"There are no second acts in American life," wrote Scott Fitzgerald, before drinking himself to death in Hollywood, convinced that he had squandered his talent. But there are. "Old soldiers never die," said Douglas MacArthur, "they just fade away." MacArthur, the FDR antagonist, the man who ordered the Bonus Army attacks and eventually resigned from the Army had gotten his second act in World War II. But even a war hero could find himself constrained; Harry Truman removed him from his command after MacArthur repeatedly argued in favor of a nuclear strike on China. He tried for a third invention, positioning himself for the Republican Presidential nomination 1952 (he would eventually land on the ticket of Charles Lindbergh’s ultra-right America First Party ticket, receiving only a few hundred votes). The last ten years of his life were quiet ones. But old soldiers don’t always go out quietly; Col. David Hackworth, laid to rest today in Arlington National Cemetary, went with a lot of noise. Hackworth — "Hack", almost universally — would have been the first to tell you what kind of soldier he was. He billed himself almost incessantly as America’s most decorated living soldier; his eight Purple Hearts and ten Silver Stars deserved absolutely nothing but respect, but the Army avoids calling anyone short of Audie Murphy the "most decorated" soldier for a reason — it cuts short arguments about how many Distinguished Flying Crosses make up for the lack of a Medal of Honor. Hackworth signed up for the Merchant Marine at 14, joined the Army at 16, received his commission at 20 in the Korean War. He was the youngest full colonel in Vietnam, wherehe and General Slam Marshall were chosen to write a "lessons learned" document explaining what, precisely, the Army was doing wrong.
In their Vietnam Primer, Hackworth and Marshall wrote, "To accustom the American soldier to expect the unexpected may be too much to expect, but he can be braced to the probability that when he engages the VC or NVA the most unlikely things will happen." The most unlikely thing happened to Hackworth; after years in-country, he found himself losing faith with his commanders and the war. In 1971, he very publically announced his feelings, telling ABC News that the war was unwinnable. Hackworth rapidly found himself an ex-officer. Reports of the colonel smoking marijuana with his troops and running a private brothel for their benefit almost certainly didn’t help his case; Hackworth was permitted to resign before he was court-martialed.
His career reduced to smoking rubble as a result of his apostasy, Hackworth did something unexpected. He reinvented himself as a peace advocate; after moving to Australia and making a small fortune in the real estate business, he got involved in the anti-nuclear movement, eventually receiving the United Nations Medal for Peace. After his Combat Infantryman Badge, he said it was the medal he was most proud of. He wrote a memoir, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, about his life and his slow journey to his conclusions about Vietnam. The book was a surprise best-seller, and Hackworth’s third career was born.
He wrote numerous books. He served as Newsweek‘s war correspondent during the Gulf War, and as a pundit on military matters in the years afterwards. He was a frequent critic of military’s leadership, both uniformed and civilian. (He weighed in vocally on Adm. Jeremy Boorda‘s display of unearned medals.) He came out strongly against gay marriage, against military involvement in Bosnia, and most recently against American strategy in Iraq. It was this that made him, as I wrote on Metafilter, possibly the only figure respected by both WorldNetDaily and Common Dreams. He allowed men and women in the field to use the soapbox of his website, Soldiers for the Truth, to say what they saw and how they felt.
In a lot of ways, he was less than admirable; his career as a military commentator was a checkered one; he was quite often wrong. The furor over Boorda’s medals, some of which Hackworth himself whipped up, led the admiral to commit suicide. Shortly thereafter, it was pointed out that Hackworth had never earned the Ranger tabs he wore. His constant flogging of himself as "the most decorated living soldier" was in bad taste. His prose simply wasn’t very good; much of it read like fifth-rate Hemingway or second-rate men’s adventure novels, the point of which was generally what an incredible bad-ass man of the people Hackworth was, a tough-as-nails soldier’s soldiers who might not ever make (or hold) rank but was loved by the grunts he commanded. And yet he was. For all his strutting, he was deadly serious. Men with a less impressive chestful of medals are perfectly entitled to call themselves heroes. I do not doubt for one minute that he would have hesitated to sacrifice himself for his men and for his country, when he was in the Army or out of it, and the men and women still serving could tell. We all should be deserving of such loyalty. In memorium est.