Interview: Colonel David H. Hackworth, U.S. Army (Ret.) Proceedings, December 2002
The highly decorated U.S. Army veteran, prolific journalist, television commentator, and author of several books, including his latest, Steel My Soldiers' Hearts (New York: Rugged Land LLC, 2002), talked recently with Naval Institute editors Fred L. Schultz and Gordon Keiser in Washington, D.C. Accompanied by his wife and coauthor, Eilhys England, Colonel Hackworth talked about how they came to write the new book, a tribute to the men of the Army's 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, in Vietnam. The interview also covers current conditions in the U.S. military and the interview he never had with the late Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda, former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).
Proceedings:After having written so much about other military subjects, why did you write this book at this particular time?
Hackworth: You are looking at America's most reluctant author. I did not want to write the book. But this draftee battalion meets every year at a reunion, somewhere in America. Eilhys goes to the reunions, too, but she doesn't see what I see. I see a 19-year-old face on a 55-year-old body. She sees pain, lack of closure, heavy baggage. So she said, "You've got to write this book."
That was it. The base of guys that come to the reunions grew to about 350 folks we could interview. I thought it would be easy just to call these boys and say, "Hey, it's Hack. Let's talk about the past." But when I'd say, "Hey, it's Hack," they'd say "Yes, Colonel, Sir." I couldn't break through the Pavlovian military mind-set. So as a result, Eilhys did all the interviews. I gave her a quick course on platoons, squads, and tactics. And she got out of these boys what none of us could—because they were talking to a woman. It's been a very big healing thing for the boys in the battalion.
Proceedings:You're critical of many people in the book, but you've given pseudonyms to only a few. How did you arrive at that decision?
Hackworth: I didn't want to hurt anyone.
Proceedings:So you think [General William] Westmoreland can take it?
Hackworth: He deserves to take it; as does [Major General Julian] Ewell, as does [Colonel Ira A.] Hunt. But the [lieutenant] colonel I call Lark, a West Pointer, was a victim. He had 16 years of service, 4 years with troops. What the hell did he know about commanding a battalion? He'd had a platoon, he'd had a company, but that was it.
Proceedings:How did you assemble your quoted material? For instance, you have Colonel Lark quoted as saying something before you arrived there. How do you know he said what you say he said?
Hackworth: We interviewed many of the people six or eight times. This particular quote from Lark is from [Captain Emile] Chum Robert, another West Pointer who was our artillery fire-support officer. He was a brilliant guy who ended up basically as my deputy and had a most incredible memory. When you're doing this, you grade a guy's memory. You can tell if he's BS-ing.
What we were trying to do was cut through the fog of battle—what's true, what's not true. We probably interviewed everybody who was in the fight [in Kien Phong Province and Dong Tam] on 25 March , and we got different stories. Then we tried to piece them together and wondered why particular individuals were looking at it this or that way. Finally, I think we got it right.
England: One of the incredible things that came out of our reconstruction of the fighting on the 25th was a letter we received. One man has been thinking all these years that Hack himself had ordered him to charge into the direct fire. He'd been living in a rage since 1969. His wife, against his wishes, bought the book and was reading it in bed. And she said, "Rick, you've made a terrible mistake." He couldn't believe it. He said he read it shaking and trembling. When he found out it was really Lieutenant [Bradley] Turner who issued the order, it unleashed all his rage.
Hackworth: Then he found out what really happened. Those are the demons Eilhys saw in these boys at our reunion; thus, the purpose of the book. This is a great example of how those demons came pouring out. And now, this person who has been thinking this all these years is a different guy.
Another example is Don Smith. We went to a signing for an earlier book, and a boy walked up to me and said, "Hardcore Recondo."
I fired back, "No f___ing slack! What company?"
And he said, "B Company."
I told him it was great to see him, and he started crying. I held him. I didn't know what to do. He was a mess. A year or two later, when this book came out, we had another signing at the same store. He came with his two brothers and sister.
England: He's a new person. He even dressed differently. His brothers and sister came to thank us. Reading the book helped him get rid of his baggage. That's what I saw in these men. I saw the boys who came back and who could never process it. And I felt I owed them the opportunity to do that, because I'd been one of the people running around putting flowers in rifles. My husband thought I was feeling guilty. But I said, "No. I was right; it was a bad war." I had friends who went, and I wish I'd made a point of sitting down with them afterward and thanking them for their service.
Proceedings:Next comes the inevitable question. Over the past six years, what fallout have you felt from the suicide of Admiral Boorda?
Hackworth: Well, May the 16th will never go away in my mind, for all my life. That the story I was about to write may have caused someone to commit suicide was shattering. And then the flak I took as a result of that was shattering as well.
Proceedings:What sort of flak did you take?
Hackworth: I took a lot of flak at work. I was gagged. I was not to speak about it. But I refused to go along with that. To my boss I said, "Look, if [radio talk show host Don] Imus or anyone else calls me, I'm going to tell them my point of view, rather than your institutional point of view." That got me in serious trouble.
Hackworth: At Newsweek. Then I took an enormous lot of flak in about 1,000 e-mails in 24 hours. Luckily, my son was here, and he and I processed and answered every one of them, which actually brought us closer together. It was probably the hardest time of my life, mostly in not knowing the truth. When I look back on it, through the perspective of distance, I ask myself how the system could produce someone of that high rank, who is that unstable.
The irony was this: on the 15th, I had surgery. The appointment with Admiral Boorda was set for the 16th. My doc told me on the 15th, "No way are you going to fly tomorrow." So I called [investigative journalist] Roger Charles and told him I wasn't going to be able to make it. The bureau chief of Newsweek [Evan Thomas] was going with him, so I thought I'd brief Roger on what I was planning to do. The last question was going to come as I pulled a photo of Admiral Boorda from my briefcase. I think it was the April edition of Defense Weekly, which showed him with the Combat V. I wanted to get Roger geared up to ask, "What's the story with the 'V' here?"
Proceedings:It was pinned to his Navy Achievement Medal, wasn't it?
Hackworth: Yes, it was. I thought Boorda would say, "That's a stock photo, silly. It was taken four years ago. I took the V off a year ago." We knew he'd taken the V off for a year. Roger had done the Freedom of Information Act stuff, and we had his files. So then it would have been no story. And I expected him to say, "Get out of my office, I'm running a navy here." Right?
As it turned out, Evan Thomas was the one who went. And instead of taking Roger, he took John Barry, the magazine's defense guy, probably because Roger wasn't a Newsweek guy. So Evan Thomas and John Barry were waiting in the office for Boorda, and I could fly in the next day. Boorda had agreed to the interview because he was told I was coming. I'm sure he thought, "Well, Hack's a salty guy and I'm a salty guy. We'll tell some war stories and that'll be the end of it." But then, suddenly, maybe in his paranoia or depression or whatever, he realizes he's got two big-time journalists marching into his office, and he won't be able to war-story his way out of it. I don't know.
Because I was trying to find out the truth, I later spoke to his sister, who told me he had been receiving out-of-Navy medical assistance for three years for depression.
Even so, to me this didn't make sense, when all he had to do was say that the photo—the only evidence we had—was a stock thing. The great irony of this whole story was, when I saw the photograph, I called my boss—the editor, Maynard Parker—and said, "Maynard, I want to try to get this photo. I've checked with the photographer, and he'll give me a copy and tell me when he took it."
He said, "Great."
"But," I told him, "he wants $500."
And Maynard said, "I'm not paying that for a photo!" But for $500 we would have known the story behind the photo beforehand, and we wouldn't have asked for the interview.
Proceedings:Admiral Boorda was getting pounded from many other directions, too.
Hackworth: Pounded by the Navy.
Proceedings:He was the enlisted man's admiral. He was the first non-Naval Academy officer to be CNO.
Hackworth: I admired that aspect of him.
Proceedings:On your 1996 Web site resume, you said you had the Army Ranger Tab. Some Army people say you didn't earn it. But you were a Ranger, in an actual Ranger unit. Can you explain that?
Hackworth: I had served in the 8th Ranger Company; later I served in the 27th Raiders of the 25th Infantry Division. On the Raiders' tenth mission, the regimental commander awarded every trooper the Ranger Tab. When all this fell out after the Boorda story, I immediately had my records audited. And they reflected that I was awarded the Ranger Tab. It was on my official records; it's not something I claimed falsely.
Let me tell you how the regulation reads now. To rate a Ranger Tab, you had to have been awarded the Combat Infantry Badge (CIB) while a member of the 8th Ranger Company. But I got my CIB with Company G, 27th Infantry Regiment. Thus, the 1951 award of the tab did not meet the 1980s criteria. I take all the blame.
All the guys in the 27th Raiders got the Ranger Tab, but they were not Rangers. When the Boorda story exploded, people were looking for chinks in my armor. So I'm a defrocked Ranger. As it turned out, though, in the Army's vetting of my record, they found I had ten Silver Stars, not nine.
As commanding officer of the Army's 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, the "Hardcore Recondos," Hackworth (left) briefs division commander General Julian Ewell and his chief of staff, Colonel Ira Hunt, in the Mekong Delta in 1969. Both officers were entrenched in what Hackworth refers to as "the quagmire of command politics."
(COURTESY OF DAVID H. HACKWORTH)
Hackworth: I had been claiming nine, but they said, "We have another Silver Star you don't know about." I'll take it.
Proceedings:What are your thoughts on the need for vigorous and honest critiques of military exercises?
Hackworth: If we don't learn truthfully from an operation, we'll make those same mistakes again. What bothers me is when I flash forward from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Operation Anaconda or the operation in Tora Bora and see now how the Army's rewritten versions of these operations do not in any way track with the input I'm getting from the kids who were the platoon leaders, squad leaders, and company commanders on the ground. We're again lying to ourselves, so the 10th Mountain Division will look good, or the 101st Airborne, or the 18th Airborne Corps.
If you can't look truth right in the eye and learn from it, then it's going to end up biting you in the ass with a longer casualty list.
Proceedings:Specifically, how aren't we tracking with the lessons we should have learned?
Hackworth: Everything we have been presented about the two operations I mentioned—the official after-action reports that have been slipped my way—in no way resembles what really happened on the ground. At the higher level, let's say the strategic level, we failed to understand our enemy, a very basic thing. We failed to understand that we couldn't rely on the Afghan supporting force, which was a basic lesson out of Vietnam. We never trusted the South Vietnamese on an operation. If it were an anvil-and-hammer operation, we'd never put the South Vietnamese as the hammer or the anvil, because they wouldn't be there for the job.
In Tora Bora, the generals assumed the Afghan forces were going to push into the traps our troops had gone into. These were the units that were put in by helicopter. As a result, the Afghans didn't push after the first shot was fired; the operation fell apart. And so the al Qaeda inside that pocket, including Osama bin Laden, just disappeared through the very open escape routes.
In Anaconda, nothing went right. We used flat-land soldiers from the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 10th Mountain, which is near Syracuse, New York. There are no mountains at either place. We threw them up at 10,000 feet, then we put a Volkswagen Beetle on their backs—about 120-pound packs—and expected them to operate. At that kind of altitude, a good fit guy, carrying his rifle and ammo, can go maybe 300 yards and be bushed. These guys were trying to fight without entrenching tools. In these big packs they had spare fatigues, spare shorts, three pairs of socks—all the good things you'd have for a field inspection. But it wasn't worth a damn in combat.
[German Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel and [U.S. Army General George] Patton, two great war fighters from World War I and World War II, both said you should go into battle with only what you need, your ammo and your rifle—nothing else.
We don't learn anything from the past. For example, for a column I wrote recently, I wondered what the chemical and biological equipment was like for our boys who are going to go into Iraq. I started checking with my sources all over the Army and in the Marine Corps, too. All these guys said, "It doesn't work. The chemical gear is broken. The protection gear is broken. The detection gear is broken. And we don't train on it."
When I started to write, the Government Accounting Office came out with a report saying exactly what I got from the troops. They're not prepared for chemical and biological weapons. Then you might say, "Wait a minute. According to a May 2002 Veterans' Affairs report, we have 161,000 disabled from the Gulf War and 10,000 dead." We have another 25,000 claims pending. Most people think we sent 700,000 people to Desert Storm and took 148 dead and about 400 wounded on the battlefield and that we got away light. The casualties the Pentagon projected were 50,000 initially. And then it was cut back to 20,000, by what [Army General Norman] Schwarzkopf said, which is still a high number of casualties.
If we attack Saddam Hussein, he knows he's going down this time. This President George Bush ain't going to make the mistake of former President George Bush. In desperation, Saddam will probably use whatever weapon is in his arsenal. So we could say there's a high likelihood that chemical and biological weapons will be flung at our soldiers.
Last time around, he didn't use them, but we found them. The U.S. Army's 37th Combat Engineer Battalion out of Fort Bragg, a battalion I had been with for two weeks and left the day before, found all these munitions and blew them up, without really checking them out. They were chemical and biological.
Proceedings:Earlier, you said, "When we go to Iraq." Then more recently you said, "If we attack Saddam." How do you feel about preemption?
Hackworth: I'm from the school of "get there firstest with the mostest." And if you know you have an opponent, then I say, "Knock him on his ass before he knocks you on yours." I see nothing wrong with that strategy. But I find that the President's argument is flawed in that so many other folks are nearly as bad, if not worse, than Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Iran, for one, is at the top of my list. I don't feel that he's really made his case.
We have put a fist in place, and this fist has been in place for almost a year. We have stacked beans and bullets and bombs and ammo over Qatar and Kuwait, in Jordan and Israel, in southern Turkey. And I know we have at least three brigades' worth of tanks and Bradleys [armored fighting vehicles] already located in Kuwait. So it's just a question of flying the guys in. Whether you're in a barroom or on a battlefield, when you pull back the fist, normally it gets flung. And we'll come up with some reason to fling it. In Vietnam it was called Tonkin Gulf.
Proceedings:We hear a great deal about all the armed services trying to do away with the zero-defects syndrome. Some say it's alive and well. Is it?
Hackworth: Oh, it is. It's probably worse than it's ever been in the history of at least the U.S. Army. And it's mainly because of micromanagement. We've got generals doing what I used to do as a squad leader. And this is embedded in the system. We need to blow that out and get back to letting sergeants be sergeants and captains be captains.
In Vietnam, we had the division commander, the brigade commander, and battalion commander flying over the fight, telling the poor little platoon leader on the ground what to do. And now, in the case of Anaconda, you had [Commander, Central Command, Army General] Tommy Franks, down in Tampa, giving directions to a three-star in Kuwait. Then you had him talking to a two-star, [Army Major General Franklin L.] Hagenbeck, in Afghanistan, who was talking to a lieutenant colonel down on the deck. To make it even worse, Predator aircraft were flying overhead, right over the battlefield, giving the three-star and the four-star intel before the guy on the ground got it.
Yeah, it's great to pierce the fog of war, but if you violate the chain of command, and you castrate the leadership down at the fighting level, you're going to have everybody sitting there playing it like a professional football game. The quarterbacks no longer call the plays. It steals initiative. And that is what battle is all about—people not afraid to take the risk. If they see a hole, they need to whip through that hole, not wait for word from the top.
Proceedings:If you could take back anything you've ever written for publication, what would it be?
Hackworth: God, I don't know. I'd have to review all the stuff I've ever written. It wouldn't be the article I wrote about [former National Security Council staff member, Lieutenant Colonel] Oliver North, when I called him "a drugstore Marine." I don't know. I've never read any copy of my own that I haven't wanted to fix and make better after it's too late.
Proceedings:Some civil-military scholars have noticed that some people, after a long time in uniform, have developed pacifistic tones.
Hackworth: Smedley Butler.
Proceedings:[Marine Brigadier General] Smedley Butler, [Marine General] David M. Shoup, perhaps, after he retired. [Army] General [Douglas] MacArthur and a few other people did. But how about you?
Hackworth: When I look at my life, I look at the defining elements of it. When I was a kid, I went to Italy and joined a division. Those guys had fought in Africa, Sicily, all the way up Italy. The division had almost 400 days in combat, line days. They were pros. They had seen so many little kids come in and get squashed, because they weren't trained, that they hit me on the back of the head with a two-by-four if I didn't get it right. They told me that if you don't get it right in training, you die on the battlefield. So that became inculcated in me; that became my standard.
Then I went to Korea as a replacement with a recon company, then a Ranger company, and then to George company of the 27th, where I was commissioned. And I saw this inept Army that was not trained. I saw bad lieutenants, bad captains, bad colonels, and way up high, bad politicians throwing guys onto a battlefield.
When I got to Vietnam, I saw it all over again. Somewhere along the line, I swore to myself that as long as I live I'll never rest as long as I can make a change. I vowed to make sure the guys who go to battle are well trained, well equipped, well led, and that the cause is just. So that's my button, and looking back from the perspective of 72 years, I kind of know where the button is, and how big it is on my chest. That's what motivates me.
About battle, something I'll never forget are the kids I commanded who are dead. I still think of them all the time. I don't think I would have ever been a great commander, because, like [Army Colonel] Glover Johns once told me, I love my soldiers too much. I couldn't have said, as Ike had to at Normandy or as Schwarzkopf did in Desert Storm, that I'm going to take 20,000 casualties. I don't think a real warrior, who's been there swinging the sword, could hold that in his head. Maybe that's why we need these perfume princes like [former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General] Wesley Clark to end up pushing the button.
In Vietnam, we paid such an incredible price for the business of high-diddle-diddle, right-up-the-middle, when there was a smarter way of doing it. And that was the beginning of my conversion. We had to find another tactic. I folded my recon platoon and my antitank platoon into one and developed a light Ranger company in 1966 [the first U.S. Ranger unit in Vietnam]. I made it a fourth maneuver element for my battalion.
The irony of this was the year before, as a student at Command and General Staff College, I wrote my thesis on the need for an airborne Ranger company in each division. My faculty adviser called me in and said, "Hackworth, you can't be serious. You're at Leavenworth, this school of higher learning. Your paper's got to be about the armored division in the attack." I said, "Well, what we need is a Ranger company in every goddamn division, because insurgency is where we're going to be."
Proceedings:Assuming you can apply "out G-ing the Gs" [out-guerrilla-ing the guerrillas], as you put it in your book, to modern warfare, how could it have applied to the operations in Afghanistan, and the presumably impending ones in Iraq?
Hackworth: War doesn't change. It just goes faster and becomes more lethal. The fundamentals of war that were applicable at Jericho are just as applicable today or in two, three, or four weeks from now in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia, where we'll be taking out al Qaeda nests. I think Ethiopia and Sudan are going to be a diversion while we're getting ready to launch the big fist into Iraq.
But the techniques and the tactics don't change a lick. If you follow Sun Tzu's thoughts on the matter, which were written 2,500 years ago, you're home safe.