David H. Hackworth, 74; Highly Decorated Soldier, Blunt Military Analyst
Retired Army Col. David H. Hackworth, the highly decorated infantry officer who denounced U.S. policy in Vietnam during the war and later became an outspoken journalist who offered trenchant analyses of the military, has died. He was 74.
Hackworth, who lived in Greenwich, Conn., died Wednesday in Tijuana, where he was undergoing treatment for bladder cancer. Eilhys England, his wife of eight years, was at his side.
Known as America’s most decorated living soldier and one of the more outrageous figures to emerge from the Vietnam War, the brash, outspoken Hackworth received 78 combat awards -- including a Distinguished Service Cross with an oak-leaf cluster, a Silver Star with nine oak-leaf clusters, a Bronze Star with seven oak-leaf clusters and eight Purple Hearts -- during his 25-year military career.
The veteran of both the Vietnam and Korean wars also earned a reputation as one of the Army’s most brilliant commanding officers -- and one of its most controversial.
Disillusioned with America’s conduct in prosecuting the Vietnam War, the active-duty colonel offered a harsh critique of the conflict on the ABC-TV news show “Issues and Answers” in 1971.
The maverick Hackworth became an overnight media sensation, but he incensed Army officials who tried to discredit him by charging him with violating regulations in Vietnam.
Before he could be court-martialed, Hackworth was forced to resign from the Army. In protest, he gave away his medals and went into self-imposed exile in Australia, where he became wealthy running a Brisbane restaurant and raising ducks.
He returned to the United States more than a decade ago and assumed a new role as a journalist: He became a contributing editor at Newsweek, a syndicated columnist and a television talk show regular.
As a reporter, he covered the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Balkans conflict, U.S. policies in Somalia, the 1994 Korean nuclear crisis, Haiti and other hot spots.
A persistent thorn in the Pentagon’s side, Hackworth called Afghanistan a Vietnam-like disaster in the making in 2002. Last year he told Salon.com that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “misunderstood the whole war” in Iraq and predicted that American troops could be stuck there for “at least” another 30 years.
“Most combat vets pick their fights carefully. They look at their scars, remember the madness and are always mindful of the fallout,” Hackworth, who still carried a bullet in his leg from Vietnam, wrote in February. “That’s not the case in Washington, where the White House and the Pentagon are run by civilians who have never sweated it out on a battlefield.”
Hackworth, who was known to go to great lengths to take care of his men in the field, also ran two websites for soldiers in Iraq to air their uncensored complaints and criticisms, ranging from bad food to poorly performing equipment to lack of ammunition.
“Hack never lost his focus,” Roger Charles, president of Soldiers for the Truth, a California-based veterans group that Hackworth led, told Associated Press on Thursday.
“That focus was on the young kids that our country sends to bleed and die on our behalf,” Charles said. “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.”
The lean, wiry Hackworth once said he joined the Army for two reasons.
“I did it for sex and adventure,” he told The Times in 1989. “That’s what got me, to be dead-truthful. I was into sex and adventure. And I thought, well, you know, along the way, if you can serve your country, great.”
Then he roared with laughter.
Born in 1930, Hackworth was orphaned when he was 5 months old. After time in an orphanage, he was raised in Santa Monica by his grandmother, who entertained him with stories about his family’s long line of military men dating back to the Revolutionary War.
He grew up tough and streetwise and in 1946, at age 15, he used fake ID papers to join the Army.
He won a battlefield commission in Korea, where he commanded an all-volunteer regiment known as the Wolfhound Raiders.
“The Raiders were the cockiest, most gung-ho [soldiers] on the block,” he wrote in his bestselling 1989 autobiography, “About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.” “The men approached each raid with superhuman confidence, knowing just as well that it could be their final journey.”
In Korea, Hackworth became known for driving his men to their limits, screaming orders and bullying them to fight harder.
For that, he earned their loyalty.
At the same time, he antagonized his superior officers with his outspokenness and for ignoring regulations.
To meet his men’s needs, be it T-bone steaks, warm clothes or better weapons, he begged, borrowed and stole supplies.
“I’ve never been one for just toeing the line,” he told The Times in 1989. “That got me in trouble, but it also kept me honest. If people didn’t like that, it wasn’t my problem.”
But it was on the battlefield that Hackworth earned his legendary status in the military.
In Korea, he killed more than 100 enemy soldiers in one battle. In another, he refused to stop fighting after being wounded in the head.
“It was amazing the sense of power I felt, ultimate power, watching [the North Koreans] come and holding that weapon in my hand. I dropped four guys point-blank with my M1,” he wrote of his first firefight in his 1989 book.
By the time the Korean War ended, Hackworth had earned three Purple Hearts.
Over the next 15 years, he commanded troops in Germany and the United States. He also married his first wife, Army nurse Patty Leonard, and had three children. But although domestic stability seemed to be “expected of an officer,” it wasn’t for him. The couple divorced in the early 1970s.
“I was a bigamist,” Hackworth said. “The Army was my first love.”
In 1965, he led the first group of U.S.-based paratroopers into Vietnam.
A brief previous stint in South Vietnam with U.S. Special Forces had convinced him that U.S. troops were ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war. He studied the writings of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara and other insurgent leaders and cowrote the now-classic 1966 guerrilla warfare manual “Vietnam Primer” to educate the American military.
“This was not the same kind of war as World War II,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Vietnam, he wrote, “was a war where more often than not our elusive enemy just went to ground or ran away while we swept through and ‘cleared’ a village, only to return, rebuild and reoccupy it again the minute we’d moved on.”
In his view, American troops in Vietnam were being led by senior officers who were more interested in advancing their careers than in winning the war.
Hackworth also took the lead in a 1968 study showing that up to 20% of U.S. casualties were caused by friendly fire.
His disillusionment with the way the war was being run peaked when the U.S. secretly bombed neutral Cambodia.
“The way it was done violated all principles I loved and soldiered for,” he told People magazine in 1989. “It was no different from the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.”
The colonel responded by breaking Army regulations, opening a “disease-free” brothel for his men and declaring a drug amnesty program for them.
“I was heartbroken over what had happened to my Army, and I lashed out at the institution that had hurt me,” he said. “I was crazy. I was angry.”
Looking back on Vietnam from the vantage point of 1989, he told The Times that he had no regrets.
“Sure I’ve done some strange things, but I don’t make apologies,” he said. “War is an atrocity and people do crazy things in war. All I can do is tell the truth and fire away.”
Hackworth is survived by his wife, four children from two earlier marriages, and a stepdaughter.