We spoke with retired Col. David Hackworth, one of America’s most decorated soldiers, who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Hackworth is Military Affairs editor for Newsweek and author of the bestseller “About Face,” a scathing critique of U.S. military leadership in Vietnam. His most recent book, “Hazardous Duty” (Morrow) is, according to Hackworth, an attempt to “wake up America” to his belief that the U.S. armed forces are being used inefficiently and are badly led by their officer corps.
I wouldn’t have gone into Bosnia in the first place. It is not in our backyard. It is in Europe’s backyard. It’s a problem that will not be solved with American military force. We are there now at a cost of $5 billion a year, and a number of American lives, contrary to what the press is reporting, have been lost there. We’re like the
little Dutch boy with the finger in the dike. The minute we take our
finger out, then we’re going to see death and destruction occur in Bosnia
Yes, when you have perhaps up to a million people who could perish from the lack of food and water and disease, that we do have a role in helping, from a humanitarian standpoint. But there is the potential for casualties, so we should go in with sufficient force and with a very, very clearly defined plan for getting the job done,
and a very clearly defined exit plan. It should not be an open door commitment, or we’ll be stuck there forever.
How about putting U.S. troops under Canadian command in Zaire?
If we go in, with our assets, we run the show.
Perhaps the senior commander could be Canadian or from the United Nations. But if we put in, say, a U.S. brigade under that commander, the head of the U.S. unit should have
total command and control, total veto power of any instructions that he gets
from the U.N. He should be able to say “hey, this isn’t going to work, I’m not doing that.” That was part of the problem in Somalia.
You’re suggesting the U.N. was partly to blame for the 18 U.S.
troops who got killed in Somalia?
When the Rangers got into that fight on Oct. 3 , they needed
reinforcements from the U.N. The U.N., under a Turkish general, took 12 hours to gather
Pakistani and Malaysian armor, bring them to one location, and crash in to where the Rangers were besieged. An American unit would have done the whole thing from
womb to tomb in 30 minutes. So, yes, that’s a great example of how the U.N.
just can’t get its act together.
According to newspaper reports today, former Republican Sen. William Cohen is
the leading contender for Secretary of Defense. How do you feel about him?
He’s a good man. He sat on the Armed Forces committee and he knows what’s going on there. But I would rather see a
non-politician in the job. Melvin Laird was a [Republican] Congressman
from Michigan who served as Secretary of Defense. All he was into was bigger
barrels of pork. I think we need a fresh face, someone who is not
tainted by the system, a maverick who would do a bottom-up review and come up with a
streamlined military force that would be able to defend our national
interests at a fraction of the cost we are spending today. We need somebody who is willing to say, “O.K., so this is tradition, throw it out.”
And you would throw out much of the officer corps with it.
In “Hazardous Duty,” you portray a U.S. army divided between selfless grunts willing to die for their country and selfish, politically motivated military officers.
Yeah, I call them perfumed princes. They rise to the top positions
in the military, and they’re interested in only one thing themselves.
They’re not interested in their men, their women, their sacred charge.
Most Americans would regard two well-known former officers,
Norman Schwartzkopf and Colin Powell, as heroes. But you don’t think very much
Colin Powell is a typical example of where the myth has just taken over. There was talk a few months back that the only way to save America was to make Colin Powell, this great war-fighter, the President. The New York Post
said that Powell, a “Gulf War hero,” may be a member of Clinton’s
cabinet. The guy wasn’t even in the Gulf War during the war. How could he become a Gulf War hero? The heroes of the Gulf War were the grunts that were down on the ground. For the record, Colin Powell has never led American fighting men in battle. But most Americans don’t realize this.
The same with Norman Schwartzkopf. Schwartzkopf in Vietnam was called “the Nazi General” by the
members of his battalion in the Americal Division,
because he was so remote and arrogant. I knew Schwartzkopf when he was a
lieutenant in Berlin. And he was an asshole then. When he was flying back from the Gulf to brief Congress and the Defense Secretary, he had a full colonel with a
portable iron pressing his uniform. This is the kind of aristocratic behavior
that’s going on amongst our top warriors.
You are particularly critical of the decisions Powell made in the Gulf War.
We had to go for national security reasons oil.
But we should have gone in to win. We could have taken out [Saddam Hussein's]
Republican Guard without putting one grunt on the ground. We had incredible air-striking power in the form of A-10 aircraft, F18s, and Apache gunships. We could have done it. But this is not the advice that Colin Powell gave. He caved in, instead of standing tall and advising his Commander in Chief that we should fight this
war to win.
There are a lot of conflicting reports about the so-called “Gulf War syndrome.”
Is there really one, and if so what caused it?
I was in the Gulf as a reporter. I think what caused the illnesses was the reckless
bombing and demolitions of Iraqi ammunition supply points that housed Iraqi
chemical weapons. We didn’t bother to find out what was in the inventory
before we started blowing stuff up. A lot of times a bombing raid went in and
exploded chemical weapons, which were caught up in the winds and carried
in to where our folks were.
How do you view the Pentagon’s reaction to the illnesses?
In their traditional way. I think that all the high brass in the Pentagon should have
branded right on their foreheads “Certified Public Liars.” It’s exactly
what happened in Vietnam with Agent Orange. For 30 years the brass
denied there was any kind of relationship between the herbicides that were used in
Vietnam and all of the illnesses that affected Vietnam veterans. Now
after the fact, they admit, “Oh yes, it was related.” If they’d gone to
Vietnam as I recently did, they’d have seen the second and third generation
of Vietnamese who are suffering from gene damage as a result of the
The sexual harassment allegations are spreading to a number of army bases. How big a problem is it?
From my experience in the
last ten years of running around as a reporter, it’s very prevalent. It’s a terrible, tragic thing that young women are abused by leaders whom they trust. But I think what we need to do is question the social experiment of putting men and women together in the same units.
Are you saying that women shouldn’t be in the army?
I’m saying definitely, from my experience and I’m only bringing you
51 years of experience that women should not be in combat. Even putting women in service and support units
hasn’t worked. If you’ll talk to any low-ranking enlisted man, a sergeant, a
chief petty officer, or junior officer, up to the rank of lieutenant colonel,
they’ll tell you, off the record, or whisper to you, that this is not working.
But if they said on the record it would be an absolute career-killer, because
the perfumed princes up at the top want it to work, because people like the
President of the United States, who don’t understand the military, have
ordered that it should work.
Including President Clinton. How do you rate his performance as commander-in-chief?
In terms of his deployment of our forces in places like Somalia and
Bosnia ,I would have to give him mostly an F. Overall, I think he would barely squeak by with a passing grade of D.
His non-service in Vietnam still seems to be an issue with the military, as well as with others.
Clinton wasn’t the only guy who dodged the draft. So did 13 million
others, and many of them were absolutely right. It was a bad war. Clinton’s
mistake was that he lied about it. He made it worse by saying “I cannot afford a rupture with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” I would tell him he can’t
pussyfoot around when he’s trying to deal with the top admirals and generals.
He’s got to thump some heads together and say, “I’m the boss, this is what I
want,” and forget about the past, forget about Vietnam.
In terms of defense strategy, what else should we be casting aside?
South Korea. The South Korean army is about five million strong, probably one of the most excellent armies in the world, they can defend themselves. They don’t need the 39,000 Americans that are there backing them up, serving as a tripwire, and also costing the
taxpayers $2 billion. And we could also pull out of all of Europe, where we have almost 100,000 troops that are costing the taxpayers a small fortune. Let the Europeans
You write in “Hazardous Duty” that we need to put more money into
war-fighting capacity and less into high-tech toys.
What we need is a balance. We need to have a force capable of fighting a high-tech war with China, around 2010 or 2020, when it becomes the world power in terms of economic ability and military potential. And we need the same force to defend America from a re-emergent Soviet Union, which I believe will be back in that same time frame. We’ll also need to defend against an Islamic confederation that I think will stretch from Algiers all the way to Afghanistan. To do that we need a high-tech force that will
probably be mostly missiles, controlled by all of the high-tech gadgetry going. I don’t see another Normandy division, or tank division attacks such as we saw in the Iraq desert.
But by the same token, we need another force that’s ready for low-intensity
conflict, the kind that was fought in Bosnia, in
Haiti, in Somalia, in Los Angeles in 1992, and in St. Petersburg, Florida in
1996. We need to be prepared to fight a low-tech kind of warfare. What I worry about is that all our eggs are going into the high-tech basket at the expense of low-tech war, which will probably be the most prevalent.
Quote of the day
“One guy under me was looking at a female soldier and he said, ‘Oooh, I’d just like to goose
her.’ But it goes both ways. There are plenty of
women under me who make remarks to some guy or another about how he’s looking good.”
Sgt. Loletia Terry, an 11-year Army veteran, at a U.S. army base in Tacoma, Wash.
(From “Conflict Between Sexes, Not Combat, May Soon Define Modern Army” in Friday’s
New York Times)