“Steel My Soldiers” Hearts” is the story of how in January 1969, David Hackworth is brought to Viet Nam from the United States to “fix” (p. 1) the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of the 9th Division. It is the story of how the 4/39th went from a demoralized and dispirited infantry battalion to one of the top rated hardcore Battalions in the Army (p. 3). The book is written in the first account. Colonel Hackworth and Ms. England rely upon his memories of the time spent with the 4/39th as well as interviews conducted with former member of the Battalion who served under him from January through May of 1969.
They also used material from U. S. Army records (p. 437). Pseudonyms were used for some people to “preclude embarrassing those who didn”t always shine and/or to protect their families from any discomfort (p. 440). ” Colonel Hackworth writes about how he transforms a poorly trained, inept group of soldiers into an effective fighting force. He writes of dealing with the harsh conditions, terrain and climate of the Mekong Delta, lack of adequate leadership and the poor attitude of the soldiers not only toward the North Vietnamese Army, Viet Cong but also towards the South Vietnamese whom they were fighting along side (p. 29).
The book also exposes the ineptness of career minded commanders who are more interested in jacking up body counts, gaining headlines and medals at the expense of those actually fighting the war. The reader is given a look into what infantry men in Viet Nam experienced from a leader’s view, as well as that of the grunt’s fighting in the Mekong Delta. The 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of the 9th Division called Fire Support Base Dizzy in Dinh Tuong their home.
Hackworth arrived at the fire base to find that its current leader, Colonel Lark*, had built the Fire Base in the middle of mine field; during the set up of FSB Dizzy, eighteen soldiers had been wounded inside the perimeter due to booby traps and mines (p. 13). Needless to say morale was very low. Hackworth finds the FB in a state of disarray (p. 8). Machine-gun ammo buried in mud, troops wandering around with rusty weapons, “hippie” beads worn along with their dog tags, graffiti covered helmets and a base that smelled or raw sewage greeted him (p. 8). The troops are unkempt, unshaven and out of uniform (p. 8, 9).
Hackworth immediately begins the process of shaping up the Battalion, brining in men of his choosing that were seasoned fighters and could help turn the Battalion around (p. 9). *Pseudonym Colonel Hackworth believed that the 4/39th could be the best if they were properly motivated, trained, cared for and led.
He made a point of talking with all new replacements and getting to know the men who served under him. He would take routine walks around the FB to visit and asses the troops, feeling that it was important for the men to know that their leader did care about them and would be with them when the bullets started flying (p. 8).
He would also go on routine patrols to asses the leaders. Hackworth felt that most of the leaders were well trained, but not trained to fight insurgents (p. 60). The book details his efforts to teach the men how to fight an unconventional war. He stresses taking care of their men, train them and let them know you care about them, and in return you will earn their trust and respect and they will fight with you (p. ) Hackworth made it clear that he cared about his men from the lowest of soldier up, (p. 2), and that his commanders and staff had “better well look after them (p. 42)”.
Hackworth believes that as a leader one needs to show not only tough discipline, but caring for all those under his command. Hackworth” uncompromising and tough methods were so successful that he was able to turn the Battalion around, all the while fighting right along side the men in battles. This won him the admiration of the men who, in the first few weeks of his command put a bounty on the Colonel, that when he let his command of the 4/39th then put a bounty out to bring him back. p. 399). The terrain was a hindrance to the Battalion.
The Mekong Delta is flat and filled with rice paddies, canals and rivers which section through the entire Delta and patches of jungle. The men where always wet, either from the rain, wading through the rivers, canals and paddies or just from the humidity. “We were always wet (p. 69). ” This posed a hazard for the troops; their skin would break down leaving them susceptible to infections. Flesh fell off, leaving open ulcers that look as if they could have been caused by bullets (p. 9).
The rainy season brought rain day and night from May through September (p. 69, 70). The men brought back to the Fire Base every four days for a drying out period (p. 70). The Delta was like a giant sewer that they lived in, slept in, ate in and, bled in (p. 70). Unable to use mosquito repellant, fearing the Viet Cong would smell it and give away their positions, the men got used to be constantly bitten; one grunt recalled after a mission counting at least 2,500 bites on his body (p. 194).
During the dry season from October through April, the Delta was a tropical hell, turning the area into a dust bowl (p. 15 – 16). Soldiers had difficulty telling the “good guys from the bad guys” (p. 16). The Viet Cong were not just men; they were women and children, young and old (p. 367). In the Delta they didn”t normally wear military uniforms and intentionally mixed in with the civilians. This gave them the advantage of ditching weapons quickly and being able to blend in with the population (p. 16).
Sometimes this led to the killing of innocent victims (p. 66, 367). The hatred of the Vietnamese amongst the men was high, not only for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese but also for the ARVN who where fighting along with the U. S. , “We fought their war while they watched” (p. 129). Day after day the grunts would watch the ARVN troops go out and seldom find the Viet Cong, yet if they followed the same path, they found them. And, when bullets started flying, the ARVN stayed down and did nothing (p. 129). The soldiers also distrusted the ARVN soldiers, not sure who was truly a soldier and who may be a Viet Cong.
Fighting not only the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army on the battle field, Hackworth also had to fight the double dealing career army officer to whom a false report, higher body counts were and happy hour more important then the safety of the soldiers that Hackworth was leading. The 9th infantry Division’s chief of staff was bird Colonel Ira Augustus Hunt whom, the Army considered one of their best and brightest. Colonel Hackworth considered him useless (p. 2). The two men go head to head more than once during Hackworth’s stay with the 4/39th.
Hunt is out for glory, headlines and medals and has no regard for the safety or well being of the troops, which Hackworth clearly shows in detail (p. 155-172). Hunt is made temporary acting Brigade Commander (p. 156) which soon turns into a disastrous nightmare. During a routine mission, Hunt’s deployment made little sense, placing men in positions that only put then in danger and ultimately having them trapped with no escape route (p. 158). Not having any idea how to actually fight, since his command post was always at least 3,000 feet in the air, it was obvious that he did not know what he was doing (p. 60).
He put troops in the battle field in random order, ordering air strikes that fell right on top of his own men, all the while with Colonel Hackworth trying to get him to stop. The battle resulted with forty enemy dead and fifty American soldiers were wounded or killed (p. 170). To Hunt this was a glorious victory, to the troops it was not (p. 170). Hunt reported that in fact their were seventy-two enemy dead and in the morning after he flew in the press so he could brief them at the site of his “great battle” (p,. 171).
A few months later, Hunt summoned Colonel Hackworth to his office. He wanted Hackworth to review and endorse a report of the incident, a glowing report of a perfect combat action, which was not the case at all (p. 347, 348). Ira Hunt wanted the Valorous Unit Citation award for the events, Hackworth would not endorse his report with it’s again, inflated body counts and perfection, nor would anyone else who was involved in the two day battle (349, 351). The book offers other insights to Hunt’s ineptness as a solider and leader also.
As for the United State’s presence in Vietnam, the book offers, in detail the effect the soldier’s presence’s had on the prostitution business in the country (p. 289-301). Where ever the soldiers were, the girls were, trading sex for money, c-rations, candy, and just about anything else. Colonel Hackworth and Ms. England write in great detail of the major battles and every day encounters of the 4/39th. This writer feels that the book at times seems a bit self-praising. However, it is truly and eye opener in many ways, from the details of being shot to the heat of the Delta.
Colonel Hackworth does not mince works, is very blunt and to the point. He gives credit where credit is due and names, names! The book would make a good learning tool for someone going into military leadership. Hackworth believes that we can no longer fight by “traditional” tactics, when fighting the unconventional, we must fight unconventionally. You cannot lead men from a fortified bunker of from a helicopter. A leader belongs with his troops, right by the side of those putting their lives in danger.