Self-Exiled After Vietnam, Army Hero David Hackworth Is Finally Coming Home
For most of his 25-year career in the U.S. Army, Col. David Hackworth was the consummate warrior. In two wars, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of enemy troops and became the most decorated American soldier alive. During one celebrated battle in Korea, he refused to stop fighting even after he’d been shot in the head. By 1971 he was in line for a general’s stars. Then, after four years on the battlefields of Vietnam, Hackworth turned on the institution that had been his family since he was 16. He publicly denounced the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia as wrongheaded, deceitful and doomed. His faith in America snuffed out along with his military future, he exiled himself to Australia.
Now, after 18 years, Hackworth, 58, has come home to promote About Face, his blood-and-guts autobiography. The book, which has already hit the best-seller list, took five difficult years to write. “I had a lot of flashbacks,” Hackworth says. “When I’d go to sleep, I’d be in battle.” But the catharsis of reliving the events that drove him from his country also freed Hackworth to return. “After I handed in my book, I realized that I wanted to come back,” he says. “This is my home. These are my roots.”
It is perhaps the ultimate measure of the upheaval that swept America during the Vietnam War that David Hackworth ended up an expatriate patriot. Born near Los Angeles on Veterans Day, 1930 (“Patton’s birthday, too,” he points out), he was orphaned at 15 months when his father, a miner, and his mother, a housewife, died within a few weeks of one another. The grandmother who rescued him from an orphanage raised the boy on tales of his ancestors’ heroism in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. “I had these very strong themes of patriotism,” he recalls. “It became important to be a serviceman and do something for my country.”
Lying about his age, Hackworth joined the Merchant Marine at 15 and the Army at 16. Sent to Korea at 20, he learned the thrill of war. “It was amazing the sense of power I felt, ultimate power, watching [the North Koreans] come and holding that weapon in my hand,” he writes of his first firelight. “I dropped four guys point-blank with my M1.” Like his childhood hero, gunfighter Kit Carson, Hackworth carved a notch on the stock of his rifle for each kill. His combat exploits won him a battlefield commission at 20, a chestful of medals and a reputation for discipline and leadership. After the truce was signed in Korea, Hackworth married Army nurse Patty Leonard and had three children, because domestic stability seemed to be “expected of an officer,” but he had no stomach for it. “I was a bigamist,” he says. “The Army was my first love.”
When he was sent to Vietnam in 1965 after three years in Europe, Hackworth believed that the Vietcong could be beaten. By then a self-educated and prolific writer on military tactics, he co-authored the Veteran Primer, a manual on counterinsurgency still in use today. Having studied the works of Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung and other guerrilla leaders, Hackworth knew the Vietcong they could not be defeated the old-fashioned way, by destroying their forces in set-piece battles. Such strategies could have little effect against indigenous soldiers who would hide during an attack and reoccupy a village after the GIs had marched on. Instead, Hackworth favored a new doctrine of surprise, deception and mobility—and proved, in the field, that it worked. In 1969, it took him only four weeks to transform a battalion of pot-smoking hippies who had not killed an enemy in six months into a team of counterguerrillas who felled more than 2,500 Vietcong with the loss of only 25 Americans. But “nobody bothered to ask, ‘How did you do it?’ ” he says bitterly. “Nobody superimposed that system on other battalions.”
Instead, Hackworth says, the Army seemed determined to make “the same mistakes over and over again.” He blames the “ticket punchers”—officers rotated into Vietnam for brief tours to “round out their résumés. We were giving them combat experience so they’d be ready for a war with the Soviet Union,” he says. “They didn’t know their trade.” Hackworth calculates that at least 30 percent of American deaths in Vietnam were the result of poor training or “friendly fire”—Americans accidentally shooting one another. Though he could kill the enemy with impunity, Hackworth agonized over every death of a combat comrade. “I couldn’t even go visit guys in hospitals,” he says. “I couldn’t see those broken bodies when I’d issued the orders.”
Hackworth’s disillusionment came to a head when the U.S. secretly bombed Cambodia, a neutral country. “The way it was done violated all the principles I loved and soldiered for,” he says. “It was no different from the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.” Hackworth began to rebel by breaking Army rules, opening a disease-free brothel for his men and declaring a drug amnesty program for his troops. He reasoned that syphilis and heroin addiction were epidemic and ought to be faced. But, he admits. “I was heartbroken over what had happened to my Army, and I lashed out at the institution that had hurt me. I was crazy. I was angry.” Hackworth in his rogue period is reputedly the model for the crazed Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.
In 1971 Hackworth decided to go public with his criticisms of the Army on the ABC-TV news show Issues and Answers. Within a few days, the brass had descended on his renegade command and charged Hackworth with massive rules violations. In lieu of a court-martial, Hackworth was eventually allowed to resign.
Stunned that the American people had not leapt to his defense, Hackworth drifted off to Australia. “I never expected to leave the Army except on a stretcher,” he says. “I was lost for a long time.” After what he calls a seven-year “hippie” phase, he married Peter Margaret Cox, an Australian restaurateur. (He had divorced his first wife in the early ’70s, though he remains in touch with their three children.) Together they had a son (Ben, now 12), and Hackworth became a millionaire “a few times over” running a Brisbane restaurant and raising ducks. But “there was no adventure to it,” he says of his entrepreneurial success. Instead, he found a sense of purpose in the Australian antinuclear movement, preaching the insanity of stockpiling missiles. It was while working on an anti-nuke documentary that he met American screenwriter Julie Sherman, 30, the coauthor of About Face and his partner since the breakup of his second marriage.
Now, the man who once declared “America would have to do a 180-degree turn to get me back” says he is not bitter. And the Army, though it may not condone his actions, at least now recognizes Hackworth’s hard-won expertise. As he prepares to set up shop as a military writer in Colorado or Montana, Hackworth is fielding invitations to brief U.S. troops on counterinsurgency warfare. He’s thankful for the chance. Says the prodigal supersoldier: “I just don’t want to see us learn nothing from Vietnam.”
—Patricia Freeman, Victoria Balfour in New York