BRIAN LAMB, HOST: George Wilson in your new book in the introduction you open up with the first sentence, "The world changed for the United States and its Army in 1966." Why did you open up that way?
GEORGE WILSON (Author, "Mud Soldiers: Life Inside the New American Army"): Because I think it really did change dramatically. 1966 was the year we practically doubled our troops on the ground and we stopped pretending we were there to advise the South Vietnamese Army and we put enough troops in to do the operations ourselves. So it became an American War in 1966 because we had the troops to do what the commanders really wanted to do secretly anyhow which was have the Americans run their own show rather than just be sprinkled among South Vietnamese units and that changed a lot things.
LAMB: The title of your new book "Mud Soldiers: Life Inside the New American Army" is about what?
WILSON: It's about today's grunt. Today's soldier who would go out on the point if we ever got in the next war ... it's the infantrymen the guy who's always cold he's always hungry whether it's peace or war and he's the first guy to get killed and he's the first guy to fight and it's a thin red line that defends our country in all but a sudden nuclear holocaust. So it's the spear point in the American Army and I thought that part of it was important and we ought to take a look at it.
LAMB: How did you write it?
WILSON: Well I wrote it by what I like to call as a participatory journalism. I went down to Ft. Benning and went through basic training and advanced into infantry training with this company of troops and then when they went to Ft. Riley to report to their unit I went with them there. And then when they fought the Russians in California in mock warfare, I stayed with them in the desert for two weeks to see how they did -- how these apprentice infantrymen equipt themselves. And then I looked them up a year later and said, "OK, you've had a year in the Army what were your hopes and fears and did the Army live up to them? Are you better are you worse? How was this unique passage from teenager to soldier from soldier to infantryman. How did it go?"
LAMB: What was the time frame that you actually did this? How many months?
WILSON: Well I went down to Ft. Benning in 1987, in the summer of '87 and the kids got off the bus with their long hair and their gold earrings and the drill sergeant started snapping at them and shaping them up. So it was the summer of '87 and then the fall of '88 we went to Ft. Riley where they reported to their unit to be active duty regular line infantrymen.
LAMB: The army gave you what kind of access?
WILSON: Complete access. The deal was that I would only do it if I didn't have a lieutenant lock stepping me and listening in our interviews. That I could go where I pleased and talk to them when I wanted to as long as I didn't interfere with their training or do something stupid like get in their way on the rifle range. So I have to say the army was good to its word and they let me kind of the invisible chronicler all through their training and their duty and made no efforts to stop me from talking to the kids.
LAMB: You work full time for the Washington Post as a pentagon correspondent. During that period when you were writing this did you also do pieces for the Post?
WILSON: Yes. I did about three pieces called "The New G.I." and the deal with the Post is that they would let me go off duty for them and spend full time with this Army unit providing that periodically I would give them a look at these new soldiers and I did so. So it worked out pretty well.
LAMB: Ft. Benning's in Georgia?
WILSON: Yes. Columbus, Georgia.
LAMB: What happened when you were down up close looking at these young folks getting ready for the army that you least expected?
LAMB: I least expected the drill sergeants to welcome me. I thought I would be the intruder. You know as a reporter you're not exactly welcome on military bases to start with, but with drill sergeants they consider themselves the real authoritarian figure and they run their own show and I thought I'd never be able to defrost these guys -- that I would always be someone getting in their act and they would resent it. And I found just the opposite that everybody likes to talk to some neutral corner and have a listener. And after I was there a couple of weeks and they saw that I wasn't getting in the way or showboating, they started to tell me about their problems of trying to shape up young teenagers and being overworked and divorces and I ended being good friends with a number of the dril sergeants and that was a big surprise to me. I thought they would be the hardest nuts to crack and they turned out to be real regular guys.
LAMB: Did you withhold anything that you learned from the book on purpose because it would embarrass or would offend?
WILSON: Yes I did. I did not use last names of guys who would try to commit suicide because they couldn't hack army training. I didn't see the point of ruining their civilian careers. The incident is described in a very level the reader and I say I'm calling this guy so and so which is not his real name. Frankly a couple of the kids who attempted suicide wanted their names used. They wanted some some reason for their sacrifice in their view. But I thought when they got a little older they might resent that and regret it so I have not identified some of the characters in here who got in real trouble.
LAMB: What's your motivation for writing the book?
WILSON: A) I wanted to take a look at whether the Army is living up to its advertising "Be all you can be." B) I thought it would be really interesting you get back down in the mud after hearing the theoretical in Washington. I kind of like to do this periodically. As you know, I went in an aircraft carrier for seven months. And I really relate to the grunts whether they be sailors or soldiers and if you're away from them too long you kind of lose touch what's real in the military.
LAMB: Did you put fatigues on?
WILSON: No I didn't. I debated about that. The army kind of wanted me to and I said well I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not. I figured if I put fatigues on I should do all the push ups do everything they did and I wasn't going to kid myself and go through basic training again. I did that once. And I also wanted to be a neutral corner. And it turned out the right decision because I wore field kahkies just regular old field kahkies and a jungle hat. And the kids when I was there felt kind of reassured that you know that they had kind of an uncle figure that when they were off duty that they would tell me about their homesickness and things they couldn't tell their peers because everybody has to be macho in the infantry. So I was kind of an unexpected priest without a portfolio out in the field with these kids, and not having a uniform enabled them to know where I was. I was there and I wasn't one of the bad guys if you will.
LAMB: Kids of your own?
WILSON: Yes. I have a son who could have been in the military. He's at that age and I have a daughter.
LAMB: Did you make such close friends with some of these kids that you are still in contact with them?
WILSON: They write me frequently and I still worry about them and they become like second sons. Sure.
LAMB: USS Kennedy. You were out there for seven months. You wrote a book called "The Super Carrier." 1983.
WILSON: Right. Correct.
LAMB: It became a television show?
LAMB: Didn't make it as a television show.
WILSON: It sank.
LAMB: What was the reason?
WILSON: Well my theory is that "Super Carrier" could have been turned into a M.A.S.H. kind of series because there's so much human emotion locked up in the walls of a ship and it's a very intense experience that cannot be duplicated on land, just as the experience can't be duplicated in a hospital. You have to have it inside that tent. But Hollywood -- in my view -- decided that they were going to be Hollywood and we had to get into drugs and women and gunplay and all the things that don't happen on a carrier. So by the second show the core audience the people who knew anything about the military and anything about the Navy knew this was just a sham and tuned out.
LAMB: Is there any major difference between the navy -- the sailor and the mud solider?
WILSON: Not in his human qualities or his background but in his interests. The mud soldier doesn't want to go to sea in most cases and he's not as technically oriented. A sailor kind of gets into running an airplane, running a ship whereas the mud soldier wants to be a Rambo -- run up and down hills, shoot guns, be a midnight stalker. It's a different kind of motivation.
LAMB: Did the Navy and the Army treat you differently?
WILSON: The army officers were less suspicious of me than the navy officers on this ship -- partly because I had already written "Super Carriers" and a number of them had read it and figured I'd tell it like it is. But the other thing that's probably more important is that the army is so appreciative when somebody bothers to take a look at their soldiers because it's not the most glamorous of the services and they feel they have been somewhat eclipsed by the Fly Boys and people who have more dramatic activities. The plain old mud soldier is kind of an orphan. So they appreciated somebody taking the time to take a look at what they were doing. And I guess I would have to say they welcomed me a little more.
LAMB: One of the things I'm looking for right now -- and I'm sure you can remember it -- that surprised me when I read the introduction is the number of soldiers. I thought it was much larger than that for some reason. How many American army soldiers are there?
WILSON: Today there's about 771,000 in the the United States Army total. That's half the number that we had in Vietnam at the height of the war. So we have a small Army. And my point is if it's going to be small it ought to be good. And they've got the money, they've got the equipment now. We have to manage this resource, namely the soldier, and one of my regrets is we don't lean far enough toward this new volunteer soldier. We still regard him as a draftee, wants three hots and a cot and don't realize that you have to keep a light at the end of his tunnel. You have to make this kid believe that he's being all he can be. If he gets turned off and he goes right back to some of his bad habits in civilian life -- it's a management challenge, just as teaching arithmetic's a management challenge in a high school. I mean, if you give up being a good teacher in the army, you're going to lose these kids.
LAMB: I want to show the audience something. You list in the back the graduates. You have a little column called the graduates and we'll see it here in just a second as soon as we can get a close shot at this. Come on in there Mark, let's take a look. Who are these graduates?
WILSON: They are the invisible patriots. They are the kids that volunteer for the infantry even though they don't have to. There's no draft today.
LAMB: Let me interrupt because I don't want to lose this. One of the reasons I wanted our audience to see this is that 18, 19, 20, 21, 18, 18 18 all the way ... and if you go over here on the next page you go on for ... how many are listed on these two? Do you remember, George?
WILSON: There would be about 120 or something like that.
LAMB: 17 and 18 and all that. Is that the average age of people who are in ...
WILSON: Yeah, they are kids right out of high school. They usually come from a town where it's a dead end and going in the army is a way up. They don't want to work at McDonalds they don't want to go to the local factory. Some of them had offers of college scholarships because of their wrestling ability for instance, but they were sick of book work and they want to go and be a Rambo. So they join the army infantry for adventure. And in basic the army delivers, but in the regular units it's too boring for them and the kids get disillusioned.
LAMB: How long do they sign up for?
WILSON: Well it's two to four years. It's selective in the army's interest. Sometimes they'll accept two years enlistees and sometimes they won't. But basically most of these kids signed up for four years.
LAMB: What's their pay when they start?
WILSON: They get about $800 a month something like that.
LAMB: How does that track with what they would make if they were outside?
WILSON: Well, when you count everything money is not the problem. They do they do better than they do on the civilian market. For instance, a couple of these guys that I got to know well joined the army because their wives were pregnant and they realized they were facing hospital bills they couldn't pay and the army would take care of that. They didn't know whether they'd get laid off from the job they had. So the security of the army plus the adventure is appealing to a good part of non-establishment in America. These are not the guys who have the chance to go to prep school in most cases and college. They have ... they're working Americans.
LAMB: How many people that apply for the army get in?
WILSON: I don't know exactly the percentages. You have to pass an entrance test and some months you may get in with a low score because they're accepting a given number of what they call "category fours." Other months they may not need bodies to fill spaces so you have to get a higher score to be category one or two. So it varies month by month. But a high school average student who is good physically can almost guarantee getting in the Army.
LAMB: How many of them are up at the end of their tour?
WILSON: The percentages again vary, but I would guess right now about 20%.
LAMB: Is that number low or high compared to what it used to be when we had a draft?
WILSON: I think it's better than during the draft. It's ... that's a good question. The draft soldier didn't want to be there and as soon as he could he got out. So I would be surprised if say in the '60s and the '70s the reenlistment was anywhere near as high as between 20 and 35 percent like it is today.
LAMB: What's known today as some of the better duty stations for somebody in the Army?
WILSON: Well it used to be exciting to go overseas and a lot of guys join the army thinking it's going to be glamorous to go to Germany and go to distant places. But now they have found out that the economies of Europe are more expensive than around home, so Germany is no longer glamorous to these kids. Although very often they have no choice. So I was surprised to find out that when they get a little more experienced with what army life is like and how expensive Germany is that they look for bases around home so that they can continue to be in uniform but they can get the support structure of home. Like if you're from California you might like Ft. Ord. If you were from the south you might rather go to Ft. Benning.
But these soldiers are not the "From Here to Eternity" bums with no roots at all. They come in wanting to better themselves. They do have alternatives. So if they can stay in the Army and get a trade and see themselves advancing they'll work out a way to put down roots, raise a family. And nobody lives in the barracks anymore for instance. After the first couple of months of training and you go to your regular unit very few live in the barracks. They get married young and then they get apartments in town or trailers. So you don't have ... if your mind's eye picture of an Army is everybody living together as single men in barracks and falling out in formation, you're in for a surprise. The barrack is cut up into little rooms. It's more like a college dormitory.
And a fair number of soldiers have outside activities that interest them. They don't always go down and drink beer at the rec hall or the bowling alley. It's somewhat a blending of civilian and military right on a base.
LAMB: Do you think after spending all this time thinking about the mud soldiers, do you think that the mud soldier will ever be used again in a serious way again by the United States?
WILSON: I think -- yes. I think we are always going to need mud soldiers. My view is that an American Rifle Company is our best high tech weapon. Because it seems to me that the least likely war is that the United States and the Soviet Union are going to blow each other up with sudden nuclear strikes. That to me takes madmen on both sides. But I can see a lot of problems in the third world where being able to get there with a rifle company would be great deterrence and if need be you might have to take on some number of bad guys. So who are you going to send? You're going to send either the marines or the infantry. You're not going to send the B-2 Stealth Bomber which costs over a half a billion each. You're not going to send missiles. You're going to send these kids. When you look at the third world there's lots of trouble spots.
LAMB: What's the difference between a U.S. Marine and U.S. Infantryman?
WILSON: Well if you're a marine the dog face soldier can't do anything. If you're an infantryman, well, the marine is a jar head. Basically they do much the same thing. The marines have a little different philosophy on their fire teams for instance. But I think that American soldiers are American soldiers whether they be marines or infantrymen. And I have no worries about them running and letting us down. I have some worries about whether they are well enough lead. It seems to me we've gotten into this management syndrome where you give a guy a Rifle Company for a year or year and a half and then you put him in a Staff job then you send him to charm school you can't get get good leading troops and winning battles with all this turbulence at the top.
LAMB: How would you change that?
WILSON: I'd do a lot of things. First thing I'd do, I'd make every officer who got out of West Point or R.O.T.C. go through basic training with troops. He'd wear no insignia; he'd get no favors. He would do the same thing the kids he's going to command do. That way they would finally come to understand that these kids have dreams. They want to be better. They have expectations. They are not just automatons out there. Too many of today's officers are yuppies. They just want to run their unit and then go on to a staff job and advance their career to be army chief of staff.
I want them to get to know their soldiers better. And the only way I know how to make them get to know their soldiers better is to immerse them for six weeks with these kids so they know what they're about. Then go ahead and redraw the firebreak and have the separation from basic training forward.
LAMB: They couldn't serve with the same young men that they went through basic training with could they?
WILSON: They could end up commanding them further down the road but chances are they would not. By the time that they were senior enough to command a company it would be a new crop. It would be the same kind of kid and they would know what made them tick but it would not be the very guy they slept in the barracks with.
LAMB: That's what I mean. It was just a technical question. Couldn't walk right out of there and command that same ...
WILSON: No, I don't think that's necessary or desirable. That's one thing I'd do. The other thing I'd do is I'd go back to Shy Myers theory. He was army chief of staff and he said that he wanted people to command rifle units and battalions and companies for three years. He didn't want this in and out stuff. And we've gotten back to the year and half tour, the 12-month tour. And you know the new guy comes in -- he takes over a rifle company he wants to make a record for himself. He wears out the kids then the new guy comes in and tries to do the same thing. The Sergeants are left there for three years or more why not the officers? Basically ...
LAMB: By the way, what do those sergeants think of the officer in general?
WILSON: They think the officers are too much the micro managers. And I came to agree. In fact, I'd bring the polo ponies back. I think if you brought the polo ponies back the officer would be so darned busy getting ready for the Saturday polo match that they'd leave the soldiers and sergeants alone so the sergeants could get back to running their units and the officers would do more big picture managing instead of doing the sergeant's work all the time.
LAMB: You really came away with some strong feelings it sounds like.
WILSON: Yeah. I came ... you know, the army is a great institution. It's helping thousands and thousands of young people. It's the best social betterment institution that we have. I just want it to be all it can be. And there's a lot of room for improvement. And my biggest regret is we have this golden moment here where you got high quality kids willing to serve the country in peace time and we're not making the most of it. We're not leaning toward this kid enough. We're not making it interesting. We're not making it fun. Somehow the military has gotten to be a for workaholics. I don't see anything wrong with working a half a day and having the kids play baseball or basketball or do something physical that's fun. But the new syndrome is keep them out in the field, check this block that block whether they're learning anything or not, keep them out in the rain. I mean, I think we ought to lighten up and make it fun.
LAMB: All right -- the call comes from the President he wants X troops in a hot spot in the world. You hear about it. What's your immediate reaction? We're well served?
WILSON: That the kids will do great. But a lot of them will be killed because the officers are going to have to learn their job.
LAMB: The officers are poorly trained at the academy or at O.C.S. or are poorly led by the top generals. Where is this coming from?
WILSON: They're fine Americans and we should be grateful that they are willing to be infantry officers but we don't leave them with rifle companies or battalions long enough to learn their trade. It's very hard to run a battalion today. You've got to know a lot about air power.
LAMB: How big is a battalion?
WILSON: About 800. You've got to know a lot about air power about artillery about movement of armored vehicles about how to use infantry. It takes a long time to get good at that. I think it takes at least a year or more and better three years. But instead this guy is busy; he's got paperwork. He gets command of a battalion. He may go to a few field exercises and in a year and a half he's on to a different job.
LAMB: How old is that battalion commander?
WILSON: Well he's probably 35, 39 something like that. Depends on his age..
WILSON: Usually a battalion commander lieutenant colonel.
LAMB: lieutenant colonel.
WILSON: And a company commander is usually a captain. Then a platoon leader is the the smallest unit is a lieutenant. And I think the lieutenants, the captains, and the lieutenant colonels ought to stay in the field longer to get good at working with troops. And a lot of them love it and would rather not go to charm school and punch their ticket. They would rather stay with the troops and those guys we want to treasure and develop and let stay in their jobs. And a lot of soldiers would like to drive a truck forever but we make them become a sergeant and troop leader instead of letting them drive a truck.
LAMB: First of all, have you talked to the top brass in the Army about this?
WILSON: Yes. I think this book gives everybody his say. I laid all these thoughts on chief of staff of the army, Carl Huno. The manpower chief -- he's had his say and Max Thurman and they were all interested in my observations. They weren't closed minded about it and they said well we'll think of it but you know there are problems. You have to get officers ready to take over these bigger jobs and you have to give them a certain amount of staff time. So I'm not saying it's easy, but I'm saying we've lost the sense of what's important. What's important to me is winning the next battle if there is one, and making sure our leaders are middle management. The officers and the sergeants know how to win a small scrap so that these kids don't have to be sacrificed while they learn on the job.
LAMB: Where are you from originally?
WILSON: New Jersey. .I used to play basketball against the "From Here to Eternity" soldiers at Ft. Dix and the army was very different in those days. My older sisters were not allowed to date soldiers from Ft. Dix. It was socially unacceptable. And I'm glad that today's Army has soldiers that are considered acceptable. And that's how far we've come. And I just regret that we're not leaning toward this new talent enough.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
WILSON: I went in the Navy Air Corps and they sent us to Georgia Tech for engineering before we went to flight training. But by the time I got the flight training they did not need any more pilots. So on my own I abandoned engineering which I had to force feed myself on to get through the Navy and went to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.
LAMB: Then what?
WILSON: Then I went to a series of newspapers. New Jersey's biggest newspaper at the time was then Newark News. And I wanted to come to Washington so I went to Congressional Quarterly news features which I'd found in the yellow pages in the phone book. I didn't know it existed.
LAMB: Congressional Quarterly here in town.
WILSON: Right. I had gone through all the publications I knew about. UP, AP and the papers and they had no openings and I said -- did I miss anybody. And there under news services I found Congressional Quarterly. So they gave me a beachhead in Washington and taught me something about the Federal Government and then I went to the Washington Star and a ...
LAMB: What year?
WILSON: I went to the Washington Star in 1960.
LAMB: Then to the Post?
WILSON: Well, no. I had a delay in route at they say in the army. I learned that you have a lot of fun on a newspaper being utility outfielder, infielder, pitcher, catcher. But you can't make any money. And by then I had a family and I had to get a specialty. It became the age of the specialist. When I started out the hero of the city room was the old front page rewrite man who could make anything sing and after work he would throw his teeth in his pocket and get drunk across the street and it was a different era. And I just got the very last of that era and by the time I got to Washington you had to be a specialist. So I learned something about airplanes so I went to "Aviation Week and Space Technology" for five years. And at the end of that five years, the Post was looking for someone to take over military and the space and I was a fit and I wanted newspapers anyhow, so I went back to ...
LAMB: What year did you join the "Washington Post?"
LAMB: Been doing what you're doing since then?
WILSON: Right. With periodical leaves for good behavior to write books or whatever.
LAMB: Are you as interested today as you were in 1966?
WILSON: Yeah. Once I stop being interested I think I owe it to my readers and myself to get out. I don't want to ... if I lose my curiosity then it's time to go fishing.
LAMB: We're talking with George Wilson and as he periodically does he writes a book. This is his latest book you can see here is called "Mud Soldier: Life Inside the New American Army." And he is also author of "Super Carrier" which came out in 19 ...
LAMB: ... '86 and we talked about "Super Carrier" at that time and now we are talking about the mud soldier in the army. Seven hundred and seventy-some thousand..
WILSON: Right in the Army.
LAMB: Army soldiers. How many in the Navy?
WILSON: Six hundred -- a little over 600.
LAMB: Marine corps?
WILSON: Marine corps about ... roughly 200,000.
LAMB: And finally -- the air force?
WILSON: It's about 660 -- something like that.
LAMB: Total numbers?
WILSON: One point two million men under arms on active duty.
LAMB: What do you think that'll be 10 years from now?
WILSON: With Gorbachev's direction and barring emergency ...
LAMB: Did you mean 1.2 or 2.2?
WILSON: No 2.1 is what I meant.
LAMB: I'm sorry you said 1.2.
WILSON: I reversed it. Two point one million under arms. I think the Army is going to suffer a cut or enjoy a cut however you look at it of at least 100,000 in the next eight years at least. Given the way the Soviet threat is diminishing and all bets are off if that changes. I think the Air Force will go down oh at least 40,000 and if we don't do something about the prices of weapons we're going to have to cut more and more manpower because it's very tempting for a politician who's trying to get the spending down to reduce his payroll. Because if I fire you today, I don't have to pay you next week. If I cancel a weapon I don't realize those savings for five years or so.
And if we let ourselves buy too many of these stealth bombers and stealth fighters we're going to price ourselves out of manpower and I think there's a balance here that we have to worry about. Do you really want to spend up to a billion dollars on one airplane and have the air force take turns flying it because there's no money for anything else? We're getting into this structural disarmament syndrome. Where we disarm ourselves by making the weapons so expensive. And some of these cuts are driven by international events but some of it very frankly are driven by trying to save money and it's easy to cut manpower. And Congress is doing that. Pentagon's doing that. So it's time for a good look at our priorities.
LAMB: Dick Cheney?
WILSON: He's off to a good start. I think he made a mistake by lambasting the chief of staff of the air force in public for going up to the Hill and trying to find the middle ground on two missiles the MX and the Midgetman which..
LAMB: Are there residuals on that?
WILSON: Yes, the residuals -- the professional military resented that. You know, it's praise in public and rebuke in private. And Chaney broke that rule in his first few weeks in office. I know why he might have done it. He wanted to make a point that I'm in charge now and nobody's going to go up there freelancing and speaking without coming to check with me first. I mean, I can see a manager and executive trying to take hold of the military. But especially since Chaney never served in the military himself, I think it was a little bit insensitive to start off that way by balling out a four star general.
LAMB: What are the residuals?
WILSON: Residuals are the professional military is more skeptical of this guy than they would have been otherwise. I think he can win back their confidence but I think that was a bad way to start on the personnel side of this mafia that's in the Pentagon. I mean they can undo you whether you know it or not. Whether you think you've got an order issued whether it's carried out or not is something else again. So you need the confidence of your military although the old salute and obey you have to establish a rapport there. And I think he will but I think that was a bad way to start. On the budget I think he has got high marks. He actually cut something. He actually cancelled something. And it's very interesting that Congress..
WILSON: Yeah the V-22 the F-14D, the LHX helicopter.
LAMB: Is that you know it's hard when you're a civilian reading these articles to know what really matters. From your perspective, did the Marine Corps need the Osprey?
WILSON: It's nice to have.
LAMB: Explain what it is by the way.
WILSON: Well okay. The Osprey is an advanced aircraft where it can take off like a helicopter because you just tilt the propellers of the plane downward and it pushes the plane in the air. Then when you get airborne you can move the propellers up to the wings like a regular aircraft then it goes foreword. So it's a beautiful sounding combination of taking off like a helicopter and flying like a real airplane. Has great potential for civilian markets. I mean, you wouldn't have to have great big runways in your local airport. But it it it's taking the marines to the poor house in a cadillac.
It's going to be a heavy cost of that bird and I think Chaney said it's a great airplane and it'd be nice to have but Congress has said zero growth in the budget. And something's got to give. We have helicopters that are new like the army's Black Hawk so we'll let the marines go from the ship to shore on existing helicopters rather than buy this Osprey which is faster and flew higher and so forth. And the marines said they needed that to dodge the modern air defenses to get the marines from ship to shore. So it's a legitimate argument and it's a tough decision and it's probably the only reason no secretary of defense has had nerve to make the decision cause it is a close call and you have a marine lobby that's real.
But Chaney decided that we couldn't afford it and he had the guts to make it. And similarly with the F-14D. You know, Grumman [corp.] desperately lobbying to get that fighter plane in production and he said we just can't have everything and he cut that. And he told the army that we know your helicopters are wearing out but not now we don't have money to get into the LHX in a big way and Apache -- which is the fire attack helicopter -- iis going to have to end earlier than you had planned. So he made a lot of cancellations rather than the usual stretch out and putting the problem off to the next guy. So I think that he's off to a promising start that way but it's just beginning. I mean the mismatch between the money in sight and the Pentagon's five year plan is about $150 billion off. So we've got a lot of cutting to do, a lot of blood on the floor, A lot of lobbying ahead. Ninety-two is going to be a horrendous year.
John Tower told me before he got rejected as Defense Secretary he figured he could finesse 1990, he could finesse 1991 but '92, '93 you're going to really see a restructuring of the defense establishment of this country.
LAMB: What do you think would have been the difference between a John Tower Defense Department and a Dick Chaney Defense Department?
WILSON: None. Not an awful lot. I think Tower would have made similarly tough decisions. I think he might have even cut deeper. Tower is a real tough guy. I think he was well suited for the job at hand which is to restructure the Pentagon by substraction after all these years of addition. It's much easier to restructure by adding on adding on everybody's happy. When you start to restructure by addition everybody is unhappy. And he's mean enough and he knows where the bodies are buried and no general would roll him. He knows what senators, where they're coming from. So I think he would have been a good secretary of defense but I don't think he would have started out much differently than Chaney has.
LAMB: We're talking about the military and the Pentagon and we're also talking about George Wilson=s new book which is called, "Mud Soldiers: Life Inside the New American Army" published by Scribners.
LAMB: Why did you choose this publisher?
WILSON: Well they put out "Super Carrier" and they had a lot of success with that. And they wanted me to do another book so it just seemed a natural to try it again.
LAMB: How do you write?
WILSON: Well it's always painful because you know anybody who finishes a book has a salute for me whether they sell it or not. Because when you don't have to get down in the basement and write every morning, when you could, you know, read the paper or take the dog for a walk or do something fun it takes a lot of willpower to go ahead and do it on your own time. But the way I write is -- I'm only creative in the morning. If I try and write all day I have to rewrite it the next day. I find that I'm good from about 5 in the morning to noon time then I can do donkey work like my phone calls and do some proofreading or reading, but as far as writing a narrative and telling a story and making it adventuresome for the reader I find that I have to be up on my game and I'm not very good at night or at the end of a day. And I found it very hard to write after work, for instance, which some guys do.
LAMB: How long did you take to physically write the book?
WILSON: I guess I'd have to say about six months of the two years I spent on it.
LAMB: And physically, how do you do it? Do you write it on a computer or a tape ...
WILSON: Yeah, I'm afraid I've been hauled dragging and screaming into the computer age. I have a word processor and I don't pretend to know all what's inside it. I kind of regard it as a garden hoe. I want it to take out the weeds and I don't want to know all the technology whereas my son is just the opposite. He knows everything about computers and all I want to do is use it like an advanced typewriter which I do.
LAMB: Do you sent the product off to the publisher immediately or your editor or do you reedit yourself?
WILSON: No, to my surprise I found out that publishers -- at least my publisher and I think it's true of a number of others -- don't want to have to read a manuscript twice. So they'd rather get the whole thing if they have confidence that you're going to deliver on it rather than read a part of it and then have to remember what they had read before then go back in. So I put it in one final draft. That's what they get.
LAMB: Here's who you dedicated this book to. It's fairly easy to understand. "To American mud soldiers everywhere who gives so much and asks so little." Let's take a look here at some of the pictures and talk about these people. Christian "Tweety" Sylvester before and right next to him is a picture of him afterward. And what are the two pictures?
WILSON: This is a "Tweety" in his hometown of Lincoln, California. And he had a terribly unhappy boyhood. He and his stepfather didn't get along. He couldn't seem to discipline himself in high school. He got into drugs. He couldn't keep up his grades. He missed school. He just didn't fit and thought maybe he ought to kill himself and then he thought maybe there's something for me after all. So he tried the Army.
LAMB: Brian Trotter before and Brian Trotter afterwards.
WILSON: He's one of the army's success stories. He was in all kinds of trouble in his home state of Virginia. His parents and he were at dagger points. And his parents have said the army saved Brian and Brian said the army saved me and says if my country goes to war I want to be up front.
LAMB: And let's see here. We have another one a gentlemen that looks like he's losing a little bit of his hair.
LAMB: Where's this?
WILSON: Yeah, he's Ray McDaniel as he entered with hair down to his shoulders at Ft. Benning and they said, "OK son you're in the army. You're in basic training and here's your barber." There's only one kind of haircut. So he's losing his locks there much to his regret.
LAMB: How did you pick the people you picked to feature.
WILSON: Just to kind of immerse myself in the training company and pick what I thought would be a representative number of interesting characters and also ones who would typify. I had some blacks and some whites.
LAMB: We've got some more pictures here. Here's a drill sergeant, Randy Stover. Tell us about him.
WILSON: Well Randy Stover was the hero of everybody in basic training. I have to remember that Vietnam to these kids who were 17 and 18 was like World War I to you and me. And the war they related to -- believe it or not -- was Grenada. And Randy Stover was a Rifleman in Grenada. He was a terrific drill sergeant because he did everything they did and he could do it all well and he was a coach. He's the kind of coach you'd want your son to be under. And he was the hero of the kids in Delta Company at Ft. Benning.
LAMB: See what else we've got here .. pick one of those pictures Mark and let's -- there's a good one right there ... no, down here. The one over here, right here. I'm sorry the audience can't see what we're doing here. We'll ... I don't want that one, I want the one up above it. Nope. Well ... right there, please. Thank you.
WILSON: OK, that's the drill sergeant that they nicknamed "Z-monster." His name was Mario Zooniga and this is what they called shock treatment. It's the first hour in the United States Army where they report to their training company and a lot of the kids have been in this reception station which is like a holding pen until they get assigned their units. And life if very easy and slack in this reception center and they get the wrong idea. So the drill sergeants thought it was incumbent upon them to let them know that they were in the army and by God, the drill sergeant's word was law. So that's old Z-monster shouting at some recruit that he can't hear him he can't hear him speak louder speak louder.
LAMB: What's the purpose of that?
WILSON: Just to assert their authority. As one drill sergeant said, "You know, I'm 5'2", I weight 130 pounds and I've got to boss around these 200-pound former football players and some of them have been in ghetto gangs and I have to assert my authority from day one -- from hour one -- to let them know that while they're under my command I am the law."
Now there is some debate as to whether shock treatment is necessary and some units are doing away from it. But the feeling of the drill sergeants is they have to give them a cold shower and get their attention.
LAMB: Have the army studied the method of training -- the word isn't deeply, but in great depth ... I guess it's the same thing -- to the point where they are absolutely sure that they are doing it the right way?
WILSON: No. They are always tinkering with it and my biggest criticism of their training is that they overload the drill sergeant to the point that no man should have to take that much load of working you know 14, 16 hours a day six days a week. I don't think you can maintain your patience with that heavy a work load. I think we ought to put a little more help in there with the drill sergeant. Either more drill sergeants or perhaps put in a 1st lieutenant with some combat experience. That would be my first recommendation to help them run these training companies, although the drill sergeants would resent that.
The other thing is I think it's time for a look at how long it takes to learn something. It takes so many hours to learn how to plant a claymore mine in the ground or throw a grenade. I think these kids are so smart that we ought to go right into more of this fun action, more of this Rambo stuff where you teach them how to go through the woods and take out a sniper. They just love that. And it's terrific training and make it more fun by putting some grenade ranges out in the back of the barracks and have contests and use plastic replicas of any tank weapons. Rethink the whole regime of we've got bright kids, they want to learn. Let's give it to them instead of just making them stand out there in the grandstand. Or sit out in the grand stand hour after hour and hear some guy drone away at you know how to work the claymore mine or how to take apart your weapon. It's too boring right now. They ought to make it more interesting.
LAMB: Can't you just hear though a viewer in the audience who is a veteran of the service saying he's got to be crazy. Make it more fun? This is serious business.
WILSON: Well, if you join the Infantry and you want to be a Rambo you're doing it for excitement. And part of excitement -- it's fun to be in a mock combat situation with your buddies. If you're the sniper and I'm the guy combing through the woods trying to wipe you out that's a game. And maybe it sounds immature but you do in combat what you learn in training. And I would like to see us have more of this in the field in the woods actual exercises so the kids get really confident and know how to communicate with each other rather than so much of the sitting in the grand stand and listening.
LAMB: You open this book up -- think was it the big red one. The battle of 1966.
WILSON: Right. Exactly -- '66 right.
WILSON: Well I was at Ft. Riley and I read the citation of this Sergeant Robinson. James Robinson and he won the medal of honor for his activity in this battle I had never heard about even though I had been a combat reporter in Vietnam twice '66 and '72 and I said that must have been some battle. And better than that this Robinson was a member of the same Charlie Company I was following through. So I said, why not make the connection between this is what these kids I'm with would have to do in combat and this is what they're like today. So the way to do that for the book purposes was to look up the survivors of this ferocious battle that Charlie Company fought in '66 when they were surrounded by a whole Viet Cong Battalion and describe what really happens in actual combat and then ask the question to the reader who would volunteer to go out there and get shot at like that and experience that horror?
LAMB: How many people were killed in this battle in '66?
WILSON: There was about ... 80% casualties of wounded and killed. I think there were 34 killed out of a company of 134. Heavy amount of machine guns were fired in on their narrowing parameter.
LAMB: OK. We've got some other pictures and we'll get to in just a second but what happened to the people. Have you talked to any of the people in that battle in Vietnam?
WILSON: Right. This is Johnny Libbs who I looked up. He led the battle because the Company Commander was wounded early on and he was the hero of the battle in the sense that he saved what he could of the Company by calling in artillery so close to the parameter that the Viet Cong, every time they massed for the final assault, were broken up by the artillery that Johnny kept calling in. And he and his few survivors were all in this very tight circle firing outward. And they were up against about eight machine guns all slicing up their Company. They were up against snipers in the trees that were shooting people in the back as they were laying on the ground. It was just a nightmare of an operation.
LAMB: Where is he today?
WILSON: Johnny Libbs is in Evansville, Indiana and he runs a candy company there. And he and his fellow survivors have said that talking out this battle for the purposes of the book have made them well again because they could finally get over their guilt now that they have it in perspective.
LAMB: Here's a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.
WILSON: That's Jimmy Robinson. He's the one who inspired me to reconstruct the battle by going from his role up to everyone else I could find.
LAMB: Still alive?
WILSON: No, he died charging a 50-caliber machine gun nest -- almost cut him in half.
LAMB: And how do you find out what his story is today? Where did you go?
WILSON: Well, I went to the Army history sources. I talked to his family to find out what kind of a boy he was. And there was quite a lot of official records on that battle and his role.
LAMB: When the young fellows come in today into Charlie Company did they know the history? Is the history on the wall somewhere in the barracks?
WILSON: Well that picture and the citation is on the wall, but again I think we could do a little better by instilling these kids with a sense of their regiment and the company and the tradition. We do some of that in the Army today but I think that we should do more.
LAMB: Who's this?
WILSON: That's Phil Hall. He was the machine gunner in the battle and he was very anxious to have the story of their heroism told and he never could get anybody interested in the Army to reconstruct what had happened. He's been very generous to me because I took an interest in his role and everybody elses. He's visiting the Vietnam Memorial there in Washington looking up the names of the guys who did not survive that very same battle.
LAMB: Are you surprised when you go down there at that memorial almost any day and see as many people as you do?
WILSON: Yes I'm surprised and I'm always emotionally struck with an almost knock out punch when I read some of the messages they leave at the wall. It's almost like the wall in Jerusalem where you see Jewish people saying their prayers and then leaving a message in the cracks of the wall. This Vietnam wall has become to one generation anyhow like the great wall in Jerusalem is to religious Jews.
LAMB: Here's Tweety again with his mother this time. How important is the family relationships for these young soldiers?
WILSON: Well there's usually somebody who keeps these kids who haven't found their way in society afloat and in this case Tweety's mother was his heroine and she kept encouraging him and then he missed her so much when he went in the army, but of course he couldn't admit it. So this is the first time that he reunions with her at the end of basic training. And usually there's some member of the family -- not always the parents -- who inspire these kids to the point that they at least try to make something of themselves by joining the army.
LAMB: Who is this gentleman?
WILSON: That's Captain Jim Fleener. He's a Kentuckian and proud of it and he's my idea of a good officer. He's a teacher. He's a human being. The men just worshiped him as a role model. And most of all he cared about his men and they could tell. Once the troops sense that you care about them they'll do anything for you. They'll walk through fire. And somehow he projected that and it was a very happy Company at Ft. Benning.
LAMB: How do you convince someone in the military that you care about them especially in the middle of basic training?
WILSON: I think it's hard to fake. Either you do or you don't. And if you don't really care about these kids you're just doing it to advance your career they have the best manure separator in the world. They sense this immediately and the word goes that this guy doesn't care about us. I think most officers do care but they have to express it a little more readily and dramatically by asking about the kids and once in awhile having a barbecue for the families of the company to make it more of an army family. Theoretically the army is all for that. Unfortunately the training schedule and filling all the blocks gets in the way and very often it doesn't get done. For instance, a young wife at Ft. Riley had never met the company commander that her husband had served under for almost a year. Well that's not the way it's supposed to work. You're supposed to have some sense of identity with you if you're a young army wife.
LAMB: Volunteer army -- we're going to have it for awhile? Will we ever go back to the draft?
WILSON: We'll have to go back to the draft if we ever get in a major war because we're kidding ourselves that an Army of 700,000 plus is enough to fight anywhere. So these kids are going to hold the line until the draft can produce the replacements. We'll go back to the draft only if we have a national emergency. I think the volunteer army is here to stay in one form or the other.
LAMB: We're just going to look at a series of pictures you have about our new soldiers. Anybody on here that you particularly remember more than others?
WILSON: Well they're all kind of interesting. Here this..
LAMB: Right here ... this fellow.
WILSON: All right. That's Glenn Dow. He's from Maine. He got bored being a carpenter and thought he could be more by joining the army and he did so. He resented the amount of time they wasted when he was at Ft. Riley. He wanted to be more than he could be and they didn't lean his way enough.
LAMB: And this fellow?
WILSON: That's Spank Barker. He joined the army because he was working in a restaurant in California. He was bored. He saw no future. He had a wife. He thought he could make something of himself. As he told me, "I wanted to be something more than a little fat kid." He came in the army over weight, kind of self conscious about himself. He gained a lot of traction and he just finished re-enlisting.
LAMB: Go on down the page Mark, and see who else ... right below Mr. Barker -- who is that gentleman, Aaron Henson?
WILSON: Aaron Henson. He was from Texas. He had a daughter. He had tried to be a fireman in his hometown of Texas and the white establishment made excuses of why he couldn't join the fire department even after he had passed the test. He got kind of embittered because he didn't really get smacked in the face with prejudice until he became 18. And he decided that the army offered a chance for his to discipline himself and to make something of himself and make his daughter proud of him. And he had a very rough beginning. He tried to kill himself at one point because he just couldn't adjust to army life but then he became an outstanding soldier and he's doing well in Germany at this moment.
LAMB: Kevin Brutin?
WILSON: Kevin Brutin. Same kind of story. He was getting nowhere in Alabama. He thought that he was falling into bad habits and maybe the army would straighten him out and make a man of him and as far as I can tell he's doing well.
LAMB: Right below him Patrick ... I can't see.
WILSON: Yeah. He's doing well.
LAMB: Is it Dickerson?
WILSON: Dickerson, yes. He joined the army for the adventure. He wanted to have some fun and he took to army life. And as far as I know he's still doing well. He did not go on to Riley with me he went somewhere else.
LAMB: Eric is it Har..
WILSON: Harbor, right.
LAMB: I can't see. There's Harbor.
WILSON: He's a mud soldier who thought that the army offered better prospects than you could find around home and last I talked to him he was glad that he had done it. It disciplined himself. But here again he's wondering whether they're teaching him something he can use once he get's out of the army.
LAMB: you've been around the Pentagon for a lot of years..
WILSON: Too many probably.
LAMB: Is there a favorite service inside the Pentagon that you know -- I don't know how to ask that -- but I mean, is there a service that people would defer to over the others? Would they rather have the navy involved in a conflict with the marines than the army, the air force? Is there any kind of favoritism that you see from the top down?
WILSON: Well, I'm more worried about just the opposite. It seems like we can't do anything anymore without making all four services have a role in it. For instance, there was no reason that you couldn't have had just the navy and the marines do Grenada. It was no reason, in my view, to have F1-11's join the navy planes to bomb Libya. But we've gotten this syndrome now where it's got to be a four service show. So the air force has to have a piece of the action. Take the highly secret attempt to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1980 -- we had to have Marine pilots go from the Navy Air Craft Carrier. We had to have the air force involved in the C-130 and the refueling and we had to have the Army as part of the troops.
So it's just the opposite. We've got this jointness syndrome where a military man is supposed to learn something about the services which is okay but then when we go on a combat operation we seem compelled to give every service a piece of the action. I think we ought to get away from that.
LAMB: The book is called "Mud Soldiers: Life Inside the New American Army." Our author is George C. Wilson who is a military correspondent for the Washington Post. Thank you very much.
WILSON: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1989. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.