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The philosopher-centurion

Eric Haney's gentle wisdom defies the stereotype of old soldiers.

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Hanging around a gaggle-of-authors-signing-books schmoozer last week, I hardly noticed the shy guy in the black turtleneck. About three dozen Atlanta authors were jostling for attention at the King Plow Center. Many of the writers were lapel grabbers -- "read mine," "no, read mine," their eyes pleaded. Others were coy, waiting for the throngs to throng them.

Nearby, the fellow in the black turtleneck shuffled his feet, smiled hopefully when someone slowed in front of his stack of books.

Eric Haney is one of those people who defines the term "not what you expect." He's quiet, unimposing, affable. He could be a teacher, a counselor, a bureaucrat.

Actually, he's a killer, now retired.

It was his chosen occupation, and he was good at it. Moreover, he knows that society needs killers. Don't get me wrong. Haney is no homicidal sociopath. He was a soldier, and a damn good one, one of the special cadre trained to fight terrorism.

Haney's book, Inside Delta Force: The Story of America's Elite Counterterrorist Unit, hit my desk a few months ago. I gave it a glance, expecting to read "Rambo to the Rescue," and I was prepared to dispatch it to a quick exile on my bookshelf. Twenty pages into the book and I said, "Whoa, this isn't Rambo."

The book so penetrated my jaded, over-the-top, left-wing cynicism, I picked up the phone and asked Haney to lunch.

Haney eschews military image. He's stylish -- heck, he'd look more at home in a Beemer than a Hummer. There's not even a martial bark in his voice. It's sort of hard imagining this soft, Floyd County bred drawl turning in a klaxon horn ordering, "TEN-SHUN!"

More important than style was Haney's substance. What I had discovered was a soldier with a social conscience. Tough guys in uniform spouting philosophy aren't unheard of, but they're a rarity, and Haney knows it. "Most soldiers become brutes, partisans who don't question their own actions, because it's easier that way," he told me. "If you think too much about what you do and why, it's bound to make you uncomfortable."
Haney rose to the Army rank of command sergeant major -- there are a lot fewer of them than generals. You don't get all of those stripes on your sleeve by being a loose cannon. And it would be a mistake to think that Haney's pensiveness is a signal that he's a rebel.

He isn't. As you might expect from a man who for more than two decades earned a paycheck by assassinating terrorists in Beirut, rescuing missionaries in the Sudan, helping lead the assault on Grenada, and fighting down-and-dirty guerilla warfare in several banana republics, Haney's solutions are tough ones.

When he was assigned in 1983 to Beirut, his job as a sniper was to kill several militia terrorists who liked to shoot at U.S. Marines and who then hid in crowds of children. Illustrating the complexity of the man, Haney recalls he had no problem pulling the trigger. "It dang sure wasn't a pleasant thing to do, though. Shooting these shooters was necessary, but they're human beings. I couldn't forget that."

The 50-year-old Marietta resident has a habit of precisely answering questions. It's a military thing. If the colonel asks the sergeant, "How bad is it?" the correct response is a hard assessment -- not sociological musings. So, ask Haney: How would you handle Saddam Hussein? He responds: "Kill him." Or, what would you do about al-Qaeda and the Taliban? Answer: "Wipe 'em off the face of the Earth."

Nothing surprising there, considering the source was one of the founders of the elite Delta Force. But the real -- and surprising -- Haney materializes when you ask the very unmilitary question: Why?

With Saddam, for example, Haney doesn't cite all of the Bushie rubbish about weapons of mass destruction. Rather, he gives an exceptional lecture on Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis are so complicit" in harboring terrorists, Haney concludes. "When Iraq is in the western fold, when we knock off Saddam, we'll use that example and turn to the Saudis and say, 'Straighten up your monarchy or it will disappear.'

"If the monarchy is overthrown," he continues, "it will be by Islamic radicals who make the Iranian ayatollahs look like Boy Scouts, and we don't want that. I think the monarchy probably will disappear in less than five years, and what we want to see is something more democratic take its place. That's the lesson we can create in Iraq."

I express skepticism that American intervention results in more democracy. I ask about Latin America, where U.S. involvement generally bolstered right-wing thugs, death squads and the like.

"No argument," he says, and then argues: "You flip a coin to decide which side was worse" in Latin America. But, with an intentional jab at my liberal reflexes, he says: "Before we make a final judgment, think about this. A few years ago, the place was full of dictators. Now they're all gone. They're holding elections [in Central American countries].

"Sure," he adds, "I knew what we were doing was to benefit American companies or for other reasons that weren't so noble. But as it turned out, things are a lot better there now."

Breaking with the traditional military catechism about Vietnam -- that politicians were the reason we lost the war and that it was a worthy cause -- Haney provides another example of his wild card-ism. "We were supporting a corrupt regime in Vietnam," he says. "It never could have stood with the U.S. propping it up. We never should have been there."

If you've watched CNN during the last few months, you've probably seen Haney. He was one of the regular "profilers" during October when two snipers terrorized Maryland and Virginia.
Haney scored hits with his dispassionate, almost monotone description of the assault weapon used by John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. Haney correctly crystal-balled the likely armed forces background of at least one of the snipers; and, his accuracy was heightened by predicting that the military experience did not include special forces.

On the other hand, Haney also "stated firmly that the snipers would turn out to be white. "That was a mistake," he laughs. "No dispute. I'm not the sort who is afraid to admit that I make mistakes."

Haney also has been steadfastly asserting that Osama bin Laden is long dead, despite Bush administration claims to the contrary. A long shot guess?

"Look, two points on terrorism," he says. "First, it's a real war and a different war than we've fought in the past. To win the war, we not only have to defeat the terrorists but we have to defeat the causes of terrorism. Muslims want our Army off their sacred Saudi soil. So we clean up Iraq, get the Saudis to clean up their support of terrorism, and we get the hell out and remove the irritation that has fed bin Laden. We drag the Israelis and Palestinians to the table, bang their heads and tell them, 'You're both going to live here in peace.'"

He pauses, thinking about how to criticize the commander in chief. "The second point is that the people in Washington know that if the noise about a 'war on terrorism' is kept at the right pitch, you win elections and sell a lot of armaments."

Amen.

Senior Editor John Sugg has not been arrested by John Ashcroft's Thought Police. He has merely been on vacation, and has dispatched this column to alleviate his readers' hunger for his wisdom. If you're good boys and girls, he'll deliver more literary holiday presents to you from his redoubt in the Georgia mountains. E-mail him at johnsugg@aol.com until Jan. 1.

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