About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior by David H Hackworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Col. David Hackworth was a true American hero, a real warrior. He enlisted for the Army at age 15, just in time for the close of World War II, where he was stationed in Italy. He learned a lot there before shipping over to Korea to work a couple of stints in that disaster. He earned battlefield commissions and gradually moved up the ranks, but was always an infantryman’s man. He led, he taught, he learned, he thought, he spoke up and pulled no punches (which sometimes got him into trouble) — he was a real work of art.
I first learned of Hackworth when I was reading Soldier of Fortune Magazine back in the 90s and early part of this century. His column would be the last thing in the magazine and it was usually very insightful. Sadly, he died a few years ago and they replaced him with Oliver North, a man I don’t like nearly as much.
Hackworth loved being on the battlefield. He hated the peacetime, with officer’s clubs and parties to attend and papers to shuffle. He wanted to be where the action was.
After Korea, he was sent to Germany for awhile, before shipping off to Vietnam, where he learned a whole lot about the civil war in that country, how the French had lost before we got there, what was behind the Vietnamese people’s thoughts and minds, and how woefully under-prepared our troops were for guerrilla combat. He constantly turned lousy outfits into proud, battle hardened outfits with minimal casualties and pretty good successes. He tried to teach what he learned and knew to others, but others wouldn’t listen. They were trained to fight a “conventional” war in battalion style against countries like Russia on European battlefields. They weren’t prepared for the jungle. One of the first things that Hack learned was
“there was simply no point in taking an objective you had no intention of holding, no point in using men when firepower could do the job. Tuy Hoa’s battlefield may have looked like the hedgerows of Normandy, but if … the taking of such objectives one by one wasn’t ultimately going to lead you anyplace, and if … you were going to abandon each objective after you’d taken it, only to take it again and again and again and again, as the French did before us and as we were doing now — well, it wasn’t worth the life of even a single soldier. I’d learned.”
Another part of his education came in the States:
“Ideally all the training for Vietnam should have taken place in Hawaii or Panama or the Philippines, where the Vietnam-bound soldiers could at the very least clear the difficult acclimatization hurdle. It would have worked well, too, to have each training center geared for a specific region in Vietnam, given that the diversity of battlefields … made the conflict more like four or five different wars. Fort Lewis, for example, for three out of four seasons greatly resembled the Highlands. But to train men there in the winter months was a cruel joke. Yet no Pentagonian would dare try to close the place, even for those few months. Why? Because Fort Lewis was like any other Army camp on Army real estate in the USA: it provided jobs and income for the civilian constituents of senators and congressmen who were invariably running for reelection. Fort Lewis was big business to northwest Washington. Politicians demanded it be used in exchange for their nod on continued military appropriations, and the pussyfooting new breed of statesmen-generals didn’t have the balls, the moral courage, to stand up and say that some things were more urgent, that it as insane to train jungle fighters in the snow. Instead, it was somehow more acceptable to allow badly prepared Willie Lump Lumps to die all over the battlefield, and just go on answering the letters from brokenhearted parents….”
Obviously, Hackworth was becoming disillusioned with Vietnam and the insanity of its being waged by politicians based on statistics based on lies. To ease the public conscience. All a pile of shit. For Hackworth, the
“Cambodian exercise was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me about the war in Vietnam and the direction America was heading. Militarily the operation was correct: a basic rule of counterinsurgency is to deny the insurgent a sanctuary …. But what was wrong with it, besides the fact that it came five years too late … was that the way it was done violated all the principles the United States of America, the country I loved and soldiered for, was built on. Cambodia was a NEUTRAL country. Our incursion, at this time in the war, with no prior notice to the fledgling Lon Nol government or even to our ambassador to Cambodia, was not, to my mind, any different from the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. In my estimation the exercise was an immoral, ill-thought-out venture, and one that would prove to be both an expensive tactical donnybrook and an irreparable strategic defeat.”
Wow! Strong words. I wonder what he thought about Bush’s invasion of sovereign Iraq? I need to look up some old Soldier of Fortune magazines and find out. This is true! This is right on. And this did it for him. America’s most decorated living soldier essentially gave up. He couldn’t take it any longer. He agreed to be interviewed for a tell all television program, and gave interviews to organizations like Newsweek, all with the agreement that nothing would be published until after his retirement in two months. So naturally, the Christian Science Monitor published an interview and everyone followed along behind, putting him on the run around the world. He was followed and monitored and threatened with court martial and the end of the book reads like a spy thriller, but ultimately, he was allowed to retire, dignity intact, and he moved to Australia, where he wrote this book in the late 80s.
In his epilogue, Hackworth takes a number of positions on a number of topics, speculating about America’s future involvement in places like Latin America, about the military’s continued poor training, about the absolute waste of billions of dollars on trash equipment, like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and tanks and other assorted things. (He raged throughout the book about the inadequacies of the M-16 rifle.) He writes,
“Today’s soldiers … are being placed in great jeopardy by the weapons and equipment now being issued from on high. Given the scandals and the resulting publicity that have rocked the Pentagon in recent times, it is not difficult to see why: the US military’s procurement system is out of control. Still, the bottom line of the whole business is simply this: the United States buys too many weapons it doesn’t need, pays too much for what it gets, what it gets does not do the right job where in counts — on the battlefield — and men’s lives are being risked unnecessarily.”
He ends this 900 page beast of a book by writing, the “United States must shape up. It is a great country with a great heritage; it has set a good example in the past and it can do so in the future, if only it begins to choose its battles carefully and makes sure its causes are right. It is time to reduce the military machine that has broken the back of the nation’s economy, and begin to rebuild the industrial plant that made us great.” This book was very inspirational to read. It bogs down at places with repetitive stories, mostly about the Korean conflict, but is full of insight and passion. I strongly recommend it to history buffs and military fans, as well as the general reader. You stand to learn a lot.