Newsweek’s Major Embarrassment

He’s called Col. Hackworth.

Part 1: Pose

At that moment I was thinking how I would like to be a fly buzzing around in the command tent, eyeballing the maps, checking the intelligence, finding out what the hell was going on in this weird war. Suddenly my daydreaming was interrupted by the tall, rugged-looking paratrooper standing guard over me.

“Hey, Mr. Reporter,” he said, “How come I know your face?”

I was writing notes when he started up. I told him I had written a book about my military experience, that maybe he had seen me on TV.

“Goddamn,” he said. “You’re Colonel Hackworth. You’re the hot shit dude who tells it like it is?”

       –From Hazardous Duty, by Col. David Hackworth

On a recent episode of Seinfeld, Elaine hires an aging Army veteran to write for her clothing catalog. The vet wears combat fatigues, black boots, and a thousand-yard stare. He recites his copy in a cigarette rasp: “It’s a hot night. The mind races. You think about your knife. The only friend who hasn’t betrayed you. The only friend who won’t be dead by sunup. Sleep tight, mates, in your Chambray Quilted Nightshirts.”

It is a part–the self-regarding, self-parodying military macho man–that might have been modeled on former Col. David Hackworth, not unlike the part he’s written for himself as America’s ballsiest war reporter, “the hot shit dude who tells it like it is.” Hackworth is the type known as a legend in his own mind. The colonel’s own press materials assert that he is the “reputed model” for Col. Kurtz, the Marlon Brando character in the movie Apocalypse Now. (In fact, the model for Col. Kurtz is Mr. Kurtz–the character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which the movie is explicitly based.)

       Since 1990, Hackworth has been swaggering his way around the world as a military correspondent for Newsweek. He’s ubiquitous. Hackworth covered the Gulf War, the Somalia mission, the invasion of Haiti, and the Bosnia deployment. He played a crucial role in the affair of Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda’s suicide. Hackworth writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column, “Defending America.” He regularly takes his stone jaw and ramrod back on television shows like Today and Larry King Live. And he just published his fourth book, Hazardous Duty, an account of his six years as a journalist: war stories about war stories. Thanks to six years of globe-trotting and vigorous self-promotion, Hackworth is probably America’s most prominent military reporter. He is undoubtedly its most ridiculous. He is an embarrassment to Newsweek, and to American journalism. 

Let there be no doubt: David Hackworth is a war hero. In 1944, when he was a 14-year-old orphan, Hackworth faked his way into the U.S. Merchant Marine. At 16, he was a U.S. Army private, fighting Yugoslav partisans on the Italian border. At 20, he won a battlefield commission in Korea, then commanded a savage and brilliant Army Raiders unit that wreaked havoc on the North Koreans and Chinese. When he left the Army in 1971, he was the youngest full colonel in Vietnam, winner of eight Purple Hearts, nine Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars, four Army Commendation Medals, four Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and a chestful of other medals. Today Hackworth calls himself–often–“America’s most decorated living soldier.”       (The Army challenges Hackworth’s right to claim this title. For that part of the story, click here. Or, finish the main article first. You’ll get another chance to click to this sidebar at the end.)      When he retired, Hackworth renounced the Vietnam War, immigrated to Australia, and became an anti-nuclear activist. He vanished from the American scene until 1989, when he published About Face, his 875-page autobiography. Bloody, profane, and ferocious, About Face glorifies the courage and suffering of “warriors” (notably Hackworth himself) and spits on the generals who command them. It was a best seller, and, in 1990, Newsweek editor Maynard Parker invited Hackworth to return to the battlefield as a special Gulf War correspondent.

Parker didn’t need to ask twice. Soon, Hackworth was roaring through the Saudi Arabian desert in a four-wheel drive, dolled up in Army camouflage and Kevlar helmet, carrying fake papers and bluffing his way through checkpoints. The 60-year-old expatriate peace activist had been reborn. He was Col. David Hackworth again–a k a “Hack”–part Audie Murphy, part Ernest Hemingway, all man. He had become, he writes without irony, a “truth-teller,” and he was armed with “the ultimate bayonet”: his pen. When the Gulf War ended, Hackworth kept writing. For the last six years, he has been stabbing the ultimate bayonet into battlefields around the world, inflicting a variety of ugly wounds, most of them on the English language and Newsweek subscribers.

       If history’s first pass gave Hackworth the tragedies of Korea and Vietnam, of Purple Hearts and dead comrades, the second round has been farce. Hackworth’s oeuvre can be roughly divided into two categories: war stories and populist rants. In his telling, he is always the hero of both. Hazardous Duty, which Hackworth co-wrote with Tom Mathews, offers many priceless examples. It is a measure of Hackworth’s journalistic talents that he requires a collaborator to write an autobiographical book. It is a measure of Hackworth’s jaw-dropping arrogance that he would subtitle the book “America’s Most Decorated Living Soldier Reports from the Front and Tells It the Way It Is.”

The stories in Hazardous Duty follow a formula, which is this: Hack smells the battle approaching in _______ (insert your favorite trouble spot here: Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, the Gulf). He heads for ground zero. The U.S. troops are in chaos: The “warrior studs” have been given the wrong tanks, the wrong body armor, the wrong helicopters. Hell, they’re even eating the wrong food. Meanwhile the “Perfumed Princes” (generals and their lickspittle staffs) and the other REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers) are maxing and relaxing in their lavish air-conditioned quarters. The three-star generals are eating five-star food. Hack tracks down a “Deep Throat” who fills him in on the real story–the deadly mistakes by generals, the idiotic strategy of the generals, the lying by the generals, the poor personal hygiene of the generals, etc.

The military’s PR weasels try to stymie Hack, but Hack, camouflaged like the wily vet he is, eludes them. Then Hack finds the studliest warriors on the mission. (How do we know they’re studly? They listen to Hack’s advice.) They are commanded by a “romping, stomping” old veteran, preferably someone who served with Hack in Vietnam. There’s a whiff of cordite! The zing of a bullet! A mine blasts an armored vehicle into a twisted wreck. A bomb sprays hot shrapnel at Hack’s feet. Haitian police nearly slaughter an angry mob. Blood and italics and clichés spatter across the page: 

  • “Holy shit, what next? I know what this means. What this means is trouble. Big trouble.”
  • “My gut was saying, Fuck this. Look at those houses. Dangerous people could be coming out of them in about one minute and then Bang Bang You’re Dead.
  • “Incoming dropped on all sides of us. CRUMP, CRUMP, CRUMP. Hot steel whizzed past our ears. We piled into a bunker. I hit the floor wondering what the hell I was doing here: Welcome to the Balkans, motherfucker.”
  • “My sixth sense began screaming again. Something sinister was in the air. If we stay too long, and keep dicking around, somebody’s going to get killed.”

But there’s really nothing to worry about, because Hack’s here. He’s the cock of this walk–an oracle, a Clausewitz, a warrior. Hack saves an innocent boy from brutal Haitians. Hack accurately predicts the U.S. battle strategy in Iraq (“I wrote a story for Newsweek and hit dead center. Stormin’ Norman thought I had given away his Hail Mary battle plan.”). Hack forecasts the collapse of the Haitian army. Hack anticipates the firefight that kills 18 American Rangers in Somalia. Hack has a premonition that Boorda will kill himself. Hack helps take Iraqi prisoners (“These sorry-ass sons of bitches didn’t touch their weapons. They were no more going to fight than guests at a Quaker wedding.”). Hack–no joke–is worshipped by Haitians as a “Great White God.”      The colonel’s Newsweek and newspaper columns, on the other hand, tend toward populist screed, often directed at the military. Hackworth despises his old employer. His hatred of the Army may stem from the way he left it. Hackworth retired under a cloud in 1971, narrowly avoiding court-martial. For the full story, and how it relates to Boorda’s suicide, click here, or at the end of this article.

Occasionally, Hack does bury the ultimate bayonet in a worthy victim. He consistently inveighs against military pork, nailing generals–always by name–for taking perks and botching assignments. He argues persuasively against big peacetime defense budgets. He has even gored that most sacred of cows, the four-service military, by advocating the unification of the armed services. But Hackworth also unleashes tirades that are astounding in their fury. His political philosophy–if it can be called such–is Buchananism plus steroid rage. It is stagily anti-elitist, anti-Washington, anti-corporate, conspiratorial, and egotistical. Hazardous Duty closes with this memorable passage:

Be warned, all you Perfumed Princes and Propaganda Poets, all you slick political porkers and weapons makers with your hands in the till. I intend to keep sniffing around like an old coyote, chewing on the Military Industrial Congressional Complex and calling ‘em as I see ‘em.

I intend to continue to tell it like it is to my fellow citizens with the hope that one day they will become so damn mad they’ll stomp out the bad guys and retake charge of this great but sinking republic.

Hackworth’s bombast is mostly just empty and silly, but sometimes it is worse. Which fellow citizens should take charge of this great but sinking republic? In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Hack wrote a newspaper column likening militia members to American revolutionaries. A few weeks later, Hackworth caught the attention of accused bomber Timothy McVeigh, who gave his first interview to the colonel. It was a wise move by McVeigh. Hackworth can’t resist a man in uniform, even if it’s an orange jumpsuit. He wrote an astonishingly sympathetic profile of the ex-Army sergeant in Newsweek. “I could immediately see why he was a crackerjack soldier,” gushed Hack. McVeigh has “fire in the belly.” Hackworth bestowed on McVeigh his highest compliment: He called McVeigh a “warrior.” Hackworth even proffered an explanation–if not quite an excuse–for why McVeigh could have committed the bombing: “Postwar hangover. I have seen countless veterans, including myself, stumble home after the high-noon excitement of the killing fields, missing their battle buddies and the unique dangers and sense of purpose. Many lose themselves forever.”

       Hackworth is particularly hysterical on the subject of gays in the military. On CNN’s Crossfire, he generalized about gay soldiers: “They live by deception. They are not trustworthy.” Then he called the other guest, a gay serviceman, “a deviant … a third sex.” Then he said he would ban all gays from the military and from civilian jobs at the Department of Defense. When challenged, Hackworth declared: “I’ve been there, you haven’t. So you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” This is Hackworth’s favorite pose: Army Everyman. He’s a vet, ergo, he’s speaks for all grunts. Anyone who hasn’t “been there” has no right to an opinion on anything relating to the armed services. It is the military version of identity politics.

Hackworth also sells himself as an expert in military strategy, but his strategic insights are no sharper than his prose. Like the generals he despises, Hackworth re-fights his old battles. An example: Bosnia. Bombing never broke the spirit of the North Vietnamese, so Hackworth insisted that NATO bombing alone could not bring the Serbs to the negotiating table. It did. Then, when the United States was considering sending troops to Bosnia, Hackworth warned of another Vietnam: Troops would be picked off by snipers, and U.S. involvement would escalate into an all-out war. It hasn’t happened. Hackworth also predicted the Bosnia deployment would “KO” Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. It didn’t.

       Or, take the Gulf War. At its outset, Hackworth declared in Newsweek that “[t]his time, we want to limit this war to the objective George Bush announced: to free Kuwait. Period.” Today, with unacknowledged hindsight but the usual grunt’s-eye-view self-righteousness, Hackworth proclaims the opposite conclusion:

I don’t know a lot about high political strategy, but I do know a lot about war. When you fight a war you should fight it all the way. … We left the job undone even though we had been on the verge of total victory. We had the muscle and the stature to hold the allied coalition together long enough to finish Saddam Hussein. We erred in not doing so. …

President Bush, General Powell, and General Schwarzkopf should have delivered a KO punch as we did with Hitler and Tojo. Back then, George Catlett Marshall didn’t stop simply because he had succeeded in kicking the Germans out of France. He went in and destroyed Adolf Hitler. We haven’t really won a war since World War II.

Neither Newsweek nor other media show signs of weariness with Hackworth’s absurd routine. Hazardous Duty was moderately well reviewed. Hack is the subject of frequent fawning profiles. He is still filing copy from far-flung battlefields, still wildly thrusting the ultimate bayonet. When will his employers–who know better, or ought to–stop pretending that his macho posturing and potted strategic sermonettes constitute journalism?

Part 2: Why Hackworth Left the Army. Click here.

Part 3: Hackworth’s Medals: “The Most Decorated Living Soldier”? Click here.