Still fighting to win

CATCHING UP WITH ...DAVID HACKWORTH

David Hackworth is one of the military's most decorated soldiers - and one of its harshest critics. His new novel takes no prisoners.

October 31, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - He is dressed in the crow-like uniform of late '90s hip: black sport coat over a black T-shirt, eyes peering through small black wire-rims.

With his tangle of white hair and hollow voice, like a low, steady note of a flute, this lanky figure could pass for some aging poet or film director. But his small lapel pin - a flintlock on a pale blue field bordered by a wreath - tells of a different occupation.

It is the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the "CIB" to veterans, the prized possession of the grunt who has been in the thick of the fighting.

"Most people say, 'Are you a hunter? I see you've got a rifle,' " says David Hackworth, shaking his head with a chuckle. "Yeah, I'm a hunter, buddy."

But calling Hackworth a field soldier is akin to calling Willie Mays a baseball player. Accurate but incomplete. Hackworth is one of America's most highly decorated soldiers, earning some 90 combat medals in the frozen hills of Korea and the dense jungles of Vietnam, before abruptly ending his "great love affair with the Army."

His pugnacious and irreverent streak helped him excel in his next career as a journalist. And the ghosts of America's long and torturous war in Indochina creep into his just-released first novel, "The Price of Honor" (Doubleday, $25.95), along with Hackworth's long-held distaste for gold-plated weapons systems, America's over-stretched global commitments and politicians in general.

Hackworth's days as a soldier ended on a July afternoon in 1971. The Army colonel was interviewed in Saigon for ABC's "Issues and Answers," bluntly saying what many officers knew but few dared utter publicly: America was losing the war in Vietnam because of poor leadership, inadequate training and failed tactics against a resilient guerrilla force. Even before the show aired, he realized the interview would end his career. He put in his retirement papers.

That single interview produced two views of Hackworth that continue to this day: as prophet or pariah.

After resigning from the Army, he lived an ex-pat life in Australia, embracing the anti-nuke movement before penning his autobiography, "About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior," a sort of "Dickens goes to war" chronicle now in its 30th printing.

Through this 834-page trek we learn of a scrappy orphan raised in foster homes and by his grandmother. Shipping out at 14 with the merchant marine, Hackworth joins the Army a year later, finding father-like sergeants and nourishing a strong appetite through two wars for leadership, back talk and combat.

What helped fuel Hackworth's eagerness for action was his initial duty in post-World War II Italy, where grizzled American veterans nicknamed the slight greenhorn "Combat." Sergeant Hackworth was determined to live down that name, and finally did on the night of Feb. 6, 1951, when he was shot in the head while attacking North Korean machinegunners and snipers and protecting his troops.

He was wounded four times before he turned 21.

"I would not have to prove myself to anyone anymore," he wrote. "What I didn't know at the time was I'd made a name for myself ... one I'd have to live up to for the next 20 years."

The book fairly reeks of cordite and rotting bodies. Hackworth slogs through trenches, hills and rice paddies braving enemy fire. Even after becoming an officer, Hackworth retains the sardonic streak and foxhole esprit of the mud soldier. He complains of faulty equipment like the temperamental M-16 rifle that "isn't worth a tinker's damn in the bush." Rear-guard superiors with their comfortable quarters are dismissed as "perfumed princes" or "clerks."

The Boorda suicide

Turning in his uniform, Hackworth shifted his aggressive streak into another career as war correspondent and reporter for Newsweek, where he covered the Gulf War and Haiti. He helped reveal in 1996 that Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda, then the Navy's top officer, wore Vietnam-era valor awards he didn't deserve. After learning of the story, the admiral walked into his garden and fired a single shot through his decorations -- and his heart.

A year after Boorda's death, Hackworth's own decorations were called into question by a CBS-TV report, which said veterans doubted the colonel's claim to an oak leaf cluster for his Distinguished Flying Cross and a Ranger Tab, a difficult-to-earn piece of black and gold cloth that signifies the Army's best. Hackworth immediately deleted both awards from his Web site.

It later turned out the Army made an administrative error. Hackworth gave away his awards in 1973 to anti-nuclear protesters. When the Army reissued them in 1988, it incorrectly included the oak leaf cluster. And the Ranger tab, though awarded to Hackworth by a colonel in 1951 during the Korean War and authorized since 1968, also turned out to be inappropriate.

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