The May 6 obituary for Col. David H. Hackworth incorrectly described the unit he commanded in Vietnam. It was the 4th Battalion of the 39th Infantry Regiment. Mr. Hackworth's birth date, Nov. 11, 1931, was on what was then known as Armistice Day, not Veterans Day as the obituary stated. (Published 5/7/2005)
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.
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."
Col. Hackworth urged military leaders to adopt his unconventional methods, as outlined in his handbook on guerrilla warfare, "The Vietnam Primer." They did not follow his advice.
On June 27, 1971, he appeared on ABC's "Issues and Answers" and savaged U.S. commanders in Vietnam, their strategies and their tactics. Branding Vietnam "a bad war," he declared that it couldn't be won and that the United States ought to get out.
Although antiwar forces hailed him as a hero, the military considered his comments tantamount to treason. He was forced to resign from the Army before he could be court-martialed or, as he maintained in his memoir, assassinated. He gave up his medals in protest and retired to a duck farm in Queensland, Australia, "the farthest place I could find from the United States and still speak English," he wrote in "About Face."
Reviewer Rick Atkinson, writing in The Washington Post's Book World, found much to like about the book. "Paradoxically, one of the strengths of the book is a warts-and-all candor through which we see much to dislike about David Hackworth," he wrote. "Often crude and truculent, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time knocking people down with his fists."
Col. Hackworth stayed in Australia for 18 years, investing in real estate enterprises, running a popular restaurant in Brisbane and writing "About Face," which concludes with critiques of America's "total fiascos" in Iran, when a military team failed to rescue several American hostages, and in Grenada, where Marine and Army forces suffered 10 percent losses in the 1983 invasion.
He returned to the United States in 1989 to marry Eilhys England, who became his business and writing partner. From 1990 to 1996, he was a contributing editor for defense at Newsweek, covering the Persian Gulf War as well as peacekeeping operations in Somalia, the Balkans, Korea and Haiti.
He also wrote three more books -- "Hazardous Duty" (1996), a volume of war dispatches; "The Price of Honor" (1999), a novel about a corrupt U.S. military establishment; and "Steel My Soldiers' Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam" (2002), written with his wife.
As a syndicated columnist for King Features, he often spoke out on behalf of the troops on the ground in harm's way. He wrote repeatedly about the danger of lightly armored Humvees and what he considered the absurdity of the Pentagon's inability or unwillingness to safeguard the troops.
"Our modern generals might give a lot of lip service to protecting the force, but any way you cut it, what's going on in Iraq is criminal," he wrote in a June 2004 column.
He ignited a national debate last year when he reported that Rumsfeld used a machine to sign condolence letters sent to the families of soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq. Rumsfeld later promised to sign each letter by hand.
Recently, he and his wife had been pushing for legal action to compel the Pentagon to recognize the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Blue as a carcinogen on par with Agent Orange. He believed his fatal illness was caused by exposure to the defoliants.
Col. Hackworth's first two marriages, to Patricia Leonard and to Peter Margaret Cox, ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife, of Greenwich, Conn., survivors include three children from his first marriage, one child from his second marriage and a stepdaughter.