, Iraq.

Hank "The Gunfighter" Emerson, a great combat leader and top guerrilla-warfare tactician who rose from a two-fisted West Point cadet to three-star general, almost melted my phone when he roared: "Why were those soldiers packed in a mess hall on a guerrilla battlefield? Did their leaders think they were on some kind of gourmet picnic?"

Emerson wrote the book on prevailing against hit-and-run insurgents who were masters at ambush, indirect fire attacks and nasty devices such as mines, booby traps and improvised explosives. One of the most successful guerrilla fighters we had in Vietnam, he skippered the legendary 2/502nd Parachute Battalion in 1965 and '66 and then ramrodded the 9th Division's 1st Recondo Brigade in 1968. His units' war records for combating insurgents remain unequaled. On every op -- from the hellhole of Tuy Hoa to the hard city fighting in Saigon during Tet of 1968 to the bloody Mekong Delta -- they cleaned the guerrillas' clocks and sent them scurrying.

But somewhere between Vietnam and the present insurgency war in Iraq, the golden guerrilla-fighting lessons we learned the hard way in Southeast Asia have disappeared.

"A guerrilla war is frontless," Emerson pointed out. "There are no safe areas. You must always have your guard up and expect the unexpected."

"When you are fighting in a guerrilla environment, you can't operate like you're back at Fort Comfort, eating in spacious dining rooms and everything is just neat and sweet," this four-times-wounded, 30-year, two-war vet railed. "Field rations were designed in part to keep the troops spread out so one round wouldn't take out a group of soldiers. Mess lines and mess halls don't work where the G (guerrilla) can come at you with indirect fire and suicide attacks."

Mosul has been hit with dozens of mortar and rocket attacks during the past year, and for several weeks intelligence was warning of a possible inside-the-camp terrorist attack similar to what went down in the so-called secured Green Zone several months ago.

According to Emerson: "If our leadership in today's Army had bothered to learn anything from Lebanon in '83 and Saudi Arabia in '96 when -- in both cases -- terrorist bombers killed scores of Americans who were in creature-comfort billets rather than hardened positions, they would know the welfare of the troops isn't about providing comfy billets, coffee bars and classy chow. It's about making sure your soldiers survive."

Emerson was and remains a great believer in taking the fight to the enemy, keeping him off-balance and on the run. "To that end, security was another pet baby of mine, and it was never-ending," he said. "For example, I never allowed a civilian in my base camps. I figured they were all spies. They'd recon your camp, pace off installations, cut your throat if they could and report their findings to the local guerrilla CO (commanding officer)."

Was he ever right. I had a civilian barber at one of my firebases in Vietnam. Following "The Gunfighter's" S.O.P., I made him set up shop outside our front gate -- even though the hair on my head always stood on end whenever he shaved the back of my neck with his straight razor. And sure enough, he was zapped in one of our ambushes about a month after we hired him, with a sketch of our base in his pocket!

Immediately after the attack in Mosul, the ground commander, Gen. Thomas Metz, proclaimed, "We are not going to be intimidated by this attack."

At Metz's order, armored vehicles and heavy U.S. patrols saturated the Mosul area. A perfect example of too little too late -- and all wrong.

Our brass better get real and figure out the nature of this guerrilla war and our enemy before another such explosion kills and maims more good soldiers with the misfortune to be serving under incompetent leadership. One smart solution comes to mind: Invite "The Gunfighter" over to Iraq to teach Insurgency 101 to all those senior leaders who've been too busy collecting M.B.A. degrees in careerism to study the critical lessons of past insurgency campaigns.

Col. David H. Hackworth (USA Ret.) is among the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history. He is a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars and a regular writer on defense matters.

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