Retired U.S. Army Col. David Hackworth is a cocky American military commander who for half a century was at the front lines of the Army’s most important battles. Most recently, though, Hackworth has been at the front lines of a domestic war: the debate over U.S. military strategy in Iraq, and whether the Bush administration planned well enough to achieve a decisive military victory and keep the postwar peace.
Hackworth was everywhere on cable television during the first days of the war, when early military setbacks convinced him and other retired military leaders that the administration, whose backers sold the conflict as a “cakewalk,” hadn’t sent enough troops to quell Iraqi resistance. He wrote a widely quoted column headlined “Stuck in the Quicksand” in early April — just as the tide seemed to turn and the pace of victory picked up again. Though he is a colonel by rank, Hackworth was counted among the so-called “television generals” the administration blasted after Baghdad fell, and many conservative admirers turned against him.
But now, with American soldiers still dying almost daily in Iraq, the tide of opinion may be turning again, in favor of Hackworth’s argument that the administration was unprepared for what’s turning out to be a long-term guerrilla resistance in Iraq. Today the primary front of Hackworth’s war of opinion isn’t cable television, but a pair of Web sites — Soldiers for the Truth and his own site, Hackworth.com — where he’s campaigning to document the dire fate of U.S. troops in Iraq. The sites have quickly become a repository for the gripes and fears of America’s beleaguered combat troops.
On a typical day Hackworth receives hundreds of e-mails, letters and faxes from American soldiers, complaining about everything from silk-weight underwear to the weapons they’ve been assigned. “Pistols suck,” wrote one soldier. “Bring and use every weapon. Shotguns are great at close ranges.” At a time when soldiers have been disciplined for griping to the media, Hackworth is providing a fascinating outlet for what they’re really experiencing. Among the more evocative messages:
“Soldiers are living in the dirt, with no mail, no phone, no contact with home, and no break from the daily monotony at all. I practically got in a fist fight with this captain over letting my private send an e-mail over his office’s internet. This clown spends his days sending flowers to his wife and surfing the net. Fucking disgraceful and all too typical of today’s Army.”
“Soldiers get literally hundreds of flea or mosquito bites and they can’t get cream or Benadryl to keep the damn things from itching … .I am not talking about bringing in the steak and lobster every week. I am talking about basic health and safety issues that continue to be neglected by the Army.”
“We did not receive a single piece of parts-support for our vehicles during the entire battle … not a single repair part has made to our vehicles to date … my unit had abandoned around 12 vehicles … .I firmly believe that the conditions I just described contributed to the loss and injury of soldiers on the battlefield.”
“We have done our job and have done it well, we have fulfilled our obligation to this operation, but we are still here and are still being mistreated and misled. When does it end? Do we continue to keep the liberators of Iraq here so they can continue to lose soldiers periodically to snipers and ambushes? My unit has been here since September and they have no light at the end of the tunnel. How many of my soldiers need to die before they realize that we have hit a wall?”
Although the controversial Hackworth has his critics, no one disputes his half-century of military accomplishment. During World War II the 15-year-old Hackworth lied about his age to fight in Italy. During Vietnam he designed and implemented unconventional warfare tactics — allegedly including a private brothel for his troops — and wrote the Vietnam Primer, considered by many to be the leading book on guerrilla warfare tactics in Vietnam. Wounded eight times (his left leg still carries a bullet from the Vietnam War), he racked up enough medals, he says, to declare himself the “Army’s Most Decorated Soldier” — though he admits the U.S. Army has no such title. No one denies that Hackworth has seen more combat and taken more bullets than almost any American soldier still alive.
Today, the bestselling author — his books include “Steel my Soldiers’ Hearts,” “Price of Honor” and “About Face” — writes a column for the conservative site World Net Daily.
He’s starting to feel his years. His bullet-ridden leg propped up on pillows at his home in suburban Connecticut, Hack is far from the action. So he chose another tactic: He brought the front home. In a conversation with Salon, he termed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an “asshole” who “misunderstood the whole war” and he predicted that American troops could be stuck in Iraq for “at least” another 30 years.
How long do you think U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq?
God only knows, the way things are going. At least 30 years. Tommy Franks [recently retired commander of U.S. troops in Iraq] said four to 10 years. Based on Cyprus and other commitments in this kind of warfare, it is going to be a long time — unless the price gets too heavy. We say it is costing the U.S. $4 billion a month; I bet it is costing $6 billion a month. Where the hell is that money going to come from?
How do you see the combat situation evolving in Iraq?
There is no way the G [guerrilla] is going to win; he knows that, but his object is to make us bleed. To nickel and dime us. This is Phase 1. But what he is always looking for is the big hit — a Beirut [-style car-bomb attack] with 242 casualties, something that gets the headlines! The Americans have their head up their ass all the time. All the advantages are with the G; he will be watching. He is like an audience in a darkened theater and the U.S. troops are the actors on stage all lit up, so the G can see everything on stage, when they are asleep or when his weapons are dirty. The actor can’t see shit in the audience.
For many weeks your Web site has described conditions in Iraq as being far more chaotic and unstable than generally reported. Why did the Pentagon try to downplay the problems instead of playing it straight and saying this is a long- term problem for America?
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz made a very horrible estimate of the situation. They concluded that the war would be Slam Bam Goodbye Saddam, followed by victory parades with local Iraqi folks throwing flowers and rice and everything nice, then the troops would come home.
When I examined the task organization, my estimate was totally contrary to this asshole Rumsfeld, who went in light and on the cheap, all based upon this rosy scenario. I never thought this would be a fight without resistance. And there was another guy who thought the same way I did; his name is Saddam Hussein. He looked at the awesome array of forces being set up against him and said, “Wait a minute, no way can I prevail, I tried that in ’91 and just saw in Afghanistan what happened to Taliban and Al-Qaida, I will run away for another day.”
Saddam is saying, “I am going to copy Ho Chi Minh and the Taliban and go into a guerrilla configuration.” It [the invasion of Baghdad] did go Slam Bam Goodbye Saddam, but we are in there so light that we don’t have sufficient force to provide the stability after the fall of the regime. We can’t secure the banks, the energy facilities, the vital installations, the government, the ministry, the museums or the library. The world was witness to this great anarchy, the looting and rioting that set over Baghdad. There was that wonderful quote by Rumsfeld. “Stuff happens,” he said. He flipped it off.
Do you see any similarities to the U.S. engagement in Vietnam?
The mistake in Vietnam 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. The tanks move into a village, swoop down, the tank gunner sees a silhouette atop a house, aims, fires, kills and it turns out to be a 12-year-old boy. Now, the father of that boy said, “We will kill 10 Americans for this.” This is exactly what happened in Vietnam; a village was friendly, then some pilot turns around and blows away the village, the village goes from pro-Saigon to pro-Hanoi.
What kind of weapons would you be using in this war if you were running it? Would you trade the pistols for grenade launchers? Would you bring in more Apache helicopters, more snipers, what?
You have to use surgical weapons, not weapons that can reach out and strike innocents. The American Army is trained to break things and kill people — not the kind of selective work that is needed. You don’t use a tank brigade to surround a village; instead, you set up ambushes along the route. It is all so similar to what I saw in Vietnam, this tendency to be mesmerized by big-unit operations. But if you fight like a G, everything is under the table, in the dark, done by stealth and surprise; there is no great glory — except the end result. America has never been capable of fighting the G; from [Gen.] Custer who fucked it up, you can fast-forward to today. [In Iraq] they are proving it again. The U.S. military never, never learns from the past. They make the same mistake over and over again.
What other changes would you say need to happen in Iraq?
Get rid of the conventional generals; these guys in Iraq are tank generals, but they don’t have any experience in fighting an insurgency. Reminds me of Vietnam when the artillery commanders wanted to build bases everywhere to fire their cannons. These tactics do not work against the G. I said in a recent piece: “Fire these fuckers and get a snake eater.”
Snake eater — where does that term come from?
That is an old expression from the beginning of Special Forces. They would have demonstrations at Fort Bragg [U.S. Special Forces headquarters in North Carolina] to demonstrate their animalism and they would bite the head off a chicken or bite a snake in half.
Gen. John Abazid — a snake eater — has just come in and admitted this is a classic guerrilla war. What kind of new strategy can we expect to see?
The guy is extremely bright and a fighter — a very rare combination. Generally the fighters are Rambo types who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. There are on occasions the Rommel and Patton who are brilliant fucking guys who can also duke it out with you, they understand the street fighter. You got that with Abazid.
How is it that you, a retired soldier in suburban Connecticut, appear to have a better take on the soldiers’ mood than the generals in the Pentagon or in Baghdad?
I have incredible sources — on average I get 500 e-mails a day from kids around the world that have read my work and know that I am not going to blow the whistle on them; a lot of that shit you see on my Web site comes from those kids.
This is the first war with e-mail. You have asked U.S. soldiers to emulate Winston Churchill and act as war correspondents by sending you dispatches from the front. What has been the response?
Very, very favorable. The soldiers know the traffic is being monitored by the Pentagon, that Big Brother is monitoring everything they write. But still my sources keep coming from Afghanistan and Iraq. I very seldom get direct sources — remember before we deployed, they [soldiers] were at home and could send e-mail from personal Yahoo accounts, now they have to use military accounts and are paranoid that these are being read. The [direct] traffic I get now are from guys who don’t give a fuck, who are not going to stay in [the military], who don’t give a shit about the consequences of sounding off. But remember — you can never outsmart a convict in prison or a soldier on the battlefield. They both live by their wits, so what they do is write home and say “Hey dad I love you, we are having a few problems with tanks, etc. If this letter should happen to find itself into the e-mail of Hackworth at www.Hackworth.com it wouldn’t disappoint me.” I am getting 30 to 40 of these letters.
American troops in Iraq are complaining of basics like clean clothes, hot food and mail from home. Is there anything wrong with the Pentagon’s famous supply chain?
This goes back to the shitty estimate on the part of Rumsfeld. He did not provide enough troops or the logistical backup, because his Army was not staying, it was coming home. So who needs a warehouse full of shit?
One letter I got today, written by a sergeant in a tank unit, said that of its 18 armored vehicles — Bradley or Abrams — only four are operational. The rest were down because of burned-out transmissions or the tracks eaten out. So it is not just the shitty food and bad water — a soldier can live with short rations — but spare parts, baby! If you don’t have them, your weapons don’t work. Most of the resupply is by wheeled vehicles, and the roads and terrain out there is gobbling up tires like you won’t believe. Michelin’s whole production for civilians has been stopped [at certain plants] and have dedicated their entire production to the U.S. military in Iraq — and they can’t keep up!
Do you think there is any truth to the sense that British soldiers are better at nation-building than the Americans?
I would say so. They have a long history — going back to the days of the colonies. If you look at their achievements in some places where they have established solid governments — in Africa, in India, they have done a very good job. They were very good at lining up local folks to do the job like operating the sewers and turning on the electricity. Far better than us — we are heavy-handed, and in Iraq we don’t understand the people and the culture. Thus we did not immediately employ locals in police and military activities to get them to build and stabilize their nation. (Pauses) Yeah, the Brits are better.
What would you tell Rumsfeld if you could talk to him?
In mid April, I wrote a piece that asks for Rumsfeld to be fired, to be relieved. I took enormous heat for that. He went in light, on the cheap, he has misunderstood the whole war, he should go … Rumsfeld is an arrogant asshole. That’s a quote, by the way.