"May I get you a drink sir?" The waiter's voice drew Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith out of his reverie momentarily.
"Sure, Scotch, neat. Thanks."
Hannibal took another draw on his quickly dwindling cigar. It was crappy, but what did he expect from Vietnam? Vietnamese were more enamored of cigarettes, and so were their prior overlords, the French. Damn what he wouldn't do for a good Cuban or Dominican. He glanced at the door again, watching for General Walker to arrive. He wasn't looking forward to the conversation, but the General was the one person who could salvage his career, which at the moment was notoriously and publicly in the toilet.
The waiter put the Scotch on the table. Hannibal took a swig and winced. Apparently, Saigon was not the place for good Scotch either. If he had a few more of these, he mused, he wouldn't care about the bad Scotch or his tanked career. He had noticed two fellow Special Forces Colonels at a table near the door when he arrived. Both had mumbled "Hannibal" before looking back down at their drinks. They didn't meet his eyes. Thinking about his moniker almost made him laugh. That shit needs to get cut off at the knees, he thought. He was given the nickname Hannibal during a difficult operation in Korea. His CO and XO were killed five minutes in, and the Captain and two others were knocked out by a grenade or injured by the resulting shrapnel. The original plan couldn't be accomplished with only three men, but the brilliant young second lieutenant came up with a work around and completed the mission with only himself and two others. He received a Silver Star, a fast track up the ranks, and a nickname he was proud of. Until now.
He wished he knew how it all went so wrong. On his promotion to Lt. Colonel, he was given the opportunity to pick his own team, an Alpha Team. He pored through dozens of service records. He recruited the best, the brightest. Top of their class at West Point, highest marks in Special Forces training, combat experience. First mission out he had an elaborate and brilliant plan, but somehow it all went to shit. And then there was one, he thought bitterly. Out of eight. Wasn't the Captain (or Colonel, in his case) supposed to go down with the ship? It would have been better if he had been killed too. Then at least his honor might have remained intact. Of course, it wasn't just being the lone survivor that was the problem. They had failed in their mission, and without a living pilot (or a working radio, which had been shot out by the VC), he had no way to get back and warn anyone that his team hadn't succeeded in taking out the enemy positions. The resulting body count of American soldiers cut him to the core. Maybe he should be more worried about that and less about his career, his conscience nagged.
Hannibal's head jerked up. How could a man as burly as General James Walker have snuck up to him like that? Hannibal stood and saluted.
"As you were Colonel."
Hannibal motioned for General Walker to sit. From good Scottish stock, James Walker stood 6'2" and in his youth was often described as "strapping". He was still imposing. Walker and Hannibal's father were classmates at West Point, and served in World War II together, where the elder Smith had saved Walker's life. Hence the opportunity for Hannibal's second chance. The General believed he owed it to Hannibal's father, who died in Korea.
"John, I'm not a fan of bullshit or small talk, so I'm going to cut to it. The powers that be wanted to bust you down and ship you out to patrol a rice paddy. I talked them into the fact that you had more to offer. But you can't fuck this up."
Hannibal couldn't meet his eyes. "I appreciate all the trouble you went to General, but what makes you so confident I won't, as you put it, fuck it up?"
The General laughed. "Not filling me with a lot of confidence, son. Look, last time you went balls to the wall picking your team with no input or direction. I'm hoping this time you'll amend that line of thinking."
Hannibal drew on his cigar stub thoughtfully. The General handed him a fresh cigar, which Hannibal quickly realized was Cuban. Hannibal looked at it in askance, knowing how impossible it was to get these even in the States after the missile crisis.
"I had a few left," the General said smiling. "You're going to need all the help you can get picking this team. The Cuban is the least I can do." The General watched Hannibal closely.
Still looking down, Hannibal said "I wish I knew where it went south. I picked the best men, but the team…I don't know, when everything went to shit, so did they. They started turning on each other…I don't know. I mean, it wasn't them, it was obviously me. The buck stops here. I just can't figure it out."
The General looked at Hannibal through the puff of smoke from his own now lit cigar. "My wife's father ran a very large and lucrative business. One thing he used to tell me is that the best men are not necessarily the best men for the job. He would frequently ignore highly educated candidates in favor of "street educated" ones if they had a specific talent he needed. It didn't matter what race or even gender they were, even if they had a criminal record if they had a desire to clean up their act. Not murderers or people of bad character, mind you, but people who were basically good but had taken a wrong turn. He also likened a business to a baseball team. You can have the best pitchers in the world, but if all you have is pitchers, you don't have a team. You need good pitchers, but you also need catchers, and first basemen, and outfielders. Any good baseball manager will tell you the best players are characters. They have strong personalities, and it's the manager's job to somehow get them all to work well together toward a goal. That manager can fill one player's weakness with another player's strength, and vice versa."
Hannibal mulled this over. "So basically, I picked a team full of highly educated great pitchers and as a result, I never really had a chance of fielding a team."
The General smiled. "Pretty much" he answered. "There is one other thing you should consider." Hannibal looked expectantly. The General continued. "You said the team turned on each other. Look, John, you are known for being a highly ethical, moral individual. You need to have men on your team who are the same way. You need to figure out how to gauge that when you talk to them. And you do need to talk to them. Just looking at their service jacket is not enough. Men like that, like you…well, they'll stick together when it really counts."