‘You sound like Hackworth’
Some months after I started posting articles about my experiences in and observations of the military, a number of readers asked me if I had read Colonel David Hackworth’s book About Face. I had not. They told me that my experiences and views were very close to his and thought I would find the book very interesting.
I ordered the book on line and got it on 7/16/07. The book is huge—834 pages. It took me two full months to read it. (I have other things to do.)
Love the Hollywood depictions of the Army
When I was a kid, no one wanted to be in the Army more than I did. There were others who loved the Army as much as I did, but no one who loved it more. But after actually being in the real Army as opposed to the one in my imagination from war movies and books, I almost overnight was appalled and disgusted with that organization.
I had forgotten why I loved the Army in my youth, until I read Hackworth’s book. He had the same love and explained why at length at the beginning of the book. We both loved the Army as it was depicted in war movies. The real Army occasionally resembles the Hollywood version. Hackworth managed to experience more of those parts of the military that were like the war movies than I did. For one thing, I was only in the Army, not counting West Point, for four years. Hackworth was in for 25 years.
Ultimately, Hackworth and I had the same realization: The Army of Hollywood generally does not exist other than for a few brief shining moments here and there. And we both had the same reaction to that realization: We were really pissed and felt betrayed, especially because the ideals and image that attracted us to the military are so magnificently noble, but the reality of it is so opposite.
Here is a summary of my thoughts on Hackworth’s book About Face:
• Hackworth loved the infantry, infantry tactics, infantry courage, infantry know-how, and infantry leadership. You can learn a lot about all of the above from About Face. In that area, it is almost a how-to book. If those parts were extracted, it would make an excellent how-to book for infantrymen.
• He loved elite units and always strived to turn his units into elite ones, even when he commanded an ordinary training battalion.
• Notwithstanding his high-school-dropout beginnings, he was a devout and energetic student of war and much-published author on the subject.
• About Face is well written. Because it has a co-author—Julie Sherman—I cannot tell whether Hackworth himself was a great writer.
• Like me, he perceived the military as absurdly class and rank conscious. He became an officer, but was uncomfortable with the class and rank aspects of it and remained an NCO at heart.
• Hackworth’s military career spanned at least two distinct Army eras: The occupation of Europe where his superiors were almost all Word War II combat veterans and Korea/Vietnam. He loved the WW II guys whom he thought were victory oriented and hated the Korea/Vietnam leaders whom he thought lacked combat experience and interest in the wars at hand as opposed to dismissing them as unworthy of them.
• He hated the new Army with its ticket punching, emphasis on university degrees, lack of respect for successful combat experience, lowered standards, unrealistic training, and more—and pulls no punches about saying so including naming names.
• He was quite capable of condemning in the harshest terms behaviors of his superiors that he, blind to his double standard, brags about having done himself elsewhere in the book, like signing false documents and living lavishly in the combat zone.
• Oddly to me, Hackworth seemed every bit as good at garrison duty as he was at combat—but only as it related to his subordinates. He excelled at each even though they were night-and-day different. He had a great act for each type of command—aggressive and competent at combat, inspirational and driving in the spit-and-polish garrison mode. But he had little use for his superiors. Generally, they were less intrusive in combat than in garrison but their interference in combat was more problematic
Hackworth and I are extremely similar in some ways—and polar opposites in others.
• He was an orphan and ran away from a foster home at age 14 and lied about his age to enlist in the Army in 1946. I graduated from high school and entered West Point at age 17.
• He got a battlefield commission in the Korean War. I got my commission by graduating from West Point.
• He got a G.E.D. and bachelor’s degree through various part-time student stints because he was told he needed his college degree “ticket” punched to have a good military officer career. I got a college degree at West Point.
• He was fiddling with the idea of getting a masters degree because that was another “ticket” that officers needed to get punched. I got a Harvard MBA after I got out of the Army.
• He bragged in his book about his many episodes of drunkenness. I never had a drink in my life—a reaction to my mean drunk father’s example.
• We were both paratroopers.
• If I understand correctly, we were both in II Field Force in Vietnam at the same time: 1969-1970.
• My four years in the Army overlapped Hackworth’s 25 years in the Army.
• I was possibly the least decorated officer of the Vietnam War. Hackworth was the most decorated officer of the Twentieth Century.
• He had four marriages. I got married at age 28 and that woman and I celebrated our 33rd anniversary recently.
• In terms of Hollywood characters, Hackworth seems to me to be a sort of combination of Sergeant Bilko, Audie Murphy, and, ultimately, Billy Mitchell. I am more of a Frank Serpico or Mr. Smith goes to Washington. I have had some moments that bore some resemblance to Sergeant Bilko and the M*A*S*H 4077 doctors and Billy Mitchell. Hackworth had a number of Serpico and Mr. Smith moments. I was never in a situation where I had an Audie Murphy or David Hackworth combat moment. Closest I came was volunteering unsuccessfully for the LRRPs and Green Berets in Vietnam. Whether that might have led to Murphy/Hackworth combat actions on my part, we’ll never know.
• Hackworth experienced a roller-coaster, Hamletesque, love-hate relationship with the Army for 25 years, ultimately rejecting it. I experienced the same starting and ending points, but without the indecisiveness, during the first ten days I was in the real Army (101st Airborne Division, not West Point).
• We each got a few years of the Army we believed in initially: he in Trieste United States Troops (“TRUST”), a spit-and-polish, high-esprit, post-World War II occupation unit in Italy; me in the United States Corps of Cadets at West Point in the mid-1960s.
• Hackworth had a strong sense of honor toward certain principles and certain people, but he generally had few qualms against lying, cheating, stealing, and adultery when it accomplished ends he deemed more worthy than the conflicting values of the moment, bragging about many instances of them in his book. He also expressed few at-the-time qualms about neglect of his wife and kids, which he remorsefully admitted in the book. I have tried to live by the code of Tell the truth, Keep your promises, and Treat others as you would want to be treated.
• He was a heavy smoker. I never smoked. One of his children wrote to tell me he quit smoking and that he was very proud of that. Good for him.
• Hackworth was personally charming. No one has ever described me that way. I have a number of good friends of 25, 30, or 40 years standing, but not Hackworthesque charm.
As far as I know, Hackworth is the most decorated U.S. military person in the Twentieth Century. That is the salient feature of his public image. Start with the one medal he says is hard to fake: the Purple Heart for being wounded by the enemy. Hackworth had eight of them.
Don’t try this at home.
Was Hackworth trying to earn bravery medals? It would appear so. He did not say so explicitly in the book, but he did say he was so anxious to get the eighth Purple Heart that he filed the papers even though he knew it would get him transferred which he did not want. He also talks about medals a fair amount and expressed great anger at the big brass who got heroism medals they did not earn.
He was proudest of his combat infantryman’s badge. I also said at my article on military medals that I generally respected that badge. I don’t respect it when it is awarded to some brass hat who had dubious claim to it. It falls under the category of what I call attendance medals. But at least it is for attendance at the battlefront. The main reason to admire its holders is they either volunteered for duty likely to put them in a firefight or they were drafted and sent to such duty and did their jobs. The ranks of veterans are predominantly full of people who bask in the glory of the courageous image of the military, but who did not get the CIB. The Army’s image of battle glory is almost entirely based on what CIB holder’s did. They do not have a monopoly on battle courage. Medics and helicopters pilots are right up there with them. As are armor (tanks and such) and other branch members like artillery forward observers, infantry communications officers. But the vast majority of the fighting by the Army in America’s wars since the early forties has been done by winners of the CIB (which came into being in 1943).
A reader of this Web site wrote to tell me that so many CIBs were given out for the 100-hour Desert Storm “war” that soldiers jokingly said, in that case, the letters CIB merely stood for “Crossed Iraqi Border.”
He often spoke of “The Blue Max.” I had never heard that expression in four years at West Point, four years as an officer including a tour in Vietnam, or since. It refers to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Hackworth never won that medal. I suspect because he pissed off too many superiors. As I said in my article on military medals, personal popularity seems to be a factor the awarding of many CMHs.
Although he did not get the Medal of Honor, he pretty much got all the others that matter. Below is the list of his medals and badges from http://www.hackworth.com/awards.html. I put the U.S. medals for heroism in red.
Individual Decorations & Service Medals:
* Distinguished Service Cross (with one Oak Leaf Cluster)
* Silver Star (with nine Oak Leaf Clusters)
* Legion of Merit (with three Oak Leaf Clusters)
* Distinguished Flying Cross
* Bronze Star Medal (with "V" Device & seven Oak Leaf Clusters)(Seven of the awards for heroism)
* Purple Heart (with seven Oak Leaf Clusters)
* Air Medal (with "V" Device & Numeral 34)(One for heroism and 33 for aerial achievement)
* Army Commendation Medal (w/ "V" Device & 3 Oak Leaf Clusters)
* Good Conduct Medal
* World War II Victory Medal
* Army of Occupation Medal (with Germany and Japan Clasps)
* National Defense Service Medal (with one Bronze Service Star)
* Korean Service Medal (with Service Stars for eight campaigns)
* Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal
* Vietnam Service Medal (2 Silver Service Stars = 10 campaigns)
* Armed Forces Reserve Medal
* Presidential Unit Citation
* Valorous Unit Award (with one Oak Leaf Cluster)
* Meritorious Unit Commendation
Badges & Tabs:
* Combat Infantryman Badge (w/ one Star; representing 2 awards)
* Master Parachutist Badge
* Army General Staff Identification Badge
* United Nations Service Medal (Korea)
* Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device (1960)
* Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (with two Gold Stars)
* Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (with two Silver Stars)
* Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal (1st Class)
* Vietnam Staff Service Medal (1st Class)
* Vietnam Army Distinguished Service Order, 2d Class
* Vietnam Parachutist Badge (Master Level)
* Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
* Republic of Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation
* Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation (with three Palm oak leaf clusters)
* Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Honor Medal, First Class Unit Citation (with one Palm oak leaf cluster)
World War II Merchant Marine Awards:
* Pacific War Zone Bar
* Victory Medal
The back cover of About Face said he won 110 medals.
Again, don’t try this at home. There are probably hundreds of other guys who tried to match or beat Hackworth’s heroism medal count—all KIA (killed in action).
I got the impression reading the book that Hackworth earned all his heroism medals. My article on medals is titled, “Did U.S. military personnel really earn all their medals?” I see no reason to complain about any of Hackworth’s.
But the salient thing about Hackworth that I got out of About Face was not heroism medals. He describes in great detail the firefights he was in during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And it is great stuff to read.
However, the book is about his whole life in the military not just about firefights. The salient feature that I got about him was that he had a very strong notion of how to be a soldier and that he was outraged that so many, especially above him in rank, just saw the Army as a system to be gamed. He cared deeply about the results of battles and wars. He felt that the leadership of the Army generally did not care how things were done or the results achieved as long as they looked good to the higher ups and got their promotions.
I share that with regard to results. Although I would advocate more experimentation and trying of different approaches than he would probably approve. He was also big on experimentation and finding ways that worked against the enemy, but he was pretty stuck on one old-Army, hardcore way to deal with troops. As someone who was also a civilian businessman and athletic coach, I think the Army’s macho, martinetish behavior patterns are ill-advised and detrimental from a big picture standpoint.
‘If you see the problem...’
There is an old saying that
If you see the problem, you are the problem.
Hackworth saw the problems in the Army during the Korean and Vietnam wars and between the wars. He spoke out about them repeatedly in various defense journal articles and reports and internal military speeches. As a consequence of his seeing the problems, the Army decided Hackworth was the problem, and he was forced to resign after 25 years in uniform.
To be continued