A Conversation With
Colonel David H. Hackworth (U.S. Army, Ret.)
Author of
STEEL MY SOLDIERS' HEARTS:
The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of the 4th Battalion,
39th Infantry, United States Army, Vietnam


(Rugged Land Books; May 2002)

 

1. Why this book?

Its genesis came from discussions at annual reunions with the 4/39th Infantry Battalion. My wife Eilhys and I kept hearing war stories from the men of the Hardcore that even I as their Skipper hadn't heard. And Eilhys became increasingly taken with the overall story of the transformation of the Battalion from Hopeless to Hardcore. For her, how these young men-mainly 19 and 20 year old citizen-soldiers-became the best guerilla-busting infantry battalion in all of Vietnam in a remarkably short period of time was an incredible story of heroism and triumph that needed to be told. And I'd always wanted to give these men the public recognition they richly deserve. So we sat down together and went to work on a task that lasted over four years.

2. Interesting title. What does it mean?

STEEL MY SOLDIERS' HEARTS is a quote from Shakespeare's Henry the Vth.

O God of battles! Steel my soldiers' hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from now
The sense of reckoning if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.

It's about making the soldiers tungsten-hard - so they could survive and win in the ultimate crucible of infantry combat. It's what I and the Battalion small unit leaders did to transform the unit our commanding general called a "Pussy Battalion" into the most together fighting machine in Vietnam.

3. So the book is about how to fight insurgents and counter-guerrilla tactics?

You bet. But first and foremost it's about the men of the Hardcore Battalion and how they felt down in the mud fighting in a no-win war against a cunning, relentless enemy. It's their story: what they went through hour-by-hour, day-by-day as they lived in a giant, mine-infested swamp fighting a tough and skillful foe. Eilhys said after interviewing several hundred of these fine men that they were "holy men" and should be recognized as such. In 1969, they were mainly young boys who knew far better than their senior leaders that the war was unwinnable and that they didn't want to be there. The story is also about the thanks they got for standing tall and answering their country's call. When they returned home from one of the toughest wars America has ever fought, they were spit upon and called baby-killers by the very citizens who sent them to stop Communism instead of being welcomed home as heroes like their dads. And it still rankles. So we hope telling their story becomes the first step toward their finally being officially welcomed home and formally thanked by a grateful nation for their service and sacrifice.

4. You say it's the toughest war our country ever fought. Why?

There are three major elements involved in war: weather, terrain and the enemy. And in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam where the Battalion operated, all three were equal nightmares. We're talking about: monsoons, heat; mud, swamps, rivers, ants, leeches; wall-to-wall mines and the worst sort of enemy. The book tells in the participants' own words what it was like to live and fight in the swamps. Squad Leader Jerry Sullivan said: "My Tiger Scout always razzed me about being 'beau coup kilos'," he recalls. "I'd already learned never to stop when you're in the mud and when you're out there in that mud, walk on your toes and if you can, throw brush such as nipa palm branches down and walk on it. But…I forgot my own rules and before I knew it I was in the mud up to my waist…and did the only thing a man could do in that tidal quicksand: lean forward and claw and crawl out like a damn mud crab, which when I look back on it, that's exactly what we were. Hardcore mud crabs."

5. Reviewers have said your book is going to be this century's handbook for fighting guerrilla opponents like Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and others around the globe.

I hope they're right, because as was proven by our Somalia experience - Blackhawk Down - and certainly once again in the initial conventional battle fought in Afghanistan, the hard-learned lessons of Vietnam were left in the mud of that country when our troops pulled out. The reason for this is the military as an institution has a hard time remembering past lessons. As with most entrenched bureaucracies, CRS-Can't Remember Shit-is endemic. Learning from the past and adapting are not strong points of most institutions, especially one as bloated and bureaucratic as the Pentagon. And if we don't learn from the past, our casualties in this war we're waging against terrorism will be criminal.

6. Why the buzz that the book is so unique?

Maybe because it's about fighting smart, which hasn't been the rule with the U.S. Army since 1812. In this instance, the 4/39th was America's only regular infantry battalion that fought the war in Vietnam correctly. The Hardcore mastered the technique of inflicting heavy casualties on their opponent while taking few losses themselves - the Hardcore's ratio of enemy to friendly dead was 100 to 1!

7. But what happened then - didn't the Army make the Hardcore Battalion a model so that other units could copy what they were doing right?

Sadly, the Hardcore was the first U.S. Battalion to be pulled out of Vietnam under the drawdown when Saigon's troops took over the war. The Battalion was sent to Hawaii where they were patted on the heads, had their bellies scratched and then they were deactivated, their techniques and tactics quickly forgotten.

8. Several reviewers have called your book a basic primer on combat leadership. You think they got it right?

I hope so. That was one of my wife's arguments for our doing it-that showing proper combat leadership could help save lives. So we wrote Steel My Soldiers' Hearts on two levels-it's both the story of how men in combat taking a high level of casualties learned how to save themselves and take out the enemy and it's also an anecdotal story of how leadership can turn an outfit around in a very short time. The techniques I used weren't new - they'd been around since before the invention of gunpowder. Reduced to its essence the bottom line was two words - tough love. Yes, it's a book I'd demand my sons read before they marched to the widow-maker and that I hope will be studied by the Pentagon's leadership from top to bottom.

I'm very proud of how the hero of WE WERE SOLDIERS, General Hal Moore, describes the book, "A riveting, candid, and hard-hitting combat narrative by one of the top few brilliant battlefield leaders in the history of the U.S.Army. Hackworth took over an ineffective infantry battalion in the 1969 'withdrawal' Army and turned it into a superb, proud and aggressive fighting unit against an unseen, hit-and-run enemy. What he learned and how he fought could be useful in Afghanistan against the guerrilla enemy faced by Free World Forces. Outstanding!"

9. Reviewers have said STEEL MY SOLDIERS' HEARTS is one of the few books about the Vietnam War that really tells the story of the soldiers who fought there.

Maybe that's because through Eilhys' interviews it we were able to include the POVs of the grunts on the ground and those flying choppers and fighters in the air, even the POV of the guys who brought up the beans and bullets. It shows the whole panorama of the Vietnam War from the forward edge, what the kids who fought there went through and what they had to put up with.

10. The word is that a major Hollywood movie is in the works.

Yes, my wife - who's also a movie producer - saw it as a story for the silver screen right from the start. In fact, she had a deal at Castle Rock practically the day after we finished the book outline. Director Tony Scott, who's done movies like TOP GUN and more recently ENEMY OF THE STATE and SPY GAME, is attached and we've been working with a couple of top writers, first Michael Schiffer, who wrote PEACEMAKER and CRIMSON TIDE, and now David McKenna, who wrote BLOW and AMERICAN HISTORY X. We also have great partners committed to making an important film. And my wife's promised me that I can play Westmoreland. You know, "There's light at the end of the tunnel…" Finally I'll get my revenge!

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For more information on Colonel Hackworth or STEEL MY SOLDIERS' HEARTS, please contact Tammy Blake in the Rugged Land publicity department at 212/334.8228 or tblake@ruggedland.com.