Speaking out meant TAPS for
Col. David Hackworth’s
career -- HACK
Col. (ret.) David
Hackworth, right, is being interviewed on the front line in Vietnam by
Gen. Slam Marshall after the Battle of Dak To in 1966. At the time,
Hackworth was with the 101st Airborne Division. He also served tours
of duty in Korea and at Cold War bases around the world. As American
men continued to die in Vietnam, Hackworth spoke out against the way the
war was being fought. He continues to speak out when he feels American
servicemen are being endangered by bad policies or politics.
After five tours of duty in Vietnam, the youngest
colonel in the U.S. Army, who also was its most decorated officer, had
seen enough. A reporter asked him about the war, and he sounded off. It
cost him his military career.
Now, as a best-selling author, nationally syndicated columnist, reporter
and commentator, he is unconstrained in his opinion of the military and
has become the Pentagon’s harshest critic.
Col. (ret.) David Hackworth (’64) is a regular guest on national TV
and radio shows.
Throughout Spring and Summer 1999, as NATO bombed Yugoslavia, Hackworth
was in high demand as a guest on national radio and TV. Five million people
read his King Features column, "Defending America," which appears in 100
newspapers and magazines. His autobiography, "About Face," a 1989 international
best seller, is in its 28th printing with more than one million copies
sold. He also has written "Vietnam Primer," "Brave Men" and a recent best
seller, "Hazardous Duty." His first fiction novel, "The Price of Honor,"
due out in September, is getting a major push from the publisher, Doubleday.
His Web site (www.hackworth.com) has a weekly newsletter.
"When there’s a war, I’m terrribly busy," Hackworth says during a telephone
interview in early May from his home in Greenwich, Conn.
He comes across as a folksy, down-home, friendly man—he moves easily from
subject to subject, talking about raising a family, about tracing his family
tree back to County Durham, England, his days at Fort Campbell, Ky., Austin
Peay and Clarksville. He listens to each question carefully, his answers
are thoughtful, and he can disarm by laughing at himself.
Knowing him via the media, people may draw different conclusions: On TV,
his comments often enrage viewers due to his strong belief in the American
soldier and concepts such as loyalty, honor and honesty, and his distaste
for politicians who pad military budgets for pork barrel projects in their
Interviews on such cable shows as MSNBC’s "Hardball with Chris Matthews"
showcase the depth and breadth of his knowledge, not only about the military
and military history, but also about history in general. By reading his
syndicated column, which has exposed military waste and fraud, and his
frank, outspoken opinions, some think he’s a "loose cannon." He is
a firebrand and proud of it.
But it’s all motivated by his personal mission, which, according to his
Web site, is to "ensure that American troops are never put in harm’s way
without the right training, the right equipment, the right leadership and
the right mission."
"Some days I’m on 30 radio shows a day. I probably was on 14 to 15 today,"
Hackworth says. "You get regulars...Every day I am providing updates on
the war to several stations—they want to have the latest on what’s going
on in Serbia."
Despite this demand on his time, he spends nearly 90 minutes on this phone
"As a writer, I’m doing all the media, especially radio," Hackworth says.
"It helps you get your thoughts together. For radio, you have to have a
sharp, decisive way of talking. You are confined to explaining complicated
subjects in a short time—you have to make it as simple as possible. You
have to use metaphors.
"For example, to explain the air war, I might say ‘NATO is like a 12-foot
giant with a hammer killing ants, and the ants can’t keep the sledgehammer
from coming down.’ That tells you what awesome power NATO has."
The use of the metaphor to reach the reader or viewer is something he learned
covering Desert Storm, the war against Iraq, for "Newsweek."
"I’d be out in the field for five days gathering information. On the sixth
day, ‘Newsweek’ would line up all these radio and TV programs for me to
appear on, maybe 20 a day, and then I’d have to write my column the next
day for ‘Newsweek.’
"I learned to squeeze those soundbites and polish those metaphors. It’s
a result of all that good education at Austin Peay," he says.
That "good education" came before Hackworth sounded off in Vietnam. He
was stationed at Fort Campbell and continued his college education at APSC
through the Bootstrap Program.
"I went to Austin Peay with my Airborne haircut, and by the end of that
year, I was looking like the other students with hair down my back," he
says laughing. "I didn’t want to look like I didn’t belong. There was not
a lot of love lost then as the Airborne troopers would come downtown and
raise hell in Clarksville."
By the time he arrived at Austin Peay, Hackworth had been in the service
nearly 20 years and had been going to college part time for 11 of those
years. "Every time I got close, I got transferred. I was close to graduating
at the University of California and got transferred. I was close at the
University of Maryland and got transferred. I had given up, but my boss
at Fort Campbell, Col. Jim Apts, ordered me to go to Austin Peay.
"And that made all the difference," he says. "I got the degree and was
able to become a regular Army officer. That opened the doors to all the
Army schools and let me move upward. Austin Peay had a profound influence
on my life because it put me in the fast lane."
In the fast lane—after receiving his history degree, Hackworth vaulted
up the promotion lists. Five years later, in Vietnam, in 1971, he was the
youngest colonel in the Army and its most decorated officer with 105 medals—with
more than 27 for valor.
"They had me on the fast track, I’m told, for two or three stars (as general),"
he says. "But I was so opposed to the way we were fighting the war—I was
tired of seeing American soldiers, 19 years old, being stuck in body bags
and nobody cared."
He was approached by a TV reporter, and his answer sent him down a new
"I stood up...in uniform and said, ‘This is a bad war..we can’t win it,
the American people have been lied to, and we should get out now.’ That
did not endear me to President Nixon or General Westmoreland. It caused
both of them a bit of heartburn. They were after me with a chainsaw and
wanted to run it across my neck," he says, now able to laugh about it after
all these years.
According to Hackworth, the day after he sounded off, his helicopter "accidently"
crashed into Viet Cong territory. A couple of days later, headed from the
Mekong Delta to Saigon, his jeep was booby-trapped. Back in this country,
he found his car brake linings cut. He documents this and other details
in his best-selling autobiography, "About Face."
He shrugs it off in a way only a veteran soldier can: "Somebody—I don’t
know who it was—was seriously trying to rain on my parade." He now can
joke about it, because, like most successful people, he worked past such
"I was 40 and had to find a job in a hurry and I became a military journalist.
I can look in my mirror and say, ‘I did the right thing.’ I take great
pride in that...You get accountable to yourself when you get to your senior
years. I can say that (speaking out) was one of the best things I ever
did in my life."
Up to that fateful June day in 1971, Hackworth had been more than simply
a good soldier—he had been an outstanding soldier since first donning a
uniform at the astounding age of 14 at the tail end of World War II.
Although he was born in Venice, Calif., and reared in nearby Santa Monica,
the family roots ran deep through Tennessee and the South. Those roots
and beliefs were a factor in his joining the service at an age unthinkable
"Being from an old, Southern patriotic family, we’ve had family in every
war," he says with a genealogist’s zeal. "There were Hackworths fighting
in the Indian wars in the 1750s. In every war since, Hackworths have served."
He said that feeling of patriotism made it impossible for him to wait until
he was older to join the service.
"You had to be 17, but the Merchant Marines were not too discerning—neither
was the Army—and many people did not have birth certificates then. I paid
a wino two dollars to say he was my father, and he signed me up."
A year later, 1946, Hackworth was in the U.S. Army, and, although he really
was 15, Uncle Sam thought he was older.
There were tours of duty in Korea, Vietnam and at Cold War bases around
the globe. During one stint, his oldest son David, now 34, was born at
Fort Campbell about the time Hackworth was getting his degree from Austin
Peay. There were two years spent at the Pentagon and a year at a training
batallion at Fort Lewis, Washington. He spent five years in Vietnam, and
it was at the end of his fifth year when he spoke out. Around this time,
he and his wife divorced. In 1977, he remarried, and in 1978 his son Ben
Despite his love for the military, he encouraged his sons to try other
fields. "I did not want them to get killed, plus their last name would
have been a lightning rod. I would have loved the kids to have had the
challenge, training and discipline of military life. But another part of
me said I don’t want my sons to die."
Most recently, Hackworth finished his first fiction novel, "The Price of
"It’s printed by Doubleday and is their main book for 1999. They’re putting
a lot of marketing and promotion into it.
"It’s difficult writing fiction because you are living in an alternate
universe. In chapter one, I give you red hair, and I forget, and in chapter
20 I give you brown hair. In nonfiction you don’t have that problem."
As Col. (ret.) David Hackworth can tell you, sometimes nonfiction has its
own problems, especially if you speak out when you see something you believe
to be wrong. But, it also has its rewards.