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David Hackworth Dies; Esteemed Army Colonel Defied Military Brass

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page B07

Retired Army Col. David H. Hackworth, 74, a highly decorated soldier's soldier who as a writer often went to war with "the perfumed princes" of the Pentagon and with a military establishment he considered obtuse and ineffective, died May 4 in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was receiving treatment for bladder cancer.

Outspoken and opinionated, never one to run from a fight, Col. Hackworth joined the Army as a 15-year-old at the tail end of World War II. He fought alongside postwar occupation forces in Italy. For the rest of his life, he often found himself embattled, not only as a soldier in Korea and Vietnam but also on the home front, where the foes were Pentagon brass and politicians, particularly those he said "who have never sweated it out on a battlefield." The disdain was mutual.


U.S. Army Col. David H. Hackworth, shown in a 1971 photo, was forced to resign after calling Vietnam a bad war that couldn't be won. (AP)

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With more than a quarter-century of military service to his credit, including tours of duty in seven war zones, he spoke with the authority of experience. He was awarded nine Silver Stars, four Legions of Merit, eight Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts and four Army Commendation Medals, among numerous others.

In recent years, he excoriated Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon planners of U.S. military strategy in Iraq. He blasted them for not preparing properly for the occupation.

In an interview with Salon.com in August 2003, he compared Iraq to Vietnam. "The mistake in Vietnam," he said, "was we failed to understand the nature of the war, and we failed to understand our enemy. In Vietnam, we were fighting World War II. Up to now in Iraq, we have been fighting Desert Storm with tank brigade attacks."

Col. Hackworth was born on Veterans Day 1931 in Santa Monica, Calif. His parents died before he was a year old; his grandmother raised him.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he worked as a shoeshine boy at a military base in Santa Monica, where the soldiers adopted him as a mascot and had a uniform made for him. "At age 10," he said, "I knew my destiny. Nothing would be better than to be a soldier."

In 1945, at age 14, he used phony identification papers to join the Merchant Marine; at 15, he enlisted in the Army and fought with Yugoslav partisans on the Italian border.

In Korea, he won a battlefield commission and commanded an Army Raiders unit that fought brilliantly against North Korean and Chinese infantry units. He was 20. A captain at the end of the war, he received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

In Vietnam, where he served four tours of duty, his leadership of the 39th Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Battalion in the Mekong Delta was the stuff of legend. His many critics sought to debunk the legend, but the basic facts were unassailable.

As he related in his book "About Face" (1989) and in a later book, he took a ragtag regiment of ill-trained, demoralized men in the 39th Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Battalion and in a matter of weeks transformed it into a deadly force by adopting the mobile hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the Viet Cong themselves. He called it "out-geeing the G."

Washington novelist Ward Just, a war correspondent in Vietnam, met Col. Hackworth in 1966. "He was compact, with forearms the size of hams," Just recalled in an introduction to "About Face."

"His uniform was filthy and unadorned with any insignia save the major's leaf," Just continued. "The base camp had been early overrun the night before and now he was exhorting his troops; and they were listening, in part because Hackworth's use of obscenity was truly inventive."

Just also observed that Col. Hackworth "understood the atmosphere of violence. That meant he knew how to keep his head, to think in danger's midst. In battle the worst thing is paralysis. He mastered his own fear and learned how to kill. He led by example, and his men followed."


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