Book Review – Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts, by David H. Hackworth
Published by Simon and Schuster – 444 pp. $25.99
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Fifty years ago next January, a young U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel arrived at 9th Division Headquarters in Vietnam to take on a new assignment few of his contemporaries would have dared to touch. At 38 years of age, David Hackworth already had over twenty years of service under his belt, accompanied by an impressive resume that flagged him as being one of the most promising officers of his generation. His new mission was to turn around the 4/39th infantry – a unit that was widely considered to be the Army’s worst fighting battalion. In his memoir Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts, originally published in 2002, Hackworth describes how, in the space of a few short months, he transformed a group of demoralized, poorly led draftees into a capable and highly motivated team that quickly established a name for itself as a force to be reckoned with.
Hackworth was a veteran infantry leader who had learned his trade the hard way. He had already gained combat experience both in Korea, where he earned a battlefield commission, and later on an earlier tour in Vietnam, following which he co-authored a widely-read primer on the principles of jungle warfare. When he took over command of the 4/39th, it soon became apparent that he would have three key challenges to deal with.
The first and most obvious problem that Hackworth found himself faced with was the apathetic and at times openly rebellious attitude of the men in the battalion. When he first arrived at their firebase – which the previous CO had somehow managed to situate right in a VC minefield – the slovenly appearance of the soldiers and the general disarray of the camp itself provided tell-tale indications of an almost non-existent state of discipline. Hackworth knew from experience that this had to change – and fast – if the men under his command were to have any hope of surviving in combat.
The second problem Hackworth had to contend with was the meddlesome behaviour of some of his superiors. The worst offender in this regard was the 9th Division Chief of Staff, Colonel Ira Hunt. In many respects, the two men were polar opposites. Hackworth was a high school dropout who lied about his age to enlist when he was just 15 years old, and who had earned his spurs by fighting his way up the ranks. Hunt, in contrast, was West Point-educated staff officer with a Ph.D. in engineering, but virtually no frontline experience in combat. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hackworth quickly came to despise Hunt as being an incompetent, glory-seeking climber whose main objective was to advance his own career on the backs of the ordinary soldiers. It was only after several highly-charged confrontations between the two men that Hunt finally realized that discretion is the better part of valour, and backed down to permit Hackworth to do his job as he saw fit.
Arguably the most significant challenge that Hackworth repeatedly ran up against had to do with the way the war itself was being fought. The absence of clear and meaningful objectives, the obsessive focus on “body counts”, and illusion created by various and sundry quantitative measures that the Americans were actually winning the war all combined to have a corrosive effect on the soldiers’ morale. Compounding this already difficult situation was the knowledge that support back home for the war was rapidly evaporating. Little wonder, then, that for many if not most of the 4/39th’s troopers, the priority was not one of achieving victory over their Vietnamese adversaries, but rather, minimizing the discomforts they had to endure, and making it back home in one piece.
To turn the ship around, Hackworth quickly decided that some tough love was in order. He set to work by dramatically tightening up standards, replacing officers and NCOs he found wanting, and generally seeking to instill a renewed sense of pride and unit identity in the men. At first, the changes he implemented were not warmly received and for a while he reportedly had a price on his head. In time, as the soldiers came to know him as a demanding but fair leader who was genuinely concerned with their welfare, they began to respond to the new regime and show what they were really capable of.
Similarly, having already seen previous combat in Vietnam, Hackworth understood that it was a very different kind of war than the one the Army had been previously trained to fight. He realized that a reliance on overwhelming firepower and outdated tactics would not be sufficient to attain victory over the Vietnamese. His solution was to “out guerrilla the guerrillas” by adopting the same kinds of tactics that they themselves had employed successfully against the Americans, while at the same time modifying them to enable the Americans to make effective use of the formidable technology they had at their disposal.
The process of transforming the 4/39th wasn’t an easy one and, at times, there were some setbacks, notably during one action in mid-March of 1969, when the unit took a real beating. But as the men of the battalion gained experience and developed a newfound sense of cohesion and teamwork, their confidence grew, and their effectiveness on the battlefield correspondingly showed a remarkable improvement. Equally important, Hackworth’s pragmatic and inspirational approach to command enabled competent junior leaders to shine, something that added further impetus to the powerful forward momentum which the unit as a whole had begun to gain.
The climax of this story came in late May 1969, at which time the 4/39th successfully engaged their Vietnamese foes in what proved to be a spectacular victory. By that time the battalion itself was a very different organization than had been the case just a few months earlier. What had once been a crew composed mainly of demoralized losers had now been transformed into a unit of skilled and highly motivated troops that were much more reminiscent of the Canadians that took Vimy Ridge 50 years earlier. With the benefit of captured intelligence that provided them with detailed knowledge of the enemy’s plans, the 4/39th moved into position both well prepared and determined to win. They succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, inflicting massive damage on the Vietnamese and scoring a coup that would later be hailed as being a “textbook example” of how to successfully prosecute the war.
Regrettably, the 4/39th’s triumph would prove to be short lived. Not long afterwards, Hackworth was compelled to turn over command to a new CO, and just weeks later, the unit was shipped back to the United States and soon thereafter disbanded. Hackworth himself became deeply disillusioned with the way the war was being fought and, two years after relinquishing command, he was effectively forced to retire prematurely following a controversial media interview in which he vocally criticized the senior Army leadership. In his later years, he became a highly respected journalist and defense commentator who was widely respected for the staunch championing of the interests of the ordinary U.S. soldier. He passed away in 2005 from cancer which many attributed to the defoliants he had been exposed to in Vietnam.
Within his book Hackworth repeatedly expounds on some key themes that he believes are essential to success in warfare. One of these relates to the importance of small unit tactics as the basic building block of ground combat. Hackworth notes that one of the most critical mistakes that the U.S. military leadership made in Vietnam was to assume that their overwhelming technological superiority would provide a guarantee of eventual victory. In acting on this premise, the Americans completely underestimated the sheer determination and resourcefulness of their NVA and Viet Cong adversaries. It was the creative tactics of the Vietnamese – invariably carried out by small, highly mobile units – that enabled them to continually harass the Americans, keep them off balance, and steadily erode their will to win.
Likewise, Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts also underlines the crucial importance of the role that junior leaders have to play in war. While the American generals busied themselves debating grand strategy and obsessing over largely meaningless metrics like the infamous “body count”, it was the junior leaders – the Lieutenants and the Sergeants – who held things together on the ground and who did the actual heavy lifting. One of Hackworth’s biggest concerns, both in Vietnam and still relevant today, is that the military’s training system often fails to provide junior leaders, and especially junior officers, with the seasoning they need before being thrust into combat.
He notes, for example, that out of the 68 Lieutenants who served in the 4/39th while he was its CO, only two had ever actually commanded a Regular Army platoon before being dispatched to Vietnam. All the others had been hastily pushed through the service’s training system before being shipped off to the front line of the war. In all too many cases, the inexperience of these well-meaning but inadequately prepared junior officers would later cause many a good soldier to needlessly sacrifice his life.
A half-century after they were put to the test in the scorching hell of the Mekong River Delta, those who remain of the young men of the 4/39th are now senior citizens. In marked contrast to many of their wealthier and better educated fellow citizens, these heroic young warriors answered the call of their country and did not hesitate to step forward and serve in a difficult and increasingly unpopular war that was dramatically different from any other that America had ever fought in her history. Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts provides a compelling testimonial to the courage and loyalty of the many gallant young soldiers whose names appear within its pages. Hackworth’s book provides an intimate, grunt’s eye view of the crucible of Vietnam and serves as an unforgettable salute to the service and sacrifice of all those who fought and died there. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the history of the Vietnam war and especially for any young officer who aspires to command troops in combat.