From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

“Go, Gunfighter, Go!”

When the last bugle is sounded, I want to stand up with my soldiers.

General John Pershing

My new commanding officer, Major General Henry E. “The Gunfighter” Emerson, had taken over the Second Division at Camp Casey just a few months before I arrived in Korea in September 1973. When I went to division headquarters to report to the general, he came bursting out of his office and seized my hand, which he pumped like a well handle.

The man was about fifty, tall, rangy, with a great eagle’s beak of a nose, craggy features, a hot-eyed gaze and a booming voice. He never stopped pacing as he welcomed me. He had earned his nickname in Vietnam by carrying a cowboy-style six-shooter rather than a regulation forty-five-caliber pistol. I was also aware that he had won a reputation there as a fierce fighter.

General Emerson had scheduled a commanders call for this morning, and I stayed on to attend. As my fellow officers came in, the general introduced me, and we seated ourselves around the conference room. Emerson continued to pace. “Today’s subject,” he announced, “is marksmanship.” He started off in a reasonable tone. As he went on, however, he warmed to his subject. Marksmanship was important! The pacing quickened. If marksmanship was neglected, soldiers would be unprepared! The eyes began to blaze. And if soldiers were unprepared, they would not win. And what the hell kind of leadership was that? Fists now pounding.

The pattern was never to change all the while I served under the Gunfighter. A modest premise, mounting fervor and an apoplectic windup. I observed his accelerating excitement on every subject from deploying helicopters along the DMZ to soldier correspondence courses. And his punch line was always the same, a vein-popping “If we don’t do our jobs right, soldiers won’t win!”

His performance before the troops was no different. The first time I witnessed it, we had assembled the entire division on the Camp Casey parade field. Gunfighter started off calmly. “Our mission in Korea is to maintain the armistice agreed to on July 27, 1953, between the United Nations and North Korea. Further, our mission is to come to the aid of our South Korean allies should that armistice be violated.” As he spoke, Emerson’s voice took on velocity. I heard one of the sergeants whisper, “Here he goes.” Pretty soon, Gunfighter was shouting, his eyes were flashing and the veins throbbed on his neck. The troops caught the spirit and began shouting, “Go, Gunfighter, go!”

Emerson had inherited a tough command. Morale in the Second Division when he took over was not high, and discipline was slack. Today’s all-volunteer Army has high standards. It was not the case then. We were in transition from the draft to the all-volunteer force. Close to 50 percent of our troops, in Army shorthand, were “Cat Four,” Category IV, soldiers possessing meager skills in reading, writing and math. They were life’s dropouts, one step above Category V, those who were considered unfit for Army service. I found it heartening to hear a leader sound off with spirit and show a will to change. This division could stand a little gung-ho.

General Emerson was determined to turn around the slack, demoralized operation. He had begun a program for remaking the Second Infantry Division, which he called “Pro-Life,” not to be confused with the antiabortion movement. Emerson’s Pro-Life program, as he put it, “was to provide the soldier opportunities to become a winner rather than a loser in life.” Given Army conditions in Korea, I favored “pro” anything, within reason, though reasonableness was not always Gunfighter’s long suit.

Gunfighter, nevertheless, was determined to lift morale. “You see, gentlemen, if you play football, you’ve only got twenty-two men on the field. Baseball, nine men plus the runners. Basketball, ten.” General Emerson had brought us together one fall morning, and I was not sure where this commander’s call was headed. “But we’ve got eighteen thousand men in the division,” he continued. “And we want all of them to play. We want all of them to feel like winners. Pro-Life!” His solution was “combat sports.”

Gunfighter went on to explain. We would start with combat football. Instead of conventional eleven-man teams, we would field whole units—first platoon against second platoon, maybe eighty men at once. We would play on the soccer field, and the objective was to get the football into the opponent’s net. How? Any way you can, the general explained. Run it, throw it, kick it, pass it. And, to liven up the action, we would use two footballs at once. The rules? None. You can tackle, block, clip, blindside, anything. Referees? No rules, so you don’t need any referees. And no penalties.

It sounded crazy to me, but it fit General Emerson’s athletic philosophy. Conventional team sports, with their rigid regulation, favor stars. But in anything-goes, no-holds-barred sports, finely developed skills become marginal. The ninety-six-pound weakling can trip the all-county six-footer as easily as anyone else. In combat football, everyone’s a quarterback. In combat basketball, everyone’s a forward, a guard, a center. Gunfighter’s goal was maximum participation.

As soon as we started combat football, the division doctors were in an uproar. They were being flooded with orthopedic cases, some serious. They threatened to blow the whistle on Gunfighter. We instituted minimal rules. We put in a referee to stop play at least when both balls went out of bounds. We replaced combat boots with sneakers. We banned kicking, clipping and punching. The troops loved combat football, at least the spectators did, and Gunfighter Emerson adored it.

Yet, I can easily put that man’s occasional excesses into perspective. In the end, results are what matter. While I served under General Emerson, AWOLs in the division dropped by over 50 percent. Reenlistments jumped by nearly 200 percent. And while impetuous youths might occasionally punch each other out, racially related brawling practically disappeared. He had an instinct for knowing what gave soldiers pride, especially the rank and file who had rarely tasted any in their lives.

One day years later, I got a call from Gunfighter’s staff telling me that the old soldier was about to retire, and the Eighteenth Airborne Corps was going to put on a big show. Emerson had personally requested me to command the troops for the parade. I begged off. Fort Bragg was the home of the Eighty-second Airborne. Even though my division was part of Emerson’s corps, the paratroopers of the Eighty-second would not appreciate having someone outside their division come over to lead their troops. Ten minutes later an aide was on the phone again. “The general said, ‘Tell Powell to get the hell down here.’” It sounded like the Gunfighter to me.

I went to Fort Bragg and started whipping these brawny paratroopers into marching trim. On the appointed day, thousands of people were in attendance and Gunfighter stood on the reviewing stand, shaking every hand in sight and slapping every back. I was standing before the troops at parade rest when I saw him gesture for me to come over. He thanked me for taking charge of the parade and said he had something special he wanted me to do. When he gave the word, I was to order the officers to do an about-face, so that they would be facing the troops from about eight inches away. I started to question him about this novel command, but he told me not to worry. I went back and managed to get the word passed along to the other officers on parade.

The ceremony began with speeches and awards honoring Emerson. When the time came for Gunfighter to speak, he could barely compose himself. He began weeping, repeating himself, and summoning the names of long-dead comrades. He paused at one point, looked straight at me and shouted, “Now!”

“Officers—and officers only,” I ordered, “about face!” There we stood almost nose-to-nose with the soldiers, wondering what was supposed to happen next.

Then Gunfighter bellowed from the reviewing stand, “Officers, salute your soldiers!”

It was a moving gesture, pure Gunfighter Emerson, and in its simple symbolism said everything that had to be said about armies and about who, in the end, most deserves to be saluted.

General Colin L. Powell

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