The left leg of retired Colonel David Hackworth still carries a bullet that he picked up while fighting in the Vietnam War. Wounded a total of eight times, he claims to be America's most highly decorated soldier, his chest weighed down by honours such as eight Purple Hearts, nine Silver Stars and eight Bronze Stars.
While no-one doubts Colonel Hackworth's patriotism or service to his country, there are plenty of people who do not appreciate what he has to say about the United States' occupation of Iraq and the way it was carried out. Donald Rumsfeld is likely to be among his critics: Colonel Hackworth, 72, described the US Defence Secretary as "an arrogant asshole".
It is not just his outspoken comments and personal invective that have established the swaggering retired soldier as a persistent thorn in the side of the Pentagon. It is also because he acts as a lightening rod for the complaints and criticisms of soldiers on the ground, for the lowly grunts and GIs whose comments would otherwise go largely unheard.
These complaints gain wide exposure on Colonel Hackworth's two websites, www.hackworth.com and www.sftt.org. Entries may discuss subjects ranging from shoddy food and badly performing equipment to a lack of ammunition. He says he receives up to 2,000 such messages a week from troops whose anonymity he scrupulously protects. His website currently carries a letter from a veteran helicopter pilot, discussing the recent attack that brought down two Black Hawk helicopters.
The veteran's self-chosen role as the Pentagon's harshest critic and a powerful, uncensored source of what American soldiers are experiencing on the ground has never been more important. In the aftermath of America's worst month in Iraq, when 79 of its soldiers died, Col Hackworth this week received an email from a "combat leader" involved in the firefight in the city of Samarra in which US forces claimed to have killed 54 attackers. Local people insisted that only eight people, mostly civilians, had been killed.
In his email to Colonel Hackworth, who he has known for eight years, the soldier with the 4th Infantry Division wrote of Sunday's incident: "Hack, most of the casualties were civilians, not insurgents or criminals as being reported."
He added: "We are probably turning many Iraqi against us and I am afraid instead of climbing out of the hole, we are digging ourselves in deeper."
Speaking from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, the white-haired veteran said yesterday of the man who sent the email: "I have known this soldier for eight years, since he first came into the US Army and I have watched him develop and have full confidence in the validity of his report."
Colonel Hackworth's assessment of the discrepancy between the body-count claimed by US forces and locals rests with the Pentagon's alleged desire to portray a positive view about a situation most independent observers believe is spiralling into chaos. "It's the nature of the beast," he said. "You try and paint the greatest face on it. It happens in every war... in Vietnam it became an art form."
He said the units involved in any firefight drew up an assessment themselves of what happened and how many of the enemy were killed. "It's like students grading their own papers," he said. "If you're a commander, are you going to say I was a dumb shit and we used too much firepower and we killed a load of civilians, or are you going to say that because of your brilliant command... we killed 54 insurgents? You don't get promoted by striking-out.
"You get promoted by hitting a home run, even if it's a mythical home run. During Vietnam there were lots of mythical home runs."
The email from the battle commander has placed Colonel Hackworth at the centre of one of the most controversial incidents in Iraq since President Bush announced an end to major hostilities at the beginning of May. Despite numerous eye-witness accounts to the contrary, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division has stood by its claim of having killed 54 insurgents.
Most newspapers and media organisations have been forced to retract initial reports that relied on the United States' claim about the number killed.
"In an incident like this we have an initial assessment, followed by more detailed assessments," the division's spokesman, Lt Col Bill MacDonald, told reporters. "At this time we do not know of any civilian casualties in the attack on our convoy. We are very confident of our assessment. Commanders are responsible for providing timely, accurate information."
As well as being the author of two best-selling books about the US military, Colonel Hackworthhas written magazine articles and appeared as a television pundit. He has long had a reputation for speaking out. As long ago as 1971, when he was a serving officer, he said of the war in Vietnam: "This is a bad war... it can't be won."
This has led him to be criticised by some veterans and others, particularly during the war in Iraq when he criticised the Pentagon's plan for the invasion as being too "light" and called for Mr Rumsfeld to be fired.
"Hackworth is a washed-up windbag who can continue making love in guest appearances with [chat show host] Larry King," wrote one critic. "That way, we know no one is watching. I salute him for his service, but he is toast."
Others choose to mock his exploits and macho-style of writing and reporting. In his book Hazardous Duty, which details his exploits as a war reporter for Newsweek Magazine, he records one soldier saying to him: "Goddamn. You're Colonel Hackworth. You're the hot shit dude who tells it like it is."
John Rees, editor of the Armed Forces Journal, whose readership is made up primarily of military personnel, said some people tried to dismiss the colonel. But he added: "In the scheme of things he serves a purpose for some of our younger troops, and when he speaks he is listened to."
Samarra: soldier's e-mail devastates Pentagon's account
"The convoy which was attacked while driving through Samarra was not a supply convoy as reported, but was carrying large amounts of new Iraqi currency to stock local Iraqi banks and US greenbacks used to pay for goods and services the US forces need to accomplish their missions in Iraq. This convoy was heavily guarded by Abrams Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. It was akin to a huge Brinks Truck delivery.
The reports of 54 enemy killed will sound great on the home front, but the greater story is much more disturbing and needs to be told to the American Public. When we received the first incoming rounds, all I could think of was how the hell did the Iraqis (most of these attackers being criminals, not insurgents) find out about this shipment? This was not broadcast on the local news, but Iraqi police knew about it. Bing, Bing Bing, You do the math.
Of greater importance in the scale of the attack and the co-ordination of the two operations. Iraqi Rebel Guerrilla Units elements still retain the ability to conduct synchronized operations despite the massive overwhelming firepower 'Iron Hammer' offensive this month.
Hack, most of the casualties were civilians, not insurgents or criminals ... During the ambushes the tanks, brads and armored Humvees hosed down houses, buildings, and cars while using reflexive fire against the attackers. One of the precepts of 'Iron Hammer' is to use an Iron Fist when dealing with the insurgents. As the division spokesman is telling the press, we are responding with overwhelming firepower and are taking the fight to the enemy. The response to these well co-ordinated ambushes was as one would expect. The convoy continued to move, shooting at ANY target that appeared to be a threat. RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] fire from a house, the tank destroys the house with main gun fire and hoses the area down with 7.62 and 50cal MG fire. Rifle fire from an alley, the brads fire up the alley and fire up the surrounding buildings with 7.62mm and 25mm HE rounds. This was actually a rolling firefight through the entire town.
The ROE [rules of engagement] under 'Iron Fist' is such that the US soldiers are to consider buildings, homes, cars to be hostile if enemy fire is received from them (regardless of who else is inside). It seems to many of us this is more an act of desperation ... We really don't know if we kill anyone, because we don't stick around to find out ... the logic is to respond to attacks using our superior firepower to kill the rebel insurgents. This is done in many cases knowing that there are people inside these buildings or cars who may not be connected to the insurgents.
The belief in superior firepower as a counter-insurgency tactic is then extended down to the average Iraqi, with the hope that the Iraqis will not support the guerrillas and turn them in to coalition forces, knowing we will blow the hell out of their homes or towns if they don't. Of course in too many cases, if the insurgents bait us and goad us into leveling buildings and homes, the people inside will then hate us (even if they did not before) and we have created more recruits for the guerrillas.
The Commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Colonel Frederick Rudesheim, said after this battle that 'We are going to continue to take the fight to this enemy. This is the most significant contact we have had to date in the city of Samarra. We are going to have to respond accordingly.'
This is a great attitude for a combat commander to have when fighting an armored force, but Colonel Rudesheim is not trained in Counter-Insurgency and my soldiers are taking the heat. We drive around in convoys, blast the hell out of the area, break down doors and search buildings; but the guerrillas continue to attack us. It does not take a George Patton to see we are using the wrong tactics ... Much of Samarra is fairly well shot up. The tanks and brads rolled over parked cars and fired up buildings where we believed the enemy was. This must be expected considering the field of vision is limited ... Not all the people in this town were hostile, but we did see many people firing from rooftops or alleys that looked like civilians, not the Feddayeen reported in the press. I even saw Iraqi people throwing stones at us, I told my soldiers to hold their fire unless they could indentfy [sic] a real weapon.
Since we did not stick around to find out, I am very concerned in the coming days we will find we killed many civilians as well as Iraqi irregular fighters. I would feel great if all the people we killed were all enemy guerrillas, but I can't say that. We are probably turning many Iraqi against us and I am afraid instead of climbing out of the hole, we are digging ourselves in deeper."
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