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About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.


In recent months, an extraordinary report criticizing the American role in El Salvador has been circulating within the U.S. military. Written by four lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Army, the report asserts that the war in El Salvador is "stuck" and that the United States is "itself stuck with the war." Despite "important progress toward democratization," the lieutenant colonels state, "the Salvadoran government remains ineffective," incapable of meeting "basic human needs." U.S. economic assistance, they assert, "has achieved little," and the Salvadoran military remains "remarkably immune" to U.S. efforts at reform.

The report, titled American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador and published by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank, has stirred outrage among many policymakers. The State Department's Office of Policy, Planning, and Coordination has drafted a sharp rebuttal. Officials at the U.S. embassy in San Salvador angrily dismiss the report as excessively pessimistic. And top officers in the Salvadoran army accuse the lieutenant colonels of displaying a colonialist mentality by meddling in the Salvadoran army's internal affairs.

But Small Wars has gained many backers as well. In fact, it has served as a rallying point for those within the U.S. military and State Department who question the official optimism about the war in El Salvador. They believe that the war is stalemated and likely to remain so until that country's government and army do a better job of winning the support of its people. They also believe that the U.S. military hasn't the foggiest idea of how to help them achieve that. As these dissidents point out, since 1981, the U.S. has sent more than $3 billion in economic and military assistance to El Salvador, helping to enrich government bureaucrats and military officials but making little difference in the life of the average Salvadoran.

With their report, the lieutenant colonels (A.J. Bacevich, James D. Hallums, Richard H. White, and Thomas F. Young) join a long line of internal critics who, over the years, have chastised the U.S. military for its inability to fight guerilla wars. These critics, exponents of counterinsurgency doctrine, complain that the U.S. military is too large, too reliant on sophisticated technology, and too conventionally oriented to wage the type of economic, political, and social warfare required to defeat Marxist revolutionaries. Rather than simply sending helicopters and howitzers, they say, the U.S. should be spearheading a broad reform program aimed at cleaning up the government, developing the countryside, and involving the military in civic action projects like building roads and providing health care. Since the early 1950s, when Edward Lansdale traveled to the Philippines to take on the Huk rebels, these guerilla buffs have fought their own war with the bureaucracy in Washington, agitating for a more flexible, creative approach to Third World conflicts. Now another shot in the battle has been fired. About Face,(*) by Colonel David H. Hackworth, is an important addition to the counterinsurgency bookshelf. It shows how innovative the practitioners of counterinsurgency can be--and why they are ultimately doomed to failure.

Benders and brothels

About Face was 18 years in the making. That's how long it took Hackworth to get over his decision, in 1971, to go on national television and denounce the U.S. effort in Vietnam. At the time, Hackworth was one of the most decorated officers in the U.S. Army. His appearance on ABC's "Issues and Answers," however, quickly turned him into a pariah. The response from the military was so vehement, in fact, that Hackworth feared he might be assasinated. Army brass launched an investigation into his performance as a commander, but before it got very far, Hackworth, knowing they'd find many prosecutable offenses, managed to sneak out of Vietnam and return to the United States. He spent a month driving across the country, eluding Army agents assigned to tail him. They eventually caught up with him in a motel outside Washington. By then, Hackworth had hired high-powered attorney Joseph Califano, and the Army, reluctant to call more attention to the affair, agreed to discharge the colonel without further sanction.

Embittered, Hackworth migrated to Australia--"the farthest place from the United States I could find and still speak English." Broke and burned out, he became a hippie, opening a diner, buying some gas stations, managing a restaurant for a woman who eventually became his wife. Throughout this period, Hackworth stayed far from politics. That abruptly changed, however, with the election of Ronald Reagan. As the U.S. arms buildup got underway, Hackworth hit the lecture circuit, warning Australians about the perils of nuclear war. At the same time, he grew increasingly concerned that the truth about Vietnam was being distorted for political purposes. So Hackworth decided to write--or, it seems, dictate--his life story.

About Face is at once fascinating and exasperating, a sprawling 833-page tome that, like its subject, is bitter, frank, funny, vulgar, self-serving, and undisciplined. Hackworth seems driven by a desire both to emboss his own legend and to reform the American military. Hackworth belonged to an elite breed he calls "warriors"--fearless, bellicose men who feel most alive when risking death. He won eight Purple Hearts in Vietnam; on one occasion, he snuck out of a hospital so that he could return to the fighting. A firm believer in "selective insubordination," he regularly got into fights, talked back to his superiors, went on all-night benders, played high-stakes poker, even set up a brothel in one of his units. Hackworth ran his men so hard that at one point they placed a $3,500 bounty on his head. "Mr. Infantry," he was called.

Reading About Face, it's hard not to think of John Paul Vann, the compelling subject of Neil Sheehan's A Bright, Shining Lie. Both shared a contempt for the military establishment, pissing off legions of fussy bureaucrats with their maverick, can-do ways. Peerless professionals on the battefield, away from it they flew into rages, chased women, and bragged shamelessly about their exploits. Hackworth and Vann also underwent similar political journeys, changing from gung-ho patriots to outspoken critics. There were some important differences, though. While Vann retained his faith in America's ability to win the war in Vietnam, Hackworth became a skeptic, questioning whether the nation had the commitment to match its massive firepower. Moreover, while Vann died in a plane crash, Hackworth lived to tell his tale. In many ways, About Face reads like the book John Paul Vann might have written had he survived the war.

Pot smokers and love beads

David Hackworth is not a big thinker. During his career, he had numerous opportunities to attend West Point, the Army War College, and other educational institutions, but, ever the warrior, he contemptuously turned them down. His book reflects this. It contains few insights into matters of grand strategy, the roots of revolution, or the types of political reforms that absorbed Lansdale. Rather, it's a highly personal look at war. Hackworth takes us from post-war Trieste, when he faced off against the Yugoslavs, through his grueling years in Korea, where he first displayed his extraordinary courage, to his time as a battalion commander in the Mekong Delta. This last assignment was by far the most taxing. "I am convinced that no American soldier has ever suffered more than the infantrymen who fought in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam war, and that includes those at Valley Forge, the Bulge of Christmas '44, and Korea in the winter of '50," Hackworth writes. He describes the horders of rats that came to chew on dead flesh; the vipers that crawled into sleeping bags and bit men as they slept; the vicious red ants that stung so sharply that they could make a man stand upright in the midst of battle.

Such tales of war make up the core of About Face. Unfortunately, after a while, they all tend to run together; there are only so many slit throats and lost limbs that a reader can endure. The book is further marred by its relentlessly boastful tone. Hackworth is forever being offered plum assignments that were out of all relation to his rank, and every time he gets one, he informs us how remarkable it was that a mere lieutenant or captain or whatever he was at the time would be chosen for such an important post. Similarly, most chapters begin with testimonials from soldiers whom Hackworth and his writing assistant (and current girlfriend), Julie Sherman, have managed to track down. Invariably worshipful in tone, these letters become embarrassing to read. Also troubling is Hackworth's determination to settle past scores. An abrasive personality, the colonel picked up a lot of enemies along the way, and he seems eager to get back at them all. This raises questions about the fairness of his account.

Readers who manage to wade through all the war stories, chest-puffing, and blood-letting will find buried in About Face a stinging indictment of America's performance during the Vietnam war. Much of Hackworth's critique is familiar. Top officers lived in plush, air-conditioned quarters, insulated from the realities of the war. Lazy commanders set up huge World War II-style base camps--senseless in a war without fronts--and sent their troops on unwidely search-and-destroy operations that the guerillas had little trouble eluding. Draftees bound for Vietnam were trained in the desert, in the snow--in all habitats but the tropical one they would encounter in Vietnam. Barely able to pull the pin on a grenade, these soldiers were no match for the highly disciplined VC, who quickly chewed them up in battle.

Appalled by such incompetence, Hackworth yearned for his own battalion. He finally got it in 1969. Hackworth's account of his efforts to transform the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, from a long-haired, love-beaded unit of pot smokers into a "perfect fighting force" is by far the most interesting part of the book. "The basic concepts behind my changes," he explains, "were that men, not helicopters or mechanical gimmicks, won battles, and that the only way to defeat the present enemy in the present war at a low cost in friendly countries was through adopting the enemy's own tactics, i.e., `out G-ing the G' through surprise, deception, cunning, mobility... imagination, and familiarity with the terrain."

The American bias

To familiarize his officers with the VC, Hackworth made them all read mao's Little Red Book. To take the battlefield back from the enemy, he broke down his troops into seven-man units and sent them on night patrols. He trained

snipers to pick off napping VC and set up elaborate traps to flush them from their hiding places. In one spectacularly successful operation, Hackworth lured the enemy into taking an apparent escape route that in fact was lined with his own troops waiting in ambush. The VC lost 113 men while Hackworth's battalion took only four casualties, all of them slightly wounded. Buoyed by such successes, Hackworth energetically promoted his guerilla-style tactics. Alas, there were few takers, and as a result, he remarks, "The same mistakes were allowed to be made, day after day after day." Hackworth eventually accepted ABC's invitation to go on national television. American boys, he dramatically declared, were dying needlessly due to the neglect and stupidity of America's generals.

Looking back, Hackworth believes that, had other commanders followed his example, "the war could have been won, at least from a military standpoint." In this, he diverges from Sheehan, who argues in A Bright, Shining Lie that the U.S. effort in Vietnam was doomed from the outset. In fact, About Face offers a lot of evidence to back up Sheehan's case. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) comes off so badly in the book that it's hard to imagine it beating anybody, however much help the U.S. gave it. In Hackworth's words, ARVN's soldiers acted "the role of occupier--rapping women, stealing livestock and rice--rather than protector of the people," making them the "best recruiters in the country." Generally speaking, Hackworth writes, ARVN's officers had "little leadership ability, no initiative to act in the abscence of orders...and no will to win."

Hackworth places much of the blame for this on the U.S. military. Thanks to the American advisers' "conventional mindset," he writes, ARVN "was not trained for the guerilla war burgeoning within its own boundaries." Hackworth thinks that the U.S. advisers should have gotten much tougher with their underlings: "While all along we paid the bills for the war effort and kept our toys and boys coming, we had little real control--indeed, took little real control--over the Viet leaders on the receiving end." The Americans, he adds, should have "told the Viets what was to be..." (emphasis in original). Had they done so, he writes, the outcome of the war might have been very different.

All of this sounds remarkably like the lieutenant colonels' report on El Salvador. It, too, complains bitterly about the performance of the Salvadoran government and military and urges the U.S. to lean harder on them. The lieutenant colonels fault the Salvadoran army for not adopting aggressive, small-unit tactics, and they hold the U.S. responsible, in part, for that failure. "Despite the oft-expressed American intent to convert the [Salvadoran armed forces] into a counterinsurgent force," they write, "U.S. policy has failed to wean the Salvadorans from the conventional mindset. If anything, American actions have reinforced this bias" by, for instance, providing the Salvadorans with sophisticated hardware that is useless against the hit-and-run tactics of the guerillas.

The lieutenant colonels conclude:

"As long as it remains a great power, the United States will find itself involved in conflicts like El Salvador's. But until the American defense establishment musters the commitment exemplified by adversaries such as the FMLN, such involvement will likely bring only disappointment and failure."

Hackworth's book contains a strikingly similar passage:

"Unless we could duplicate [the VC's] will and dedication, all the cannons, all the helicopters, all the high technology we could invent and employ, enough even to send men to the moon, would never beat them."

"Democratic" practices

These statements help illustrate the giant blind spot that occludes the vision of counterinsurgency enthusiasts as they look at conflict in the Third World. To their credit, people like Hackworth and the four lieutenant colonels recognize that guerilla wars must be waged as much in the political and economic sphere as on the battlefield. They appreciate the need to understand a country's history, its culture, its social customs. And they talk endlessly about the need to make the government honest, to treat civilians with respect, to control human right abuses. If only the United States pushes hard enough, they believe--if only we act with sufficient dedication and commitment--the proper reforms will follow.

It's on this last point that the counterinsurgency worldview collapses. If the Vietnamese army was as deeply corrupt and abusive as Hackworth makes it out to be, it's hard to see how the U.S. could have changed it. As Hackworth himself remarks at one point, the South Vietnamese never had a cause, never believed in anything, and so were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win the war. There's little the United States could have done about this. It's one thing to teach an army to break down into small units and patrol at night; it's quite another to give it a reason to fight. The same applies to El Salvador. True, the United States has helped eliminate some of the army's worst abuses. But, as the lieutenant colonels recognize, the Salvadoran military and government remain thoroughly incompetent, ineffective, and unpopular. It's ridiculous to expect 55 U.S. military advisers--or 55,000, for that matter--to change this.

What's more, the apostles of counterinsurgency fail to see that the very tactics they champion can undermine the goals of democracy and honest government that they purport to uphold. Classic counterinsurgency doctrine, for instance, calls for separating the guerillas from the people--draining the "sea" in which the fish swim. Accomplishing this entails driving peasants from their native villages, imprisoning suspected sympathizers, and liquidating collaborators--not exactly an effective means of instilling democratic values. Viewed from the grassroots, no doubt, such "democratic" practices look suspiciously similar to the "terrorist" tactics used by the other side. Similarly, antiguerilla warfare requires expanding, strengthening, equipping, and otherwise "modernizing" the local army. Given that military abuses are among the primary causes of insurgency, this enlarging of the army is likely to compound the problem, not solve it.

In the end, the counterinsurgency buffs suffer from the same delusion as those they criticize--a naive faith in American power. They fail to understand that the brutality, corruption, and injustice that give rise to revolutionary movements are so deeply ingrained that no outside power, however mighty, can heal them. One might propose an axiom of Third World insurgency: If things have reached the point where a regime must be coached by foreigners in how to treat its own people, then there's little hope for its survival. That, ultimately, is why the U.S. could not in win Vietnam. It's also why we cannot win in El Salvador.
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Author:Massing, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jun 1, 1989
Previous Article:A Turn in the South.
Next Article:Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American.

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