Interview with Col. David Hackworth
U.S. Army, South Vietnam
Q: What do you think the Vietcong learned from Mao Tse-tung?
Hackworth: I think the major thing was how a poor man fights a rich man... how a war can be fought employing ancient rules first developed by Sansu -- the need for patience, the need for political motivation, the need to fight a war of economy and how to employ all the rules of warfare.
Q: What lessons should the Americans have learned from the French defeat?
Hackworth: Well, I think the major lesson they should have learned was that that war didn't involve the security of France, and the security of the United States wasn't at issue either.
On a tactical level, they didn't have an objective. The Americans should have studied the lessons of the French very closely and taken something from them. A correspondent once asked General Westmoreland, the American commanding general and architect of the war, what he thought of how the French fought the war and was he studying the lessons of the French? He said, "Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven't won a war since Napoleon." This was the American attitude of total arrogance.
We didn't learn from the past. We didn't learn from our own experience by going back to when we beat Britain in 1776. At that time the British had argued that we didn't fight in formations such as theirs, a big block formation; we didn't meet them in the open and we fought like the Indians, behind trees, using concealment and cover and so on. And a couple of hundred years later we had the British mentality towards fighting and we had forgotten the very lessons that we had taught the British.
Q: Don't you think that the United States' tremendous firepower could have won the war?
Hackworth: The war could have never been won in terms of the employment of firepower. The solution to winning the war was to cause reform in the government, to win the hearts and minds of the people, to make the cause justifiable so that the people of the country were willing to give up their lives.
This was not done. You could have used all of the firepower in the world, all the technical ability that the U.S. had to fight the enemy, and you'd have, maybe, won a temporary tactical respite. But we'd have never won the war strategically unless we had the people join our side.
The war was about the people and winning over their hearts and their minds and their allegiance to the host country. The host country in Vietnam was made up of gangsters.
Q: But you weren't there as a soldier to win hearts and minds, you were there for strictly military purposes.
Hackworth: If you were a student of warfare, as I was, you quickly realized that, tactically, we were not going to win the war and we had to win the people. This was a lesson from the French experience, and it was, as Mao said, "The guerrilla is the fish and the people are the water." If you want to kill the fish, you remove the water. If you want to kill the guerrilla, you remove the people, because they provide all kinds of assistance: medical help, agricultural help, they put out the booby-traps, they provide the intelligence, they provide the trailwatchers. They are the whole sea in which the guerrilla-fish swims.
Q: So were the efforts to resettle whole villages of Vietnamese a good way to fight this war?
Hackworth: No, because the Americans again tried to impose their values on the country of Vietnam, without understanding the culture and the religion of Vietnam. It was a country made up of Buddhists, who worshipped ancestors. Frequently people who had been moved from their homes would go through minefields to get back to worship at the graves of their ancestors. We didn't understand what the Vietnamese culture was all about.
Q: What do you think was so peculiarly good about the Vietcong's guerrilla fighters? What did you, as a military man, respect about them most?
Hackworth: I respected their dedication, the fire in their belly, their great, strong belief in freedom. Theirs was a mission, a complete dedication to winning independence for their country. So, I respected them for where they were coming from. Maybe it was empathy... my ancestors, two or three hundred years before, had fought the British.
Q: What about their strategy and tactics?
Hackworth: As fighters they were very fanatical, very dedicated. They were like my paratroopers, who were extraordinarily fine soldiers. A soldier tends to respect a counterpart that's a heavyweight, and they were indeed heavyweights because of their devotion to their cause.
Q: A female guerrilla leader said that sometimes, when they shot an American soldier, his comrades would come up to get the body and then they'd all burst into tears, which she said was a wonderful opportunity to shoot them or to grab their weapons. Is that a fair comment?
Hackworth: It's right on the mark. The problem with the Americans fighting that war was that, as the war went on, they lost leadership. They lost their hard core professional leader. A professional soldier does not go after wounded; he leaves that to the medics. But soldiers that are not well trained, and not well disciplined by their leaders, tend to become more of a group of fraternity buddies who care very much for their fallen comrade and who want to get him out of the line of fire.
In Vietnam it was known that the standard technique to use was to hit the first guy, then take out anybody going after him. That was how they would add to their casualty list. I have had my soldiers tell me that a guy might have been hit in the leg in a hot firefight, and his opponent, only ten or fifteen feet away, would be pointing his weapon at him, giving him the finger... doing all these things to tease him while he's waiting for somebody to come up and pull him away. Then they could blow that guy away.
Q: The Vietcong hid in the jungle, but in the Mekong Delta there really isn't any jungle -- so where did the Vietcong hide?
Hackworth: Well, they were hidden in the jungle that was alongside the waterways, which tended to be very thick and well booby-trapped out in front. They were hidden by the people. They hid in the waterways -- they would get underwater and take a reed and put it above the water and breathe through that, then surround themselves with a bit of floating Nipa grass. They would dig in caves under the waterways, and then put a bit of reed up to the top and breathe through that. They were very, very cunning fighters.
Q: Did you have any personal experience of finding Vietcong lurking under the water's surface?
Hackworth: Oh, commonly. If we saw a bit of Nipa floating down a waterway, a bit of jungle debris, we fired at it and invariably, it would turn red. That meant that below was a Vietcong hanging on to the roots of the debris with a reed going up to get air, and we'd killed one enemy.
Once we located them, I always took concertina wire and put it on both sides of the creek so they couldn't float down... they'd run into the wire. I instructed my soldiers to fire at any foliage, and in most cases there would be a Vietcong hanging on, trying to get out.
They were simply the most skillful, the most dedicated, the best opponent I've struck in almost fifty years of being around soldiers; they're the best.
Q: What other problems were unique to the Mekong Delta?
Hackworth: The problem in the Delta was not only the terrible conditions that prevailed there, but it was the impact it had on your soldiers. I'm speaking now as an American; we had terrible casualties from what we called 'immersion foot.' Immersion foot was the problem in World War I called "trench foot"-- after being in the water for a long time, the feet would become very soft and the boot rubbing against the foot would become abrasive. Suddenly, you'd have a hole in your foot the size of a bullet-hole, and suddenly you'd lost a soldier. You had to be very wary and take care of the feet. There was no place to sleep so you were in the water at night, your soldiers were in the water, and you stayed miserable and wet. My rule was that a unit could only stay in the field for five days. After five days, immersion foot set in so badly that a whole battalion of 800 men could be laid up for weeks.
Q: Why were your men in the water? Why didn't they walk along the banks or along pathways between paddy fields?
Hackworth: You could expect that any dry surface was mined and booby-trapped. And sixty percent of all the casualties we had in Vietnam came from mines and booby-traps laid, I might add, by those local guerrillas who the generals at the top -- the Westmorelands and assistants -- didn't count. They didn't believe that they were the enemy because their mentality was a World War II mentality. They didn't understand the nature of the war.
They were re-fighting World War II, and they thought they could win the war by applying heavy firepower, the outpourings of Detroit, and great technological ability. They thought they would steamroll this opponent into defeat. They found that a war could not be won with bulldozers against somebody fighting with great cause.
Q: But, after the Tet Offensive, didn't the heavy bombing raids actually take a very heavy toll on the Vietcong?
Hackworth: Well, General LeMay said, "If I had enough bombs, I could win this war, because I'd blast the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age." What he didn't understand was that the Vietnamese were already living in the Stone Age and that firepower wouldn't work under those circumstances. I do think you're correct that at the end of Tet of '68, February 1968, we increased the amount of bomb tonnage out of frustration.
Vietnam is a country about the size of California in terms of area. We used three times the amount of bombs in the Vietnam War as we did in all of World War II, both the Allies and the Axis. We put enough steel on that California-sized target to sink it, and it did not cause the opponent to give in. Firepower was not the answer. The answer was to win the hearts and minds of the people.
Q: Why didn't firepower work?
Hackworth: Well, what firepower did -- using pursuit aircraft, fighter aircraft, fighter bombers, artillery mortar and so on -- what it did was it galvanized the opponent. It put steel in their back.
They could see themselves being struck by a giant and they had no way, no recourse, to strike back. It... as it did historically with the British during World War II... it put fire in their belly. It was absolutely the worst thing we could do in Vietnam. It gave them a tonic to fight harder
Q: When you were active in the Mekong Delta, was it difficult to tell who was Vietcong and who was a civilian?
Hackworth: I was in the 9th Division and our Commander was General Julian Ewell, who was called the 'Butcher of the Delta.' The policy of the Division was that it didn't matter -- if it moved, shoot it and then count it.
Theoretically, civilians were supposed to be away from the battle area. They would say this is a free-fire zone, but without realizing the tradition of the people to go back to their homestead. So regardless of the danger, they would go back to where their ancestors were and then they were considered Vietcong, and fair game.
There were an enormous number of casualties who were civilians but all the civilians, you have to understand, were sympathetic -- certainly in my part of the Delta -- to the Vietcong effort. Most of the people in the rural area of Vietnam were sympathetic to the Vietcong cause. They had won the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. They felt that their cause was more just; it had more of a nationalistic purpose.
Q: You were once flying in a helicopter over the Delta and you saw some people running along and you thought, "they're civilians, they're children..."
Hackworth: Yes, one day we were doing what was called 'eagle flies,' which is a platoon of infantry in helicopters -- five, six soldiers per helicopter -- and I was controlling everything in a command and control helicopter. The pilot in the front seat of my helicopter said, "There are four enemies streaking across the field. Request permission to fire." As commander, I would grant that permission. I looked down and saw four little kids, so I said, "Negative. Those are little kids, they're just playing hooky from school or something. Leave them alone." And I went ahead and inserted my platoon and let them maneuver through the area. Suddenly they took fire from those 'poor little kids,' who were probably no more than twelve or thirteen years old and had stashed their AK-47s. So I was wrong.
My previous experience had been up in the highlands. That was one of my first days in the Delta and I was learning that just about anybody in that battlefield, sadly enough, was a hostile.
Q: Were they ever helpful to you?
Hackworth: Sixty percent of all U.S. casualties during that war were from mines and booby-traps that were set out by these local people, who built them and installed them. Ironically enough, the top generals never counted those people as part of the enemy's order of battle, even though they accounted for about 300,000 people. They were conveniently dropped from the rolls. They were only counted when they were found dead.
Going into any battle area, if we picked up a civilian he became our point man, against the Geneva Convention. The assumption was if this cat lived here, he knew how to get through this area without losing a leg or a life, and he could lead our forces through.
Q: What was a simple booby-trap?
Hackworth: Well, the punjee stake was a no-brainer. Normally they were set in a position where they would strike your ankle. It would scratch you, you were in filthy water, you'd get an infection.
I had a punjee wound and didn't know it. I must have got it in the morning and bled a lot. I didn't know it till I got out of the water and looked at my boot and it was soaking red from blood. There was a wound that looked very much as if somebody had taken a razor and made about a three inch slash of my leg. It became infected; that was the problem. It wasn't a long-term wound; it was something that put you down for a few days. It had to be cleaned out, debrided, then it would be stitched up and you were fine.
The real killer was the coffee can filled with explosives from a dud American round. Everything they used, we gave them. We threw away our C-ration cans, we threw away our used batteries, we threw away coffee cans. If a five-hundred pound bomb didn't explode, that provided them with the raw materials for their booby-traps. So they set up their booby-trap factory. They opened up the mine, took out the explosive, packed it in a can, wrapped barbed wire and nails and things around it, got a primer device from a grenade that was left behind, put a trip-wire on it, and set it on the side of the road. When the first soldier hit it, he would lose his life, and maybe three of four people behind him would be down. I've seen what we called the number ten cans -- the large cans, packed full of C-4, and then filled with nails to have a fragment effect, that could take down 10 or 12 people.
The impact on the soldier was a psychological impact, that every time you put your foot down, you didn't know whether you were going to have a leg, or a limb, or a life. And this played over for 365 days of going down trails, going down waterways. It took the fight out of you. I took over the battalion down at the delta; it was called the Hard Luck Battalion. In the six months before I took over, it had had 600 casualties, killed and wounded, all from mines and booby traps. It had never met the enemy.
It was all from these insidious little devices put down by these people that the generals didn't count, because they didn't understand the nature of the war.
Q: What did these sorts of casualties do to the morale of American soldiers?
Hackworth: Just blew it away, just like a mine blew a leg away. It just played with your mind. Months after I left Vietnam I found myself walking across an open field and I suddenly said, "Where am I?" and froze. In my mind, I was in a minefield. It took a few minutes for me to work out that I was not in a minefield.
I believe that a lot of the so-called Vietnam stress syndrome that has created so many walking wounded across America today, is due to the damage caused long ago by what they saw of their mates going down by mines and booby-traps. Remember, of the 60,000 dead and 300,000 Americans wounded in that war, sixty percent were from mines and booby-traps.
The great irony was that infantry soldiers who went to Vietnam received a total of five hours of training in mines and booby-traps. That was the curriculum used in World War II. We simply didn't learn.
Q: What was the purpose of the Vietcong tunnels in the sort of Kuchee area north of Saigon?
Hackworth: The purpose of the tunnels was to provide a safe area for supplies, for their headquarters and for their soldiers. A great casualty producer for them was artillery -- air bombing and machine gun strikes from aircraft and helicopters. Most of the tunnels were located in areas that had great limestone formations. It was easy to dig in but still quite strong and easy to shore up. They could go down two, three, four actual floors. With pumped-in air and brought-in water, it gave them a secure area that was really behind the American lines. And the Americans never really worked out they were there.
For example, there was a place called the Iron Triangle. There were a great number of such tunnels and a general named Williamson took a brigade in there and said, "The Iron Triangle is no more!" That was in 1965 at the beginning of the American involvement in the war. When the North seized the country, when they won the war in 1975, their headquarters was in the Iron Triangle in those very caves.
Q: Wasn't it possible to block up the tunnels, or gas them or blow them up?
Hackworth: We tried everything possible to destroy the tunnels, including having small soldiers, called "tunnel rats," go down and try to clear them. But they were so cleverly done, you could never find where the actual end was. There would be a dead-end with a hidden door going down to the next level. I'm sure that if enough creativity and effort had gone into it then, yes, they could've closed them up but, again, the top generals were not concerned.
An anecdote: a cave expert came to me between tours in Vietnam in my office in the Pentagon. He said, "Look, I can help you win the war. I can tell you where the caves are, because this is something I've studied all my life..." I took him to my boss, a Vietnam veteran, who was very excited about it. We took him to our general and he didn't want to know about it. Who wants to waste money sending this guy over there and having him examine tunnels and caves? What's he gonna tell us? Again, it was the mentality that firepower will win this war. These great outpourings of American industrial strength will win this war. This arrogance didn't allow us to get beyond a blinkered, military mind-set.
Q: But these tunnels were militarily significant, weren't they?
Hackworth: They were a running sore, from the beginning to the end, and they were a very powerful ally of the Vietcong.
Q: You were in the States at the time it happened, but what do you remember hearing about the Tet offensive in 1968?
Hackworth: When the Tet offensive occurred in 1968, I was in the Pentagon. A dear friend of mine was an aide to a very senior general, so he was privy to a lot of information that we 'indians' didn't have. He came and whispered in my ear and told me about the attack long before, hours before, anyone in the press or the public knew about it. I was, quite frankly, shocked and heartbroken.
I had been convinced for two years that the Vietcong were going to win the war, that the Americans simply didn't understand the nature of the war. It was very much epitomized when Walter Cronkite asked the American people, "What the hell's going on here? I thought we were winning the war!" That was the kind of shock it was to the American people.
Everyone had been fed these glowing after-action reports -- by the President, Lyndon Johnson, by General Westmoreland -- that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that we were prevailing, that it would only be a matter of months. The American public was still oriented towards World War II. They were believing that as long as we grabbed this real estate, we would eventually find the light at the end of the tunnel.
But the light at the end of the tunnel was a Vietcong freight train coming on full bore. That's what we discovered in Tet of 1968. And that was the turning point of the war.
Q: Why was it the turning point?
Hackworth: Tet was a turning point because it destroyed the will of the American people to support the war. Those soldiers who were in the know realized that this was just the beginning of the end.
We saw that the American people switched off. If the support of the people is not there, you are going to be cut off at the legs, and that's exactly what happened to Vietnam. There had been a fair amount of support for the war until Tet of '68. People thought it would be unpatriotic not to hang in there and wait till we grab Hanoi.
When the people saw Vietcong climbing on top of the American Embassy, they knew that they'd been lied to, and they knew that this war was not winnable. All they had to do was ask their sons. By that time probably a million Americans had served in Vietnam and had come back home, and told their parents and loved ones and friends the truth of the war. The government couldn't just provide it with a Madison Avenue snowjob anymore.
Q: Could the war have been won? Could the Vietcong have been beaten?
Hackworth: The war could not have been won unless the host country -- the Saigon government, the South Vietnamese -- changed their very repressive form of government and won the hearts and minds of the people. The northern government had employed this technique and they'd created the promise of this utopian dream as soon as they kicked out the invader, this repressive South Vietnamese government.
The South Vietnamese government never understood that they had to make those changes. They were led by greedy people who were into making money. They had no contact with the people in the main. They were mainly Catholics and they were trying to rule a country that was ninety percent Buddhist.
Q: Why was body count so important? Or was it?
Hackworth: McNamara was a number-cruncher and he wanted to have something to crunch, a number. The overall strategy was attrition, to wear out the enemy. By counting bodies, we would know the impact of the war, its' success or failure. That became the standard measurement of success. It was the score, and everyone knew the score.
What happened was that body counting completely eroded the honor code of the military, specifically among the officer corps. It taught people to lie. The young lieutenants fresh out of the military academies were taught to lie. The generals, who were pretty proficient liars anyway, pushed the body count. A high body count meant great success. So, in every battle, enemy bodies were counted several times. If there were 200 bodies, suddenly the figure became 650 and it became, to quote Westmoreland, "another great American victory."
It corrupted the officer corps and it appalled the soldiers, who by that time were mostly draftees. They were scurrying around the jungle counting bodies, which was a pretty awesome and terrible thing to do. It had a real boomerang effect on the military because it was like a cancer; it destroyed its soul.
Q: What was the military strategy of the war?
Hackworth: Westmoreland's idea was to destroy the enemy's large battle formations as in World War II. When you've worn the enemy down, you've won on the field of battle. That tells you that we simply didn't understand the nature of the war, because the guerilla was not going to fight in that way. The guerrilla's manner of fighting was to hit and run, so he could be alive to fight another day. He wasn't into these huge, stand-up battles.
The big operations required a great number of resources, a great amount of logistics, a great amount of aircraft, and a great amount of artillery fire.
Moshe Dayan, who was the chief-of-staff of the Israeli army, came to Vietnam and I interviewed him right after he had spent two weeks with an American rifle company of about 100 men. He said that in one battle, with a North Vietnamese force of a couple of hundred men, they fired more artillery -- over 25,000 rounds -- than he'd fired in a whole campaign. That was the American way of fighting a war.
It was also terribly expensive. Each round was $100. If you fire 10,000 rounds, you've probably gone through a million dollars in one 15-minute fight, and you've killed seven enemy. When you look at it from a cost basis, we were paying an enormous amount to kill the enemy and we couldn't sustain that kind of momentum and that kind of expenditure for a long time. It was a failed tactic that should never have been used. We should have used the same rules that Mao was teaching, that Sansu taught before him -- to break up in small elements and fight fire with fire.
Q: Had you been in charge, how would you have done things differently?
Hackworth: During my second year in Vietnam, I commanded a battalion made up of conscripts down in the Delta. It was a battalion with very bad leadership. It had sustained 600 casualties in the six months before I took over. Morale was low. They called themselves the "Heartbreak Battalion."
Within thirty days, they turned around. We didn't fight in these huge formations. We fought like the guerillas. We broke up and fought in small units of five or seven people. We fought at night. We stole the night from the enemy. We ambushed. We didn't march in large formations and expect to meet an opponent marching in a large formation. We fought him using his very tactics, his very skills. We tore a page out of Mao's book. The proof of the pudding was, six months later, that battalion had lost only 25 American soldiers. It had killed over twenty-six hundred enemy soldiers, and there were no Vietcong in its area of operation. Those soldiers proudly called themselves the "Hard Core Battalion," and they were hardcore, but they were simple draftees who didn't want to be there!
Q: Are you sure that was an accurate body count?
Hackworth: Yeah, I think that was an accurate body count, considering the inflated body count techniques employed by the U.S. military at that time.
Q: Wasn't the fighting from '72 to '75 more like conventional warfare?
Hackworth: It was conventional warfare. A guerilla campaign starts with a few people who are dissatisfied. They throw rocks at the enemy, they finally kill an enemy soldier and get a rifle. They get more rifles and they raid an armory and they get more weapons, and they build up and build up. Phase one of a guerrilla campaign is individual sniping, laying booby-traps, and low-scale conflict-type fighting. The final goal in phase four or five is to move in brigades and divisions and corps, in a conventional formation, and that's the culmination of the war.
Q: But the actual defeat of the southern government was by the North Vietnamese regular army. That was hardly a Vietcong victory, was it?
Hackworth: Oh, I think that the architect of that, General Tra, was a Vietcong, a Southerner. He was the one that planned it. There were a number of Vietcong divisions. For example, the 9th Vietcong Division in the Delta fought in the final battles as a regular unit. Sure, the majority were regular forces from the North, but they fought in hit-and-run type operations. They always fought on the offensive.
What is interesting to note is that out of 100% of all contacts - when one guy attacks another -- 85% were enemy-initiated. That means that, throughout the war, the Americans were on the defensive 85% of the time, and the enemy -- the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese -- was on the offensive. You can't win a war by being on the defense. You have to have the offensive power. We didn't have the initiative throughout that war. From beginning to end, the initiative rested in the hands of the opponent, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese.
Q: In April of 1975, during the fall of Saigon, there were some memorable images of American helicopters taking off from the roof of the American Embassy and dozens of South Vietnamese trying to escape... What were your feelings when you saw those pictures?
Hackworth: I was heartbroken when I saw the end come and the helicopters airlifting people off the Embassy. But at the same time, in 1971 when I left Vietnam I said, "Four years from now, the North Vietnamese flag will fly over this capitol." The reason I said that, and I was dead-on to the month, was that I had been like a doctor feeling the pulse of a dying patient, and it was obvious to me that this patient -- the South Vietnamese government -- was on its way down.
Q: Was the April 1975 victory a victory for a people's style of war?
Hackworth: I think that the victory in Vietnam introduced a new phase of warfare where low-intensity conflict can eventually win. As we look around the world, it's won in other places, most recently in Somalia. Again, the Americans tried to win with firepower, yet they failed.
America spent $166 billion in Vietnam, they lost 360,000 American lives, and 4 million Vietnamese lives. War is so costly in terms of firepower, munitions, the cost of maintaining a modern army and large-scale operations, that no one can afford it today. So warfare is reverting back to the kind of low-intensity conflict that we saw in Vietnam.
Q: What does the concept of a "people's war" mean to you?
Hackworth: It's the same thing that my forefathers employed in 1776. We wanted independence and were willing to pay with our lives. All people want to be free, and if they have that anger inside them, and the ability to arm themselves, and somebody comes along and says, "Hey! I'm your leader and I'm going to show you how to do this!" then the guy who is trying to suppress them is in trouble.
Q: What are the key lessons to be learned from the Vietcong success?
Hackworth: You must have an ideal, a cause. Look at the training of the Vietnamese. Sixty-five percent of the curriculum they taught their soldiers was about why - why are we fighting?
They understood what their purpose was, whereas the Americans had five hours on mines and booby-traps, they had one hour on 'why Vietnam' out of a 16-week curriculum. This was for the infantry trainees that were going over there. I think the main thing is to provide a very fundamental answer to 'why are we fighting?'
Q: How important was mass mobilization to the success of the Vietcong?
Hackworth: If you're going to fight a war today, you're going to need your whole nation behind you, either as fighters or supporters or carriers. It's no longer the act of a few soldiers fighting on a sunny hill, waving swords at one another. Warfare now is the employment of the complete population.
The Vietcong took on two superpowers, France and then the United States, and they couldn't have done it on a shoestring. They needed to mobilize everything within their nation and they needed to get as much outside support as possible. At the end, the war became almost a conventional war. One of the things that bothers me is that the Americans who are now trying to re-write the history of what actually happened, say 'we won all the battles, but we lost the war.' But we didn't win all the battles.
We lost most of the battles. The reason they've come up with this very bad rationale is because of the American way of keeping score. In the old American way of conventional warfare, if you're king of the mountain at the end of the day then you've won the battle. But to the Vietcong, it wasn't who held the ground, it was what kind of punishment you inflicted on your enemy. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were willing to pay an easy ratio of ten to one. If you fought him and you lost one soldier and he lost ten, he walked away saying "I was the winner."
Q: Can parallels be drawn between Afghanistan and Vietnam... between the Vietcong war against the Americans and the Mujaheddin war against the Soviets?
Hackworth: Absolutely. There's no question that there are sharp parallels between the Afghan war and the war in Vietnam. The fighters there were freedom fighters, they were trying to rid themselves of Communism, they were supported by an outside country, this time the USA who poured billions of dollars into that war. They again tried to win by using an enormous amount of firepower, conventional tactics against the 'search and destroy' operation, a high degree of technology -- all the mistakes that the Soviets made in Afghanistan, the Americans made in Vietnam and the French made in Indo-China. No one looked back on the lessons learned.
Q: Did the Soviets learn anything from America's experience in Vietnam?
Hackworth: From my analyses of the war, I'd say very little. They tried to win the war by using firepower, by bombing them back to the Stone Age through the use of American-provided Stinger missiles, and by mounting machine-guns in high mountains and firing down on aircraft. They made the price so heavy for the Soviets, in terms of cost, that they blinked first and got out. Again, they used an incredible number of mines and booby-traps, creating a great number of Soviet casualties . The Soviet units that did well there were special units led by people who understood that form of warfare. But their conventional infantry was exactly the same as the American conventional infantry in Vietnam, or the French conventional infantry in Indo-China.
Q: Why did the Soviets fail to learn from the American and French mistakes?
Hackworth: I think it is a military mind-set. We don't go back and look at the past, we're in such a hurry to get to where we're going. There's a certain amount of military arrogance. The older I get, the more I realize how we never study the past and try to learn from it, we just stumble along and make the same mistakes. We're doomed to do that until people wake up. And with the military mind, I'm not certain that we'll ever wake up.
Q: Is there anything about guerrilla warfare which is new to this century?
Hackworth: Well, a number of things are new -- the amount of firepower that the insurgent employs and uses, the use of mines and booby-traps, the ability to communicate via electronic communications. One of the problems that's always hampered the guerilla is getting the word out. In the days of old it was done by messengers, which took days and hours. Today a general has very sharp communications. Out in Somalia, General Adid had little portable radios to talk to his soldiers, very low frequency. The American CIA's intercept devices are all high frequency - they couldn't listen to what the man was saying! And the Americans got whipped. They didn't learn a thing.
Q: How frightened was the average American conscript, faced with all these obstacles and the skill of the enemy?
Hackworth: The average American soldier going into battle in Vietnam carried a whole packful of fear, mainly because he wasn't properly trained back in the States. The training base was just off. They were preparing for World War II, not for insurgency warfare, so the lad received 16 weeks of training, was flung into Vietnam, generally in a unit that was never kept together. But it was filled up always by the individual replacement system. As a result there was no real strong cohesion, no teamwork, in the unit. The soldier was like an orphan thrown into a family, but a family that was not solidly put together. As a result, his fear level would be high because of the uncertainty of what he was going into.
The typical kid who went to Vietnam was black -- 21% of all soldiers were black -- and the Hispanics and the whites were from the other side of the railroad tracks. If you went to a good university -- like Brown University or something -- you didn't find yourself carrying an M-16 rifle in Vietnam. You did a Clinton -- you got out of the war. It was very unfair. The poor, working classes were the ones that carried the war effort, but they're made of tough stuff, because their whole life has required tough stuff. Once they were provided with the leadership, the proper leadership, that raw material did a hell of a job.
But it didn't make the fear go away. When you're playing in that kind of lethal superbowl, the possibility of dying and coming home in a rubber bag is always lingering in the back of your head. Regardless of how courageous you are, you will still have fear, but if you have competent leadership that you have confidence in and if you're well-trained, you can get the job done. It's my theory that the better trained you are, the more natural courage you have, because you have a belief in yourself.
Our soldiers weren't well-trained and, in the main, they weren't well led. But the longer the soldier stayed there, the more experienced he became and the more confident he became. The uncertainty was dispelled, he knew what to expect. But the fear would never go away. You know, you can never go near a battlefield without having those butterflies in your stomach.
Q: What frightened your soldiers most?
Hackworth: I think it was the uncertainty. Once they got into a unit and knew they were well-led, knew that their commander loved them and cared for them and would not throw them into harm's way unless absolutely necessary... their main fear was just that uncertainty that came from the mines and booby-traps.
And the psychological thing... I've walked down trails and I've said to myself 'a sniper has me in his sights...' You play these mindgames with yourself. I've had that kind of experience where I saw a guy looking through his rifle, looking at me perfectly in what we call a six o'clock sight picture, and he's going to squeeze, and you spot yourself going down!
Good leadership dispels all those kind of mindgames .
Q: There are all these images of American soldiers walking around, smoking pot, beads around their neck, singing rock songs... Clearly, the morale of American troops broke down.
Hackworth: The morale of the American army disintegrated the longer the war went on. We went there with a professional army that was well led by very fine combat leaders, most of whom were World War II or Korea experienced. I'm talking about the senior NCOs and officers. They had a lot of battle experience and were high quality people. And they were badly used from the beginning. They were traded out, so we lost the non-commissioned officer corps almost straight away, within the first 18 months of the war. After that, there was no unit cohesion. Every 365 days you had a new unit. You had no institutional memory. No one remembered what happened last month. And they kept repeating the same mistakes again and again and again. The Americans were in Vietnam for 8 years, and there were no leaders at the top willing to raise hell and demand that the training be hard and demand that the standards be high. No one wanted to shake things up in a very, very unpopular war.
Now the finest thing you can do for any young soldier is be mean as hell with him, and whack him in the head when he doesn't do anything wrong. Make certain that he knows his job and knows how to do it right, because if he does it right, he'll do it right on the battlefield. But the whole training and leadership system were asking, 'How can we resolve this disintegrating morale problem? We can resolve it by getting them R&R, delivering cold beer and Coke and ice-cream at night, and hot food.' This is what the generals' mentality was. Instead of kicking them in the ass and making them do things right -- screw on their steel pot, carry their weapon and clean up their ammo, get rid of their love-beads and not smoke dope. When I took over my battalion in the Delta, there was grass all over the place. Before I'd go out with my battalion I'd shake everybody down. I'd boot people in the butt who smoked even cigarettes, because you could smell tobacco a mile away. You could see the light from a cigarette a couple of miles away. In my unit you didn't smoke anything and certainly you didn't smoke grass.
It was just a question of discipline. If you had good leadership and provided discipline designed not to harass, but to keep people alive, the soldiers would react. If they didn't have that, they would react the other way. What we saw between 1965 and 1973, when the last U.S. forces went out, was a total disintegration. It was an organization that didn't have proper boundaries, and didn't have people insisting on those boundaries.
They were an army of hippies and they didn't have discipline. Had the war continued for a few more years... we were seeing, at the end, by 1973, units refusing to fight. Well, we'd have seen a whole army that refused to fight, because it was a most unpopular war, and the soldiers were saying, 'What am I DOING here? My politicians want me out, my family wants me out, and there is no purpose in being here. This does not affect my country's security. All I am is a pawn in a stupid war.'
Q: How did your soldiers, particularly your fresh recruits, cope with not knowing who the enemy was?
Hackworth: When a soldier would arrive in Vietnam -- badly trained from the U.S.A., not prepared for the war - my procedure was that each unit formed their own training program at division level. The young recruit would go through this training, up to two weeks, in his particular area of operations. For example, looking after your feet in the Mekong Delta, keeping your ammo dry, and things of this nature.
After they finished that division-level training, they would come to a unit. Normally, I would talk to my soldiers, welcome them to the unit, assign them to a rifle company... My standard operating procedure was to assign a young recruit to an old soldier in the same foxhole. That soldier would be his buddy. A veteran would get a green recruit, or 'fresh meat' as they called them, and he would take the new guy and pass on his knowledge to him.
Q: Were your soldiers ever reluctant to fight?
Hackworth: I had the ability to motivate people. Even though a guy might be a pacifist, in a few days he was hunting for Charlie. I never had a problem in terms of getting soldiers to fight.
Q: Were you ever frightened? Can you remember a moment when you were frightened?
Hackworth: I spent 8 years on battlefields as a soldier and I'm sure that there aren't very many minutes of those 8 years I wasn't frightened! It's something that lives in your stomach, it's just churning all the time. As the bullets start snapping and the intensity of a combat increases, that churning increases, but it's always there. As long as you're in a dangerous situation you've got it and you're carrying it with you on your back.
Q: Did your soldiers have any compunction about shooting civilians on the chance that they were Vietcong?
Hackworth: I think the average American soldier perceived the enemy as 'but for the grace of God, there go I,' and they were reluctant to shoot somebody unless they knew that they were the enemy. But if the guy were coming at him at night, if the guy were walking in an area he shouldn't be in, and had weapons or something like that, the way I trained my soldiers was to react automatically. Don't get the thinking process going. When you see a right cross come at you, block it with your left and go in with a right hook. I never had problems with soldiers being reluctant to fight.
Q: Would it surprise you to know that the chief concierge at the Continental Hotel, Saigon's top hotel, was in fact working for the Vietcong?
Hackworth: It wouldn't be surprise me. At Tet of '68, the secretary to the commanding general of U.S. Forces Vietnam, General Westmoreland, was found holding an AK-47. With the whole Vietnamese apparatus, I never once trusted a Vietnamese. I never trusted a Vietnamese general. I never allowed a Vietnamese inside my camp, my firebase. If I were going to meet a Vietnamese colonel, I would meet him outside my firebase, because I didn't trust him. I assumed everybody was a Vietcong.
Q: And these are the people you were meant to be fighting for...
Hackworth: That's right, and that was the attitude. My soldiers from the 9th Division hated the South Vietnamese soldiers more than they did the Vietcong. They saw them going out on operations and not meeting the enemy, but avoiding the enemy. They called it 'search and avoid,' where it was supposed to be 'search and destroy.' My battalion could go all the way through that same area and come back bloodied and battered. That really got to my guys.
I was walking the perimeter one night; I used the British system of stand-to in the evening, where everybody was at their post with a weapon, ready to go, just as the sun was going down. One of my snipers said, "Sir, how's the body count today?" And I said "Not so good, we only had 8 or 9 for the day, for the battalion." And he said, "Well, I'll get you 2 more." Before I could stop him he took his sniper rifle... I looked down at the end of the weapon to see where it was pointed, and it was pointed at two South Vietnamese soldiers guarding a bridge about 40 meters from my perimeter. I knocked his weapon up before he had a chance to squeeze off a round and said, "What are you doing?"He said, "Man, a gook is a gook, and that's a bad gook." That was the attitude of a lot of the soldiers. They didn't like the South Vietnamese, because they didn't pull their weight.
Q: Why did massacres occur in Vietnam?
Hackworth: Well, the big massacre was My-Lai. Lieutenant William Calley and Captain Medina were the principal characters involved in that act. Why did they occur? They occurred for a number of reasons. The soldiers were frustrated. They were mainly frustrated because of mines and booby-traps and because they could never find the enemy. They were just tripping through minefields and seeing their mates blown away, never grabbing hold of the enemy and getting into a real fight. Then there's a lot of people in a village and the insanity takes over, and they just start blowing human beings away.
It's also brought about by bad leadership. Lieutenant Calley had gone through officer candidates school. He'd gone through three separate courses, was found wanting in leadership in two of them, and had been recycled instead of being booted out. The military was into a numbers game and didn't want to have a high attrition rate in their officers system. They kept recycling someone until they graduated. So here a guy who should never have been more than an army PFC ends up a lieutenant. He's with a platoon of soldiers who are extremely frustrated because of mines and booby-traps, and he doesn't have the leadership ability to control them, to say, 'stop that fire.' I think massacres occur when you don't have strong leadership, when you don't have soldiers who are extremely well-trained, and well-disciplined and well-controlled by their leader. That's what happened. All those components fell apart.
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