Hackworth and history

It's interesting to see the forces of history - and publishing - at work on an strong, public personality such as the late David Hackworth's. Hackworth died last week.

Indulge me a little and I'll bring this around to the ACW.

In the early 1970s, Col. Hackworth and I shared an enemy, with almost the same result. Hackworth had left the service in 1971 and published a bitter autobiography in which his last combat commander, one Col. Franklin, was lambasted for his bad judgement and petty tyranny. It was clear from Hackworth's book - which sold well and was available in any PX - that the dispute with Franklin had crippled Hackworth's career; his retirement acknowledged as much. When I met Franklin three years later, it was also well known in the Infantry School (that employed us) that Hackworth's book had broken the spokes in Franklin's own wheel of promotion. He would not make general.

When I ran into him, Franklin was still on active duty, he was head of the Weapons Department and other colonels were afraid of him. One day he entered our offices in a foul mood looking for my chief, who was out to lunch. He was behaving badly, as bull-necked, shaven-headed colonels are sometimes wont to do, and I began berating him in front of the civilian staff. Juniors can do that to seniors who are out of line - the military has that much over civvy street. Not wanting to get into it with a lieutenant, he wandered off after a little mumbling. Not long after the backslapping and handshaking ended, I was transferred out of Franklin's way. That was when I took up Hackworth's memoir and found we had a mutual acquaintance.

Hackworth's autobiography seems to have been retooled in the 1980s or 1990s, because his obituaries state this:

Disillusioned with America's conduct in prosecuting the Vietnam War, the active-duty colonel offered a harsh critique of the conflict on the ABC-TV news show "Issues and Answers" in 1971. The maverick colonel became an overnight media sensation, but he incensed Army officials, who tried to discredit him by charging him with violating regulations in Vietnam. Before he could be court-martialed, Col. Hackworth was forced to resign from the Army. [From the Seattle Times]

It was one of the first times a senior officer had publicly spoken out against the Vietnam war, and the army unceremoniously retired the man who had been told a few months earlier that he was virtually assured promotion to brigadier-general. [From The Herald, UK]
Look at those two paragraphs. We have gone from a half-truth to what appears to be a summary that makes the half-truth into a lie.

Anyone who read the first edition of Hackworth's memoir understands that his career was killed in Vietnam by Col. Franklin. The decision to go public with TV criticism of the war was with nothing to lose. I interpreted it at the time as personal sour grapes. His "assured" promotion (there are no assured promotions at that level, BTW) might have been "vouchsafed" to him before Franklin issued his efficiency report. After that, all was lost.

The man was fired for speaking out against the war - who would have thought? And so history is made.

Hackworth, in his later incarnation, scattered his substance: on one show, he'd be all about foreign policy; on another about military leadership; on a third, about coverups by the brass. He took a gadfly temperament and developed it into a career as military critic. But his criticisms lacked an underlying theme and a tangible destination. He continued to flit about, gadfly-style, instead of creating a coherent body of criticism. TV loved him. There were small victories. There were tactical wins where grand strategy was needed.

Victorious Union officers after the Civil War purged civilians and instituted a regime of professionaism that permanently marginalized non-West Point officers. Hackworth could have developed a positive alternative notion of military leadership - his life was an emblem for the popular Civil War idea of native (unschooled) military genius. A lost opportunity.

Despite the demobilization, the victorious Union officers after the Civil War instituted a grotesquely top-heavy Army command structure; this was further distorted by the two-and-a-half war fighting doctrine adopted after WWII. Hackworth sniped at this target using counterproductive language and images, making it "personal" for a lot of people on the inside. Another lost opportunity.

The care of the common soldier was a constant Civil War theme in the North and Hackworth made this issue his own. Unfortunately, so did the Pentagon, to the extent that (for instance) Basic Training is now virtually failure-proof. Hackworth attacked the softy stuff while at the same time lambasting soldier abuse. One did not get a clear sense of the relationship of hard war and tender care. Hackworth's soft and tough sides followed an emotional schema not obvious to his friends and potential supporters.

And that's where we are today. Hackworth tried and succeeded in some simple things, like embarassing SecDef Rumsfeld into signing his own death notification letters. He had the capacity to advance a reform agena that could fix much more of our broken Army, but that would have required making allies of reformers like Rumsfeld.

A good part of Army reform will be remaking our officer corps, stuck as it is in a mesh of outdated Civil War beliefs, doctrines, and a counterproductive "professional" ethos. Hackworth put his hand to the plow but his maverick tendencies worked against him and ultimately against us, we who so badly need efficient armed services.

Perhaps I shouldn't blame anyone one for following their own lights as idiosyncratically as I follow mine. Maybe he deserves more credit than I am giving him.

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p.s. Never underestimate the personal payback dynamic. I see from this that the friends of Col. Franklin are having a last laugh:

A Memorial Service for Colonel David H. Hackworth, Infantry, United States Army (Retired), will commence on Tuesday, 31 May, at 11:00am EDT at the Main (new) Chapel, Ft. Myer, Arlington, Virginia. This service will last somewhat less than one hour, since services for another individual are scheduled to start at 12:00 noon in this same chapel.
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p.p.s. I see that Hackworth's friend, Maj. Don Vandergriff (a living link to Col. John Boyd's reform movement) has his own website. Have a look.