Col David Hackworth

Hero of the Vietnam War who became an outspoken critic of the Pentagon

Wednesday 11 May 2005 00:00 BST

A maverick was originally defined as a calf separated from its mother, and later became shorthand for an idiosyncratic dissenter. Both definitions could be applied to David Hackworth, who, apart from being an orphan before he was a year old, was also the most highly decorated - and outspoken - combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

David Haskell Hackworth, soldier and writer: born Venice, California 11 November 1931; married first Patricia Leonard (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Peter Margaret Cox (one son; marriage dissolved), third Eilhys England (one stepdaughter); died Tijuana, Mexico 4 May 2005.

A maverick was originally defined as a calf separated from its mother, and later became shorthand for an idiosyncratic dissenter. Both definitions could be applied to David Hackworth, who, apart from being an orphan before he was a year old, was also the most highly decorated - and outspoken - combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Unlike Audie Murphy, his Second World War equivalent who later appeared in patriotic films and squandered his life, Hackworth spent his retirement as a highly effective critic of the more bone-headed policies of the Pentagon and standing up for the welfare of the ordinary soldier. Although nearly court-martialled for a television interview he gave while a serving officer, he did not lack admirers at any rank of the military. General Creighton Abrams, the overall US commander in Vietnam, conceded that Hackworth was "the best battalion commander I ever saw in the United States Army".

Hackworth's memoir of Vietnam, About Face (with Julie Sherman, 1989), was one of the finest accounts of the conflict because of his historical understanding of guerrilla warfare as well as his extraordinary personal story. His Vietnam Primer (a report compiled with Brigadier General S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall for the US Army in 1967) is the distillation of his military experience in fighting counter-insurgency operations. "War seldom changes," wrote Hackworth in a preface to a new edition of the Primer in 2003:

Technology has just made things happen faster and made the violence meaner. But down where the rubber hits the dirt, it's not very different than it was in the 1700s, when Indians were hunting the early settlers, and the early settlers were hunting the Indians.

And he offered, characteristically, "a few tips for when operating in such an environment":

* Never use trails.

* Always take it for granted that the enemy's watching.

* Always have a go-to-hell plan.

* Never assume anything.

* Always expect the unexpected.

* Talk to the Grunts, they always have the best feel for what's going down.

* Keep operations sledgehammer simple and remember: if it can be fucked up, it will be.

* Train your force like a good football coach. Teamwork is the key and this is done by relentlessly repeating squad drills over and over until they are executed automatically and flawlessly. Then do them again!

* And remember, squads who live by the basics of their trade make great armies; armies don't make great squads. And these squads must be perfectly trained in the basic fundamentals of the killing trade.

* And most importantly, NEVER, NEVER be in a hurry.

In 2002 he was the author (with his third wife, Eilhys England) of Steel My Soldiers' Hearts: the hopeless to hardcore transformation of 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, United States Army, Vietnam.

Hackworth never courted publicity while in Vietnam, but became a lifelong friend of several of the leading war correspondents, such as Ward Just of The Washington Post and Kevin Buckley of Newsweek. While they put Indochina behind them and went on to become accomplished novelists and editors, Hackworth stuck to his mission to expose bad behaviour in the corridors of the Pentagon. He was especially contemptuous of unimaginative deskbound senior officers whom he referred to as "perfumed princes". It was Hackworth who last year revealed that the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, used a computerised signature for his condolence letters to families of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

But it was as a trenchant critic of military policy in Iraq that he had more impact. In a lengthy article published in the October issue of Playboy magazine, he proclaimed:

Vietnam used to be our worst military mistake. But of all the major wars the US has fought, Iraq is now the biggest military miscalculation our country has ever made.

David Haskell Hackworth was born in Venice, California, in 1931. His parents died while he was still a baby and he was brought up by his grandmother. He joined the merchant marine and later lied about his age so that he could join the army at the age of 15. He served briefly in Trieste in its post-war dispute with Yugoslavia and then became the youngest lieutenant in the Korean conflict, where he was awarded three Purple Hearts, later joined by nearly 80 medals and citations.

The growing conflict in Vietnam is where he established his reputation as a fearsome fighter as well as possessing a deep understanding of the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Although his hard-nosed approach could initially cause hostility amongst his troops, they rapidly realised that this was someone who cared deeply for their welfare and survival. This attitude later got him into serious trouble, as he once famously maintained a brothel inside the perimeter of his base. He was especially proud that his men were, as a consequence, not stricken down by the many rampant strains of venereal disease to be found amongst the tens of thousands of Vietnamese prostitutes. Even more controversially, he was happy for his black soldiers to give him the Black Power clenched fist instead of the more conventional salute, which he would return with his own clenched fist.

He continued to accumulate numerous combat medals, including 10 silver stars, which were roughly equivalent to the British Military Cross, and became the youngest "Bird Colonel" (full colonel) in Vietnam. (Although many have claimed that Col Bill Kilgore, the gung-ho character played by Robert Duvall in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now was based on Hackworth, nothing could be further from the truth. He never commanded an air cavalry brigade and said in his own memoir that such people were the "stuff of Hollywood".)

The biggest scandal of the American war in Vietnam was the reliance of the military on "body counts" both as accurate figures and as an indication of success in prevailing against the enemy. One of the most egregious of these exercises in 1968 was Operation Speedy Express, which Kevin Buckley exposed in a 1972 Newsweek article as a travesty, when nearly 11,000 "enemy combatants" were reported killed with only 748 weapons captured. Most of the victims were in fact civilians killed by loosely targeted air and artillery fire. However, within the six-month campaign, one correspondent discovered a battle in which 81 enemy were killed and 79 weapons captured. This turned out to be a single operation commanded by Colonel Hackworth.

It was inevitable that such a fearless and outspoken combat officer would fall foul of army bureaucracy, especially after he appeared on network television in 1971 to denounce the Vietnam War while still a serving officer. It can be imagined how the Nixon White House viewed a war hero stating on nationwide television, "This is a bad war . . . It can't be won: we need to get out." With extraordinary prescience, he declared the war unwinnable and said that the US and the South Vietnamese government would be defeated within four years.

Although there were moves to court-martial him, because of his fame as a war hero he was allowed to take an honourable discharge with full pension. He returned all 80 of his combat medals and headed for Australia, which he said was the furthest place from the US where they spoke English. Having extraordinary drive and organisational ability, he set up a successful restaurant near Brisbane and became the largest producer of ducks for the Chinese restaurant trade in Australia. Although he had funded his initial businesses through his many winnings at poker, he was soon a millionaire in his own right. He was also actively involved in the anti-war movement and later was awarded a United Nations Medal for Peace for his involvement in the anti-nuclear movement.

At the end of the Eighties, he completed his memoirs and returned to the US, where he first lived in a remote valley in Montana but later moved to Greenwich, an affluent commuter suburb in Connecticut. Later, the American army returned all of his military awards to him.

He became a respected television commentator and defence writer for Newsweek, covering the first Gulf War. Inevitably though, he fell foul of the editor when he refused to cover some minor Latin American hostage crisis and divine what the US Special Forces were going to do to release the hostages. He maintained his own website ( which was heavily visited by serving troops, for whom he remained a legend. He was a strong advocate of military reform, urging the creation of a more streamlined force.

David Hackworth was a short, heavily built man, who exuded a raw charisma. There was nothing egocentric about him but he subliminally projected a warrior-like mien. He spoke in short, gruff sentences and was not someone to cross in any circumstances. During the Vietnam War, a wide-eyed Special Forces soldier barged into a poker game in which he was playing and ostentatiously placed his loaded Colt 45 automatic on the table. Hackworth did not raise his voice but merely said, "Son, unless you are going to eat that 45, can you put it back in your holster right now?" In the first Gulf War, a group of French foreign correspondents initially ignored his polite request to cease smoking but hurriedly stubbed out their cigarettes when he suggested what his next step might be.

He suffered from bladder cancer, which his friends believe could have been triggered by the chemical defoliants sprayed indiscriminately by the US Air Force in Vietnam. Even here, he saw the bright side, saying that his newly installed bladder now gave him a capacity of one litre.

Hackworth will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with full military honours later this month.

Bruce Palling

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