“Hope Is Not A Method”

I reflect on it often. I think anyone in my position would ask that question. There are many reasons you can argue why I shouldn’t be the Chief. There are any number of things I’m not: not a West Point graduate, not a Ranger School graduate, not a Washington veteran. For the institution it is significant that someone from my background is Chief. It is evidence of the kind of army we have that careers are not preordained by school or family or assignments. But I have tried to do every job as well as I could and to think about my duties in a broad perspective. When I was the S-3 [operations officer] in a battalion, I tried to put myself in my commander’s shoes. Now did I do as well as I should have? I don’t know. And I was fortunate enough from the outset to work for very good people. In an institution that is essentially people, that is very important. One of my predecessors, Creighton Abrams, was fond of saying that “people aren’t in the Army. They are the Army.”

We disrupted them for a while. But when we left, it was like taking your hand out of a bucket of water.

When did you decide you were going to make the Army a career?

I may have even decided as a senior at Norwich University, where I was commissioned as a reserve officer. But I knew it was what I wanted after I got my first assignment—at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1960. I had very good relationships and very good experiences with noncommissioned officers. They taught me a lot. I liked what they represented. I went to the 2d Armored Division—George Patton’s old division, “Hell on Wheels”—and I was assigned to the 66th Armor. It had fought in North Africa and throughout northern Europe. The older sergeants remembered those early days of the Armor Corps and these battlefields. To be accepted as a soldier by them was important to me; it meant something. So I made my decision, and I competed for a Regular Army commission. I’m not sure how the competition went, to tell you the truth. I mean, I didn’t have to run ten miles or anything like that, but I did a couple of interviews, and I was accepted and sworn in at Fort Hood. So I had made my commitment.

And I found I truly loved being a soldier. I learned that about myself when I got to Korea in 1961, in a tank battalion in the 1st Cavalry Division. I found I just liked being with soldiers. I enjoyed the noncommissioned officers and my relationship with them as an officer. In those days the Korean War was still a very vivid memory. There were no families over there with us, and we lived in garrisons, camps really, and from there we spent a lot of time in the field policing the U.N. armistice—patrolling, manning outposts, checkpoints—and we were on constant alerts. We truly lived in field conditions, and it was great soldiering.

You went down to Indochina in 1962. South Vietnam is not known as a country congenial to tanks, so how did you end up there so early, before the rest of the Army?

I volunteered. In January of 1962 a message came to us in Korea, a secret message that asked for people to volunteer to serve in Vietnam. I knew where it was because I’d read Bernard Fall’s book Hell in a Very Small Place , about the siege of Dien Bien Phu, so I was familiar with the French experience in Indochina. I wasn’t married, and going there was something I wanted to do. I wanted to be a soldier, and if that meant going to Korea, or going to Vietnam, then that’s what I wanted.

First impressions?

That this was truly an adventure. It was fairly obvious to me the minute I landed at Tan Son Nhut—in January of 1963, I think—that this was a completely different country from what I had already experienced in Korea, and a completely different atmosphere. I was processed through in Saigon, and my impression was that things were truly very loose. I went on a bus and was issued a weapon. I could pick the one I wanted from any number of weapons—as I recall, I got a carbine, an M-2 carbine—drew some ammunition and some other stuff, and got on an Otter, and flew to Can Tho. It was all kind of casual, not much structure. There wasn’t very much “O.K., you’re going to do this, this, and this.” They said, “Here, we’re going to send you down to Bac Lieu.” So I went to Bac Lieu, to the ARVN 21st Infantry Division, and I landed at a dirt strip. On the tower, a little tower like a hunter’s tower in Germany, was a sign that said BAC LIEU INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: TWO FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL IN THE DRY SEASON, TWO FEET BELOW IN THE WET SEASON . That’s what Bac Lieu was like. I ultimately wound up as an adviser with the South Vietnamese Army. I was wounded in May 1963 and was sent back to the States for a little while. I went to Fort Knox, the Armor School, then to Europe for my first tour there. This was Europe of the sixties. The Soviets were the threat, and tank gunnery was king.

A completely different subculture, the European Army?

Precisely. In many respects, what we knew of the war in Vietnam was what we read in the Army Times .

So in the sixties the vision of the next war in Europe was still the orthodox vision of war?

Very definitely. When I was at the Command and General Staff College, in some respects training for Vietnam was an afterthought.