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Cover Story August 3, 2006


 

 

by lyle e davis

He was a soldier’s soldier. He was a thorn in the side of bureaucrats, incompetent General officers whom he called “Perfumed Princes,” politicians, and most anyone who didn’t do their jobs and, more importantly, do it right.

He could be, and often was, one of the most demanding, toughest commanders of any unit in the Army.

He served in three wars and was the most decorated veteran in U.S. history. Colonel David Hackworth’s decorations included two distinguished service crosses, the second highest US award for valour, 10 silver stars, eight bronze stars and eight purple hearts. He became the Army's youngest captain after winning a battlefield commission during the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, he was known for leading troops from the front during some of the most intense fighting. He was a gritty, bayonet-loving combat commander -- radio call sign, "Steel Six" -- who chewed cigars and sipped beer while pouring over maps detailing enemy strong-points and re-supply routes. Yet he ditched his medals in protest and was nearly court-martialed for publicly criticizing the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
He was “Hack.” Colonel David Hackworth, USArmy, Retired.

He had strong disdain for ticket-punching senior military officers, who were more concerned about their own careers than they were about the individual soldiers under their commands. Hack wanted them out of the defense establishment just as soon as they showed their cards and before they could make decisions affecting the lives of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

He spoke his mind. In 1971 he appeared in the field on ABC's "Issue and Answers" to say Vietnam "is a bad war ... it can't be won. We need to get out." He also predicted that Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese within four years, a prediction that turned out to be far more accurate than anything the Joint Chiefs of Staff were telling President Nixon or that the President was telling the American people.

He was not an admirer of our Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. He was particularly incensed that Rumsfeld used a machine to sign condolence letters sent to the families of dead soldiers in Iraq.

On Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld:

Published on Tuesday, August 5, 2003 by Salon.com

The War According to David Hackworth

The Retired Colonel Criticizes Donald Rumsfeld Whose Bad Planning Mired U.S. Troops in an Ugly Guerrilla Conflict in Iraq. His Sources? Defiant Soldiers Sending Dispatches from the Front.

by Jonathan Franklin

Retired U.S. Army Col. David Hackworth is a cocky American military commander who for half a century was at the front lines of the Army's most important battles. Most recently, though, Hackworth has been at the front lines of a domestic war: the debate over U.S. military strategy in Iraq, and whether the Bush administration planned well enough to achieve a decisive military victory and keep the postwar peace.

Hackworth was everywhere on cable television during the first days of the war, when early military setbacks convinced him and other retired military leaders that the administration, whose backers sold the conflict as a "cakewalk," hadn't sent enough troops to quell Iraqi resistance. He wrote a widely quoted column headlined "Stuck in the Quicksand" in early April -- just as the tide seemed to turn and the pace of victory picked up again. Though he is a Colonel by rank, Hackworth was counted among the so-called "television generals" the administration blasted after Baghdad fell, and many conservative admirers turned against him.


Colonel David Hackworth

But now, with American soldiers still dying almost daily in Iraq, the tide of opinion may be turning again, in favor of Hackworth's argument that the administration was unprepared for what's turning out to be a long-term guerrilla resistance in Iraq. Today the primary front of

Hackworth's war of opinion isn't cable television, but a pair of Web sites -- Soldiers for the Truth and his own site, Hackworth.com -- where he's campaigning to document the dire fate of U.S. troops in Iraq. The sites have quickly become a repository for the gripes and fears of America's beleaguered combat troops.

On a typical day Hackworth receives hundreds of e-mails, letters and faxes from American soldiers, complaining about everything from silk-weight underwear to the weapons they've been assigned. "Pistols suck," wrote one soldier. "Bring and use every weapon. Shotguns are great at close ranges." At a time when soldiers have been disciplined for griping to the media, Hackworth is providing a fascinating outlet for what they're really experiencing. Among the more evocative messages:

"Soldiers are living in the dirt, with no mail, no phone, no contact with home, and no break from the daily monotony at all. I practically got in a fist fight with this captain over letting my private send an e-mail over his office's internet. This clown spends his days sending flowers to his wife and surfing the net. Disgraceful and all too typical of today's Army."

"Soldiers get literally hundreds of flea or mosquito bites and they can't get cream or Benadryl to keep the damn things from itching ... I am not talking about bringing in the steak and lobster every week. I am talking about basic health and safety issues that continue to be neglected by the Army."
"We did not receive a single piece of parts-support for our vehicles during the entire battle ... not a single repair part has made it to our vehicles to date ... my unit had abandoned around 12 vehicles ... .I firmly believe that the conditions I just described contributed to the loss and injury of soldiers on the battlefield."

"We have done our job and have done it well, we have fulfilled our obligation to this operation, but we are still here and are still being mistreated and misled. When does it end? Do we continue to keep the liberators of Iraq here so they can continue to lose soldiers periodically to snipers and ambushes? My unit has been here since September and they have no light at the end of the tunnel. How many of my soldiers need to die before they realize that we have hit a wall?"

Although the controversial Hackworth has his critics, no one disputes his half-century of military accomplishment. During World War II the 15-year-old Hackworth lied about his age to fight in Italy. During Vietnam he designed and implemented unconventional warfare tactics -- allegedly including a private brothel for his troops -- and wrote the Vietnam Primer, considered by many to be the leading book on guerrilla warfare tactics in Vietnam. Wounded eight times (his left leg still carries a bullet from the Vietnam War), he racked up enough medals, he says, to declare himself the "Army's Most Decorated Soldier" -- though he admits the U.S. Army has no such title. No one denies that Hackworth has seen more combat and taken more bullets than almost any American soldier still alive.

Today, the bestselling author -- his books include "Steel my Soldiers' Hearts," "Price of Honor" and "About Face" -- writes a column for the conservative site World Net Daily.

He's starting to feel his years. His bullet-ridden leg propped up on pillows at his home in suburban Connecticut, Hack is far from the action. So he chose another tactic: He brought the front home. In a conversation with Salon, he termed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an "asshole" who "misunderstood the whole war" and he predicted that American troops could be stuck in Iraq for "at least" another 30 years.
How long do you think U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq?

God only knows, the way things are going. At least 30 years. Tommy Franks [recently retired commander of U.S. troops in Iraq] said four to 10 years. Based on Cyprus and other commitments in this kind of warfare, it is going to be a long time -- unless the price gets too heavy. We say it is costing the U.S. $4 billion a month; I bet it is costing $6 billion a month. Where the hell is that money going to come from?

How do you see the combat situation evolving in Iraq?

There is no way the G [guerrilla] is going to win; he knows that, but his object is to make us bleed. To nickel and dime us. This is Phase 1. But what he is always looking for is the big hit -- a Beirut [-style car-bomb attack] with 242 casualties, something that gets the headlines! The Americans have their head up their ass all the time. All the advantages are with the G; he will be watching. He is like an audience in a darkened theater and the U.S. troops are the actors on stage all lit up, so the G can see everything on stage, when they are asleep or when his weapons are dirty. The actor can't see crap in the
audience.

For many weeks your Web site has described conditions in Iraq as being far more chaotic and unstable than generally reported. Why did the Pentagon try to downplay the problems instead of playing it straight and saying this is a long- term problem for America?

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz made a very horrible estimate of the situation. They concluded that the war would be Slam Bam Goodbye Saddam, followed by victory parades with local Iraqi folks throwing flowers and rice and everything nice, then the troops would come home.

When I examined the task organization, my estimate was totally contrary to Rumsfeld, who went in light and on the cheap, all based upon this rosy scenario. I never thought this would be a fight without resistance.”

On Colonel Oliver North:

“He’s a jackass. He is so preposterous that there is a temptation to laugh at him. He's smarmy, a flatter, a brownnoser. He's also a twisted impostor, a drugstore Marine with an apparent compulsion to bullshit just about all the time. But while he tries to fool people with his fantasies, he is also very easy to fool. He boasts that he was a can-do guy when he was in the White House, but the record spells no-can-do. North did terrible damage to the U.S. until he was caught. One thread runs through his performance--getting conned. The Iranians conned him, the contras conned him, the crooked arms dealers conned him and even Manuel Antonio Noriega conned him.” Playboy Magazine, June 1994 v41 n6 p90(5).

On General Raymond Barrett:

Nothing is more basic than Basic Combat Training. Basic to the ways of war. Basic to national security. Basic to the very survival of the United States. So how come Fort Jackson, the single largest producer of Basic grunts, male and female, is under the command of a general who piled up more friendly fire casualties than anyone else in Desert Storm?

From an old time Drill Instructor, disgusted with the ‘baby-sitting’ of the new basic training:

“It's not a pretty thing to think about, not a fun thing you want to talk about, but there it is. If we're not training 'em to be good soldiers, we're training 'em to be dead soldiers."
.
He preferred the combat style of World War II and Korean War heroes like James Gavin and Matthew Ridgeway and, during Vietnam, of Hank "The Gunfighter" Emerson and Hal Moore.
General Moore, the co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, called him "the Patton of Vietnam," and Gen. Creighton Abrams, the last American commander in that disastrous war, described him as "the best battalion commander I ever saw in the United States Army."

Col. Hackworth's battlefield exploits put him on the line of American military heroes squarely next to Sgt. Alvin York and Audie Murphy.

The novelist Ward Just, who knew him for forty years, described him as "the genuine article, a soldier's soldier, a connoisseur of combat." At 14, as World War II was sputtering out, he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marine, and at 15 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Over the next 26 years he spent fully seven in combat. He was put in for the Medal of Honor three times; the last application is currently under review at the Pentagon. He was twice awarded the Army's second highest honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, along with 10 Silver Stars and eight Bronze Stars. When asked about his many awards, he always said he was proudest of his eight Purple Hearts and his Combat Infantryman's Badge.

A reputation won on the battlefield made it impossible to dismiss him when he went on the attack later as a critic of careerism and incompetence in the military high command. With almost five years in-country, Col. Hackworth was the only senior officer to sound off about the Vietnam War. After the interview, he retired from the Army and moved to Australia.

"He was perhaps the finest soldier of his generation," observed the novelist and war correspondent Nicholas Proffit, who described Col. Hackworth's combat autobiography, About Face, a national best-seller, as "a passionate cry from the heart of a man who never stopped loving the Army, even when it stopped loving him back."


Having risen from private by way of a battlefield commission in Korea, where he became the Army's youngest captain, to Vietnam, where he served as its youngest bird colonel, he never stood on rank.

Like most former sergeants, I had little use for second lieutenants. They could get a platoon in trouble faster than a stroll through a minefield. George Patton is reported to have said that an officer wasn't worth a pinch of salt until he'd been with troops for ten years, and I share the same view.

I never could figure out army logic. The leadership of an infantry platoon is the most demanding and dangerous job in the armed forces, yet the infantry platoon is commanded by the most inexperienced and least qualified guys in the military. I believed, and still do, that a lieutenant should serve in the infantry enlisted ranks for at least three years, and if he doesn't prove himself a leader by at least making buck sergeant, he should not go on to a commissioning school such as West Point, Annapolis, ROTC, or OCS. In sum, a lieutenant should shovel shit before he rides the horse. This approach will teach him to be street-wise and have respect for his men, because he will have been there and done that.

Small units must train not in the classroom, but in the bush. Here warriors must be taught the gut fundamentals of infantry combat. The basics must he drilled in employing the same instructional techniques as those used in Airborne training. First-class training means hard work and sacrifice. "The more sweat on the training field, the less blood on the battlefield" is an adage I have always followed, and I'm convinced it keeps the casualty list short.

Cadets and new leaders who show ineptitude should he eliminated and not "recycled," such as that atrocity, Lt. William Calley, who caused the massacre at My Lai. Calley was recycled three times after being found wanting in leadership. He was commissioned in order to show a "low attrition rate" to higher headquarters.

He always credited his success in battle to the training he received from the tough school of non-coms who won World War II. Hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hard-fighting sergeants who drilled into him the basics of an infantryman's life: sweat in training cut down on blood shed in battle; there was nothing wrong with being out all night so long as you were present for roll call at 5 a.m., on your feet and in shape to run five miles in combat boots before breakfast.

In Korea, where he won his first Silver Star and Purple Heart before he was old enough to vote, he started his combat career in what he later called a "kill a commie for mommie" frame of mind. He was among the first volunteers for Korea and later for Vietnam, where he perfected his skill. "He understood the atmosphere of violence," Ward Just observed. "That meant he knew how to keep his head, to think in danger's midst. In battle the worst thing is paralysis. He mastered his own fear and learned how to kill. He led by example, and his men followed."
One journalist described Hack: I had just met him in the ruins of a base camp in the Central Highlands in 1966, where he was a major commanding a battalion of the 101st Airborne. "He was compact, with forearms the size of hams. His uniform was filthy and his use of obscenity was truly inventive." What struck the journalist most forcefully was "his enthusiasm, his magnetism, his exuberance, his invincible cheerfulness."
To young officers in Vietnam and long afterwards, he presented an unforgettable profile in courage. "Everyone called him Hack," recalled Dennis Foley, a military historian and novelist who first saw him in action with the 1st Battalion of the 327th Infantry in 1965. "He was referred to by his radio call sign of 'Steel Six.' He was tough, demanding and boyish all at the same time, stocky with a slightly leathered complexion. His light hair and deep tan made it hard for us to tell how old he was. He wore jungle fatigue trousers, shower shoes, a green T-shirt and a Rolex watch. In the corner of his mouth was a large and foul smelling cigar. As we entered the tent, he was bent over a field table looking at a map overlay and drinking a bottle of San Miguel beer."

With Gen. S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall, he surveyed the war's early mayhem and compiled the Army's experience into The Vietnam Primer, a bible on a style of unconventional counter-guerrilla tactics he called "out gee-ing the G." (“G” being his term for the guerillas). His finest moment came when he applied these tactics, taking the hopeless 4/39 Infantry Battalion in the Mekong Delta, turning it into the legendary Hardcore Battalion. The men of the demoralized outfit saw him at first as a crazy "lifer" out to get them killed. For a time they even put a price on his head and waited for the first grunt to frag him.

Within 10 weeks, the fiery young combat leader had so transformed the 4/39 that it was routing main force enemy units. He led from the front, at one point getting out on the strut of a helicopter, landing on top of an enemy position and hauling to safety the point elements of a company pinned down and facing certain death. It was one of three times on which Hackworth was nominated for the congressional medal of honor, America's highest award. Thirty years later, the grateful enlisted men and young officers of the 4/39, now grown old, are still urging the Pentagon to award him the Medal of Honor for this action. So far, the Army has refused.

On leaving the Army, Col. Hackworth retired to a farm on the Australian Gold Coast near Brisbane. He became a business entrepreneur, making a small fortune in real estate, then expanding a highly popular restaurant called Scaramouche. As a leading spokesman for Australia's anti-nuclear movement he was presented the United Nations Medal for Peace.

As About Face was becoming a best seller, he returned to the United States to marry Eilhys England, his one great love, who became his business and writing partner. He became a powerful voice for military reform. From 1990 to 1996, as Newsweek magazine's Contributing Editor for Defense, he covered the first Gulf War as well as peacekeeping battles in Somalia, the Balkans, Korea and Haiti. He captured this experience in Hazardous Duty, a volume of war dispatches. Among his many awards as a journalist was the George Washington Honor Medal for excellence in communications. He also wrote a novel, Price of Honor, about the snares of Vietnam, Somalia and the Military-Industrial Complex. His last book, Steel My Soldiers' Hearts, was a tribute to the men of the Hardcore Battalion.

He was a regular guest on national radio and TV shows and a regular contributor to magazines including People, Parade, Men's Journal, Self, Playboy, Maxim and Modern Maturity. His column, "Defending America," appeared weekly in newspapers across the country and on the website of Soldiers For The Truth, a rallying point for military reform. He and Ms. England have been the driving force behind the organization, which defends the interests of ordinary soldiers while upholding Hack's conviction that "nuke-the-pukes" solutions no longer work in an age of terror that demands "a streamlined, hard-hitting force for the twenty-first century."

"Hack never lost his focus," said Roger Charles, president of Soldiers for the Truth. "That focus was on the young kids that our country sends to bleed and die on our behalf. Everything he did in his retirement was to try to give them a better chance to win and to come home. That's one hell of a legacy."

Perhaps one today can get a clearer view of Colonel Hackworth’s thinking from these excerpts from a Salon interview in 2005:

What kind of weapons would you be using in this war if you were running it? Would you trade the pistols for grenade launchers? Would you bring in more Apache helicopters, more snipers, what?

Hack: You have to use surgical weapons, not weapons that can reach out and strike innocents. The American Army is trained to break things and kill people -- not the kind of selective work that is needed. You don't use a tank brigade to surround a village; instead, you set up ambushes along the route. It is all so similar to what I saw in Vietnam, this tendency to be mesmerized by big-unit operations. But if you fight like a G, everything is under the table, in the dark, done by stealth and surprise; there is no great glory -- except the end result. America has never been capable of fighting the G; from [Gen.] Custer who screwed it up, you can fast-forward to today. [In Iraq] they are proving it again. The U.S. military never, never learns from the past. They make the same mistake over and over again.

What other changes would you say need to happen in Iraq?

Get rid of the conventional generals; these guys in Iraq are tank generals, but they don't have any experience in fighting an insurgency. Reminds me of Vietnam when the artillery commanders wanted to build bases everywhere to fire their cannons. These tactics do not work against the G. I said in a recent piece: "Fire these screw-ups and get a snake eater."

Snake eater -- where does that term come from?

That is an old expression from the beginning of Special Forces. They would have demonstrations at Fort Bragg [U.S. Special Forces headquarters in North Carolina] to demonstrate their animalism and they would bite the head off a chicken or bite a snake in half.

Gen. John Abazid -- a snake eater -- has just come in and admitted this is a classic guerrilla war. What kind of new strategy can we expect to see?

The guy is extremely bright and a fighter -- a very rare combination. Generally the fighters are Rambo types who can't walk and chew gum at the same time. There are on occasions the Rommel and Patton who are brilliant guys who can also duke it out with you, they understand the street fighter. You got that with Abazid.

How is it that you, a retired soldier in suburban Connecticut, appear to have a better take on the soldiers' mood than the generals in the Pentagon or in Baghdad?

I have incredible sources -- on average I get 500 e-mails a day from kids around the world that have read my work and know that I am not going to blow the whistle on them; a lot of that crap you see on my Web site comes from those kids.

This is the first war with e-mail. You have asked U.S. soldiers to emulate Winston Churchill and act as war correspondents by sending you dispatches from the front. What has been the response?

Very, very favorable. The soldiers know the traffic is being monitored by the Pentagon, that Big Brother is monitoring everything they write. But still my sources keep coming from Afghanistan and Iraq. I very seldom get direct sources -- remember before we deployed, they [soldiers] were at home and could send e-mail from personal Yahoo accounts, now they have to use military accounts and are paranoid that these are being read. The [direct] traffic I get now are from guys who don't give a damn, who are not going to stay in [the military], who don't give a crap about the consequences of sounding off. But remember -- you can never outsmart a convict in prison or a soldier on the battlefield. They both live by their wits, so what they do is write home and say "Hey dad I love you, we are having a few problems with tanks, etc. If this letter should happen to find itself into the e-mail of Hackworth at www.Hackworth.com it wouldn't disappoint me." I am getting 30 to 40 of these letters.

American troops in Iraq are complaining of basics like clean clothes, hot food and mail from home. Is there anything wrong with the Pentagon's famous supply chain?

This goes back to the crappy estimate on the part of Rumsfeld. He did not provide enough troops or the logistical backup, because his Army was not staying, it was coming home. So who needs a warehouse full of crap?

One letter I got today, written by a sergeant in a tank unit, said that of its 18 armored vehicles -- Bradley or Abrams -- only four are operational. The rest were down because of burned-out transmissions or the tracks eaten out. So it is not just the crappy food and bad water -- a soldier can live with short rations -- but spare parts, baby! If you don't have them, your weapons don't work. Most of the resupply is by wheeled vehicles, and the roads and terrain out there is gobbling up tires like you won't believe. Michelin's whole production for civilians has been stopped [at certain plants] and have dedicated their entire production to the U.S. military in Iraq -- and they can't keep up!

Do you think there is any truth to the sense that British soldiers are better at nation-building than the Americans?

I would say so. They have a long history -- going back to the days of the colonies. If you look at their achievements in some places where they have established solid governments -- in Africa, in India, they have done a very good job. They were very good at lining up local folks to do the job like operating the sewers and turning on the electricity. Far better than us -- we are heavy-handed, and in Iraq we don't understand the people and the culture. Thus we did not immediately employ locals in police and military activities to get them to build and stabilize their nation. (Pauses) Yeah, the Brits are better.

What would you tell Rumsfeld if you could talk to him?

In mid April, I wrote a piece that asks for Rumsfeld to be fired, to be relieved. I took enormous heat for that. He went in light, on the cheap, he has misunderstood the whole war, he should go ... Rumsfeld is an arrogant asshole. That's a quote, by the way.

Over the final years of Colonel. Hackworth's life, his wife Eilhys fought beside him during his gallant battle against bladder cancer, which now appears with sinister regularity among Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Blue. At one point he considered dropping their syndicated column, only to make an abrupt about face, saying, "Writing with you is the only thing that keeps me alive." The last words he said to his doctor were, "If I die, tell Eilhys I was grateful for every moment she bought me, every extra moment I got to spend with her. Tell her my greatest achievement is the love the two of us shared.”

On May 4, 2005, at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was desperately seeking a cure for his bladder cancer, Colonel David Hackworth died.

Which leaves the question:

Now that Hack is gone, who will speak for the troops? Who will point out the “Perfumed Princes?” The incompetent, ticket punching senior officers?

Hack’s website lives on. You may want to visit there. You’ll find it at:

http://www.hackworth.com/index2.html

Sources: Defense Watch
Editorial Staff
Interview: August 5, 2003 by Salon.com
http://www.hackworth.com
Playboy Magazine, June 1994 v41 n6 p90(5).

 

 

 

 

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