[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior

Col. David H. Hackworth
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990
875 pp.

William Plank
Foreign Language and Literature
Eastern Montana College

David Hackworth was an energetic teenager in Santa Monica, well on the way to juvenile delinquency, when he lied about his age, joined the Merchant Marine at age fourteen, and served a tour in the south Pacific. At age fifteen, he paid a wino to pose as his father and certify he was old enough to join the army. He then went to the army of occupation in Italy, where his training was perfected for four years by battle-hardened veterans of World War II in the TRUST (35 1st) Regiment. He found there in the military a structure, a meaning, and a mission in life which made him a military idealist and a military purist. Volunteering for Korea, he sought and found an identity in slaughter and in personal risk which, during a career in which he survived by the most phenomenal good luck, would bring him eight purple hearts and make him the most decorated living American soldier.

"I wanted to do as I was commanded," he relates. "The Army was my home.... I loved it, and I belonged there." He reiterates that the army was his mother and his father and, upon his marriage, more important than his wife. In the next couple of decades he went from private to colonel, serving in the army of occupation in Germany, in various stateside assignments, including the chief of training at Fort Lewis, and finally two combat assignments in Viet Nam.

He had already seen young soldiers arrive in Korea so poorly trained that they had never actually fired their weapons. He had seen the turrets blown off tanks because the cannon's recoil mechanism had not been filled with oil. But it was in Viet Nam that he really came to believe that the mission of the army had been perverted from national defense to graft, career advancement in the officer corps, and the enrichment of the military-industrial complex. "Between 1975 and 1985 the number of military officials hired by defense contractors increased almost 500 percent, with ex-military men trading off their many contacts still in the service for huge salaries, and active-duty high-ranking officers singing the praises of (at times) hopelessly defective products to ensure that they, too, have lucrative jobs when they retire." He is enraged at the inflation of military decorations, which seems to have reached its worst in the invasion of Grenada, where it took seven American infantry battalions plus elements of two additional battalions three days to overcome "fewer than two hundred lightly armed Cuban soldiers and a militia of five hundred Cuban construction workers." Yet, 8612 medals (200 for bravery) were awarded to "no more than 7000 U.S. personnel on the tiny island at any time...."

Unable to tolerate any longer this betrayal of his military ideals, Hackworth gave a television interview to Howard Tuckner, the ABC News Saigon correspondent, on June 27, 1971. "I was forty years old, and I'd suddenly realized that the Army, this rotten whore I'd been madly in love with for the last twenty-five years, wasn't going to mend her ways." Thus, not merely did a military career come to an end, a career in which his appointment to the War College promised him the stars of a general, but the army pursued him in an effort to prove him guilty of criminal activity, of running a house of prostitution, of using drugs, and of theft of government property. Most probably his record as a warrior saved him from court martial. He then retired in Australia where, during the cold war hysteria of Ronald Reagan, he stockpiled food and water in case some "mad zealot brought forth the first salvo of World War III."

For professional civilians, as most of us academics are, this book should be read as a document in American cultural anthropology. We are mostly accustomed to reading such things as Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Duhamel's Civilization 1917, Kegan's (Sandhurst) Three Faces of Battle, and the other books which show the horrors of war. We need to see that the culture of which we are a part can take the most intelligent and courageous of us and provide us, through killing, an identity, a glory, and a meaning in life. Hackworth's joy in battle is the deadly rapture of the old Viking berserker we read about in Njal's Saga. The total commitment and total risk that Hackworth gave to his country and the military during battle were rewarded by the total approval of the military organization and the perfect existential identity he then found as a soldier and patriot. Battle became for Hackworth an exercise in ontology in which his culture defined him as authentic and worthy. In his first encounter with the enemy, he killed four Korean soldiers with his rifle--and felt no remorse. "My training had effectively dehumanized the enemy," he writes.

In his Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss showed that cultural identity is the equivalent of physiological survival, and the individual does not survive social exclusion. Even (and especially) the most vigorous of us need an identity and a justification for our existence. We university types, many of whom are war protesters, pacifists, and conscientious objectors, may be unable to understand the passion of the professional soldier who is willing to risk all to be given that perfect approval of his culture, or at least what he perceives to be his culture. We can begin to understand the terrible shock that Viet Nam veterans felt when they returned to find the widespread disapproval of the American people. This book provides an insight into the deadly serious mentality of the warrior who is a true believer and into his disappointment when he finds that others use national defense as the source of mere profit, of career advancement.

In the early parts of the book, we see an almost maudlin mystique of the military, of the brotherhood of the battlefield, a boyish need for recognition by medals and official approval. The literary style is even a gung-ho language. But as the biography progresses, as Hackworth's education develops, the style changes and by the end we are reading the lucid, bitter language of an educated, thoughtful man. Hackworth praises and names those whom he respects, and damns and names those he does not respect, and Generals Haig and Westmoreland are among the latter.

The organization of the book is highly anecdotal and follows a biographical chronology, but it does not drag. The conviction, the energy, and the indignation which the author felt informs the book throughout. It will leave the reader wrung out. And the real violence and slaughter of which soldier and officer Hackworth was capable make Rambo look like a sissy daydreaming of heroism.

The perversion of the original mission of an institution is not unique to the military. It exists as well on a massive scale in the United States, where the original goals of public health have been perverted by the hospital and pharmaceutic industry, and the doctors become soldiers (as in the local advertising battle between St. Vincent's and Deaconess Hospitals in Billings). The goals of physicians are replaced by the profit of the insurance industry. In American higher education, and particularly in the six units of the Montana University System and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, the goals of public education have been subverted and redefined as administration, the career advancement of administrators, and the pointless exercises of bureaucracy. In this unending war for profit, generals, college presidents, and hospital administrators become CEOs and not leaders. National security, public health, and public education suffer and the soldiers, the patients, and the students become cannon fodder.

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home