WASHINGTON - He is dressed in the crow-like uniform of late '90s hip: black sport coat over a black T-shirt, eyes peering through small black wire-rims.
With his tangle of white hair and hollow voice, like a low, steady note of a flute, this lanky figure could pass for some aging poet or film director. But his small lapel pin - a flintlock on a pale blue field bordered by a wreath - tells of a different occupation.
It is the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the "CIB" to veterans, the prized possession of the grunt who has been in the thick of the fighting.
"Most people say, 'Are you a hunter? I see you've got a rifle,' " says David Hackworth, shaking his head with a chuckle. "Yeah, I'm a hunter, buddy."
But calling Hackworth a field soldier is akin to calling Willie Mays a baseball player. Accurate but incomplete. Hackworth is one of America's most highly decorated soldiers, earning some 90 combat medals in the frozen hills of Korea and the dense jungles of Vietnam, before abruptly ending his "great love affair with the Army."
His pugnacious and irreverent streak helped him excel in his next career as a journalist. And the ghosts of America's long and torturous war in Indochina creep into his just-released first novel, "The Price of Honor" (Doubleday, $25.95), along with Hackworth's long-held distaste for gold-plated weapons systems, America's over-stretched global commitments and politicians in general.
Hackworth's days as a soldier ended on a July afternoon in 1971. The Army colonel was interviewed in Saigon for ABC's "Issues and Answers," bluntly saying what many officers knew but few dared utter publicly: America was losing the war in Vietnam because of poor leadership, inadequate training and failed tactics against a resilient guerrilla force. Even before the show aired, he realized the interview would end his career. He put in his retirement papers.
That single interview produced two views of Hackworth that continue to this day: as prophet or pariah.
After resigning from the Army, he lived an ex-pat life in Australia, embracing the anti-nuke movement before penning his autobiography, "About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior," a sort of "Dickens goes to war" chronicle now in its 30th printing.
Through this 834-page trek we learn of a scrappy orphan raised in foster homes and by his grandmother. Shipping out at 14 with the merchant marine, Hackworth joins the Army a year later, finding father-like sergeants and nourishing a strong appetite through two wars for leadership, back talk and combat.
What helped fuel Hackworth's eagerness for action was his initial duty in post-World War II Italy, where grizzled American veterans nicknamed the slight greenhorn "Combat." Sergeant Hackworth was determined to live down that name, and finally did on the night of Feb. 6, 1951, when he was shot in the head while attacking North Korean machinegunners and snipers and protecting his troops.
He was wounded four times before he turned 21.
"I would not have to prove myself to anyone anymore," he wrote. "What I didn't know at the time was I'd made a name for myself ... one I'd have to live up to for the next 20 years."
The book fairly reeks of cordite and rotting bodies. Hackworth slogs through trenches, hills and rice paddies braving enemy fire. Even after becoming an officer, Hackworth retains the sardonic streak and foxhole esprit of the mud soldier. He complains of faulty equipment like the temperamental M-16 rifle that "isn't worth a tinker's damn in the bush." Rear-guard superiors with their comfortable quarters are dismissed as "perfumed princes" or "clerks."
The Boorda suicide
Turning in his uniform, Hackworth shifted his aggressive streak into another career as war correspondent and reporter for Newsweek, where he covered the Gulf War and Haiti. He helped reveal in 1996 that Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda, then the Navy's top officer, wore Vietnam-era valor awards he didn't deserve. After learning of the story, the admiral walked into his garden and fired a single shot through his decorations -- and his heart.
A year after Boorda's death, Hackworth's own decorations were called into question by a CBS-TV report, which said veterans doubted the colonel's claim to an oak leaf cluster for his Distinguished Flying Cross and a Ranger Tab, a difficult-to-earn piece of black and gold cloth that signifies the Army's best. Hackworth immediately deleted both awards from his Web site.
It later turned out the Army made an administrative error. Hackworth gave away his awards in 1973 to anti-nuclear protesters. When the Army reissued them in 1988, it incorrectly included the oak leaf cluster. And the Ranger tab, though awarded to Hackworth by a colonel in 1951 during the Korean War and authorized since 1968, also turned out to be inappropriate.
Still, more than a few Pentagon officers and officials were happy to see Hackworth squirm. His weekly syndicated column is a veritable military punching bag, slamming high-priced weapons systems like the F-22 jet fighter and pummeling generals who spend $200,000 on furniture and marble bathrooms while their troops live in pre-World War I housing.
Some senior officers at the Pentagon spit out his name in disgust. Others dismiss him as "Hacksaw."
"They view me as a pain," Hackworth said, exhilarated as talk turns to his latest adversaries. "I know where the bodies are buried from long experience. And I've got 500 guys a day blowing the whistle. I know all of what's going on. I'm the Jack Anderson of the military, and they would like to see me go way. But it ain't going to happen."
Numerous soldiers reach him on his Web site, www.hackworth.com, or read his weekly online newsletter, "Voice of the Grunt," a chronicle of Pentagon waste and soldiers' gripes.
A new mission
A common theme often weaves through many of Hackworth's writings: America must not repeat its disastrous experience in Southeast Asia. "Vietnam gave me a new mission," Hackworth once wrote. "To speak the truth and not let my children or your children or our country be doomed to repeat the horror, the waste and the futility of Vietnam."
Now, as he approaches his seventh decade, Hackworth has forged his experiences in combat and Washington journalism to write a first novel -- though it was forced on him by his producer wife, Eilhys England.
"Eilhys said, 'I'm sick and tired of you going to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Desert Storm. You've almost been killed in every one of those,' " he recalled. "I said, 'No way.' And she said, 'Yes you are.' " While on vacation in Florida, the pair started with a movie premise. It became an outline. And finally a novel: "The Price of Honor," equal parts gritty combat tale and high-octane political whodunit.
The hero is Capt. Sandy Caine, an eighth-generation warrior and Green Beret, used like some action figure by promotion-seeking generals and legacy-yearning politicians. We follow Caine as he fights warlords in dusty Somalia and a tripartite thuggery in the desolate mountains of Bosnia.
Caine also struggles with the cowardly legacy of his father, a Special Forces officer in Vietnam who snapped under a North Vietnamese assault and lost all his men. But we soon learn that some saw his father as heroic in previous fights. And there turns out to be a mysterious survivor from his father's battlefield disgrace.
Teaming up with a feisty and beautiful reporter from the Washington Chronicle, Abbie Mancini, Caine sets out to learn what happened 30 years ago. Along the way we meet greedy defense contractors, irascible old officers, power-drunk Capitol Hill aides and a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and U.S. senator with White House ambitions, Jefferson Kenefick Taylor.
"He represents so many people that sold their soul to the company store, that have compromised in order to make it," says Hackworth.
The novel allows Hackworth to borrow from "About Face" and recent columns. So of course the novel has a battle-tested sergeant and a slew of loyal and heroic grunts. And the F-22 makes an appearance as the too-expensive and obsolete F-44.
Who's the enemy?
Within the pages, the reader finds a lack of equipment for U.S. forces: There were more tanks in Waco, Texas, than in Somalia. The soldiers in Bosnia wonder who the enemy is. The Serbs? The Muslims? The Croats? Maybe all of them.
"Using our forces as a robo-global cop to solve all the problems of the world has broken our force," Hackworth argues. "What we need to do is [say], 'Europe, you're a region. You provide your own security.' "
Hackworth sees the biggest threat in terrorism. The United States must devote more money to training National Guard units and medical professionals to react to a crisis on Main Street. "It's happening all over the world and it's going to be happening here," he says. "Let's be ready for it."
The retired colonel also sees trouble for the United States in Colombia, where the Clinton administration is pumping dollars and U.S. military assistance in an effort to defeat rebels and cocaine kings. "I see we're losing the drug war, and we'll continue to lose the drug war," he says. "It's not the kind of mission we should be assigning to the U.S. military."
It could also be the next stop for Capt. Sandy Caine, Hackworth's fictional hero, based in part on a real Green Beret friend at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"When I send Sandy down there it will be like Vietnam in the early '60s," Hackworth says. "We'll see the build-up increase, increase, increase. And Sandy's going to get so frustrated with what's going on even though he's a guy that's going to go on to three or four stars. He's going to say, 'Enough is enough.' "
The author pauses and smiles.
"He might be doing what Hackworth did in Vietnam."