I am currently making my way through a tome of a book by a retired U.S. Army Colonel. It outlines his career from a young enlisted soldier in the aftermath of WWII and into Korea, all the way through stories of the peacetime Army in the Cold War era and through into Vietnam. Though it is not a book on leadership, the lessons for a modern man to take away from this memoir are plain as day.
The book to which I’m referring is “About Face” by Col. David H. Hackworth.
“Hack” as he is affectionately known throughout the book lived an incredible life, winning two DSC‘s, ten Silver Stars, 4 Legion of Merit’s and 8 Purple Hearts amongst numerous other awards for gallantry in service throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was also a rebel, and a highly controversial figure, known both for accusing an Admiral for improper wearing of valour decorations and for publicly denouncing the approach taken by the U.S. Military in the Vietnam war in 1971.
As you delve into the book you come to know Hackworth not just as a leader but as a man. Even from his days as an E-4, you can see his tenacity and true caring for his men – this is still evident when he is a company commander, with 100-200 troopers under his command and he is personally checking the feet of his men after a long training march (and enforcing that his senior NCO’s do the same).
In another continent, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (where British Army officers are trained), the motto is “Serve to Lead” – this happens to also be the name of the manual of the British Army, written by Sydney Jary in 1950. Col. Hackworth is demonstrating this principle aptly at every rank he holds, because despite the unconventional nature of his approach everything that he does is designed to bring his men safely homeĀ from the conflicts he leads them into. In this, he is serving them.
The same can be seen in the way he interacts with his seniors. He regularly comes into serious differences of opinion and even conflict with officers even as a Sergeant, but this is because he is not a Yes-Man. If he believes that an order is going to put his men in danger, he is very willing to take the threat of insubordination to protect his squad/platoon/company – it takes a brave man to do so. But if events such as the My Lai massacre and the Holocaust were a result of people “just following orders”? I think the world would rather have more insubordination. Being described as a “rebel” is in this case one of the best attributes that can be described to a wartime leader of men.
Hackworth continues to show this dichotomy throughout the book, when his aggressiveness is balanced finely with the care he has for his men. This is most evident towards the end of the book when Hackworth delves deeply into his growing disillusionment with the “ticket-punchers” within the New Army, as he describes it. Hackworth became a fairly outspoken critic of the Vietnam war, despite his love for the Army and his hatred of communism, due to his belief that it was being conducted wrong and as a result causing massive and unnecessary loss of life. This led to his eventual retirement from the Army as a full Colonel, but not without causing the higher echelons of the Army to be forced to rethink its outlook on the war.
Whilst living an incredible life and developing a convoluted career path to spending as much time as possible as a combat leader, this book is an absolute treatise on leadership in the most stressful of environments. Although the book never directly references the topic, Hack’s entire working life from the age of 15 was shaped around the leading of men on the field of combat and keeping them alive to fight the next day and come home to their families. There are learning lessons on almost every page, and takeaways for anyone who wishes to develop as a leader as Hackworth is constantly balancing the needs to maintain extreme daily discipline in all things. This can be seen in how he treats the 4/39 (also discussed heavily in another of his books, “Steel My Soldier’s Hearts“) by changing two to five things a day.
The benefits of knowledge of history is not to make the same mistakes as our predecessors. Combat is like life, just amplified and intensified. Take away Hackworth’s lessons learned in combat, and apply them in your life.

4 Comments

    • You’re very welcome mate. Glad you like the premise, and enjoy the book! This is a new endeavour for me, it’ll be a collection of thoughts and book reviews.

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