By Ray Starmann
Six simple words, “Don’t worry General, we trust you.”
During the Gulf War in 1991, General Fred Franks, VII Corps commander spoke with several soldiers in the now deactivated, but once mighty, Third Armored Division. During the conversation, Franks appeared worried and tired. One of the soldiers looked at him and said, “Don’t worry General, we trust you.”
Those six words spoke volumes about the state of the military in 1991 and speak volumes about the wretched state of the military in 2016.
How many soldiers or Marines today would repeat those words to someone with stars on their shoulders? Sure, there are still a few tough, honest, brave senior leaders, but it’s more than obvious that the majority of the brass is more focused on protecting their sixes, aka their butts, than they are concerned about the troops, the institution and the nation they have sworn to protect.
The military’s senior leaders and particularly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have stood by during the last seven years and watched without uttering so much as a whimper as the Obama Administration destroyed the traditions, readiness and the warrior culture of the military.
The lack of leadership, or moral fortitude and rectitude is reminiscent of the brass during the Vietnam War, which was selfish, careerist and which nearly decimated the US Army.
The US Army that went home from Southeast Asia was severely crippled, but not on the battlefield. The US Army never lost a major battle in the Vietnam War. It was bleeding from within. What saved it was a smattering of rock solid senior leaders who weren’t feather merchants and many young, field grade officers, (majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels) who were determined to stay on active duty, not because they were thinking of themselves, but because they were determined to rebuild the Army.
One of these young officers was Fred Franks. I have mentioned Fred Franks before, but not in any detail. To understand what is lacking in the military today and what needs to be done and what the results can be, it is important to understand officers like Fred Franks, who often referred to the hot blue flame that burned within him, a fixation, an obsession to fix the Army.
In a period of intense combat, while serving with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Franks earned the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with V Device, the Air Medal, and two Purple Hearts. While fighting in Cambodia he was severely wounded, and after a series of unsuccessful surgeries, lost his left leg, which was amputated below the knee. Franks fought to remain in a combat unit, something not normally granted amputees, and was eventually permitted to remain in the combat arms.
Franks eventually rose to the rank of the Lieutenant-General and was given command of the VII Corps in Germany. The VII Corps, a gargantuan organization, also consisting of elements from V Corps, had 250,000 soldiers, thousands of tracked and wheeled vehicles and was the size of Patton’s Third Army in WWII. VII Corps was deployed to Saudi Arabia in December 1990 to provide the offensive combat power to oust Saddam’s legions from Kuwait and more importantly, to destroy the Republican Guard.
VII Corps’ mission was simple; conduct a massive left hook, Hail Mary sweep across Southern Iraq and then annihilate Saddam’s elite armored and mechanized formations of the Republican Guard.
During the first night of the ground war, on February 24, 1991, General Franks ordered the entire corps to halt for the night. Franks was worried about fratricide and concerned about elements that were still passing through the breach and the Iraqi defensive belt.
The following morning, General Schwarzkopf in Riyadh, 250 miles from the frontlines, went ballistic when he learned that VII Corps hadn’t moved farther and faster. The Schwarkopf/Franks battle would continue for the rest of the conflict, after the cease-fire, into the 1990’s and indeed is the subject of military roundtables to this day.
As time passed on the 25th of February, VII Corps continued to attack through Southern Iraq, mopping up frontline Iraqi units that were all too eager to lay down their arms to the Americans after a fusillade was fired off to preserve their own honor.
By the 26th, Franks knew that the Corps would hit the Republican Guard that day. In fact, VII Corps reconnaissance elements had made contact with Republican Guard reconnaissance units the night of the 25th. Franks was receiving intelligence that painted the Republican Guard and the armored divisions of the Regular Army in a hasty defense along the IPSA Pipeline Road, with three divisions up and two in the back.
Strangely, Schwarzkopf was receiving intelligence that portrayed a completely different picture. His intelligence told him that the Republican Guard was bugging out of the theater and the only way to finish them off was for Franks to move like a bat out of hell.
As is so often the case with the fog of war, both intelligence pictures were actually correct. Iraqi GHQ had ordered the Republican Guard to block VII Corps with the Al Medina and the Tawakalna Divisions, but their other divisions in the theater, the Hammurabi, the Adnan, the Al-Faw and a Special Forces Brigade were indeed retreating.
On the afternoon of the 26th, VII Corps made contact with the Republican Guard and began what would become a 12 hour battle along a 50 mile front. By morning, the Tawakalana Division, the 12th Armored, the 10th Armored and the 52nd Divisions were obliterated. By noon, the Al Medina Division would be destroyed by 1st Armored Division in the biggest tank battle since Kursk in 1943.
Whether General Franks should or should not have stopped on the first night of the 100 Hour War will be debated by military historians for the next thousand years. What is important is that the US Army had been rebuilt into a spectacular force that could field units like VII Corps.
As Franks said during an interview after the war, “Desert Storm wasn’t won in 100 Hours. It was won in 20 years at Grafenwoehr, on Reforger and at the NTC.”
I got to know General Franks during the production of a four hour Gulf War documentary in 2001. He was a polite, candid, poised man who still brooded over the feud with Schwarkopf and the reasons why he halted VII Corps on the night of February 24th, 1991.
While Franks probably believes his greatest contribution to history was leading VII Corps in the Gulf War, his biggest achievement could very well be participating and indeed becoming a key figure in the resurrection of the US Army during a time when the Army needed persons of conviction.
Fred Franks was a symbol of the Army in 1991. The common leadership traits 25 years ago seem nearly vanished among today’s generals; patriotism, courage and concern for the troops have been replaced by what can I do for the greater good of myself?
And, it shows. And, the troops know it. And, the troops deserve better. They bear the burden of our wars and receive very few accolades as the generals prim their massive egos, pin on a new star, or punch out with a guaranteed defense contractor position or a military analyst gig on cable news.
The troops expect generals to act a certain way; they are after all, generals. But, the troops also expect the brass to care about them. When they don’t care, is when the bottom begins to fall out.
The US Army, and the US military as a whole, is rapidly nearing dead on arrival status. Will it be resurrected, or will political correctness, militant feminism and moral cowardice condemn the United States of America to destruction and defeat in war and to the ash heap of history like other world powers in history?