WITH U.S. FORCES, Iraq — Lt. Col. Bill Feyk has served in two armies during his 20-year military career.
He entered the U.S. Army of 1972 as a second lieutenant assigned to West Germany, a green officer in a demoralized force riven by drug abuse, racial hatred and an appalling breakdown in basic discipline.
He also served in the U.S. Army of 1991, commanding an armored battalion in the breathtaking blitzkrieg that demolished 40 Iraqi divisions in four days.
Feyk remembers, back in '72, asking the first sergeant at his post in Erlangen, West Germany, to enter the enlisted men's barracks with him at night--and seeing the sergeant disappear for a moment and return with a length of steel pipe. The dark passageway between two barracks was known as "Blood Alley" because it was there that black and white troops settled their differences, many of them carried over from the violent streets of America.
"The soldiers today can't even conceive of how bad it was," Feyk says. "The drugs, the violence, the guy in your platoon who's in there because the judge said: 'Go in the Army or I'll give you three to five (years in prison).' "
Over the last 20 years, largely out of view of the public, the Army has undergone nothing less than a cultural revolution, sweeping aside an ineffective training system, a bloated and rudderless officer corps, mutinous enlisted ranks and a war-fighting doctrine based on avoiding defeat rather than attaining victory.
Led by a handful of visionary senior leaders and a larger number of committed junior officers, beginning in 1973 the Army bought a new generation of high-technology weapons, solved most of its disciplinary problems and instilled a spirit of confidence and competence unmatched in recent history.
"There's no question, this is the best Army any of us has ever seen," says retired Gen. William R. Richardson, former commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command and one of the architects of the Army's renewal.
To be sure, the rout of the bomb-shattered Iraqi army in a four-day ground war was hardly a decisive test of what U.S. soldiers and equipment might have done against a more formidable foe. Even against a broken enemy, the fighting revealed serious shortcomings in the Army's ability to communicate, to haul fuel over long distances and to discern friend from foe. At the same time, the enforced rigor of a Spartan life in the Saudi desert obscured the fact that discipline cannot always be taken for granted.
No matter how brief, however, the clashes of the ground war showed off advances in weaponry and in war-fighting that caught even keen observers by surprise. And of all those that played a role in the triumph, the ones that Richardson and others credited most involved the Army's new emphasis on tough, realistic training, from the squad level up through division-sized maneuvers, with measurable standards and a searching process of self-evaluation at every step.
After the lightning defeat of the Iraqi army earlier this year, Feyk sat in a Humvee deep inside Iraqi territory and shook his head in wonder at the terrifying efficiency of his own force. He, too, cites training--at the Army's National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif., and in Europe--as the key to victory. "The training was tougher than the war," he says.
Gen. Carl E. Vuono, the soon-to-retire Army chief of staff, contends that even more than the new weapons, new doctrine and new training techniques, the Army's turnaround can be ascribed to rigorous self-criticism. While the Army's critics in the 1970s and '80s were complaining about overpriced hardware, low-quality recruits and poor leadership without offering workable answers, the Army was searching its soul and coming up with constructive solutions. "We were able to criticize ourselves--and do something about it," Vuono recalls.
A Changing Society
Much of what changed the Army over the last two decades grew from a mellowing of American society at large. A less-rebellious generation proved more tolerant of military rigor. Racial tensions subsided in the military as they eased--simultaneously--on the streets of American cities. And with fewer students dropping out of high school, it became easier for the armed forces to fill their ranks with diploma-holders. An erosion of student aid funding added to the appeal of ROTC, the campus-based Reserve Officers Training Corps.
At the same time, mounting concern about Soviet military power ensured that the U.S. military continued to prepare for the worst of wars. And in a 1980s climate that gave high priority to national defense, there was support for costly programs that were judged to be instrumental in the overhaul--from lethal new weapons to mundane issues such as upgrading of base housing that had fallen into disrepair.