I estimate that I spent between 40 and 60 hours reading this book. I had to go slow. I spent a lot of time looking things up, underlining, and recapping each chapter. I also wrote out the rank structure of the army in the back of the book. I’m 37 years old and am ashamed to say I didn’t know the difference between a major and a colonel or where they fell in the pecking order. I didn’t know the basic divisions of groups of soldiers from squads, platoons, and brigades. I didn’t know the extent of our war in Korea and how we fought not just the North Koreans but mostly the Chinese. I didn’t know very much about Vietnam, about how inadequately we were prepared for that war. I didn’t know we went into Cambodia and Laos to fight the Viet Cong. And I didn’t know there was a Colonel named David Hackworth who was in Italy immediately after WWII, in Korea in the 50’s, in Berlin while the commies frantically built the Berlin Wall, in the depths of the bureaucracy at the Pentagon for 2 years, and finally as a leader of men in the Vietnam war. I also didn’t know that this most decorated of US soldiers went before the nation in 1971 in a televised interview to decry the human waste and abuse of power associated with the Vietnam War.
Needless to say, I learned a lot in the 833 pages of this book. Colonel Hackworth’s tell-all to the nation at the age of 40 quickly made him a persona non grata within the US power structure. The closest recent event we have to relate to was the Snowden revelations. Both Hackworth and Snowden said their goal was to make the US a better place with their revelations.
That’s the overall story of About Face. But it’s the details in between that make this such a powerful book. Colonel Hackworth worked his way up from a lowly soldier to one of the most decorated men in American history (for example, earning 8 Purple Hearts). Hackworth was a leader of men, simultaneously feared and respected by those under his command. There were numerous times in the book where he’d take over a struggling group of soldiers in order to whip them into shape. Hackworth’s focus was on discipline and getting the small stuff right. That’s what saved lives.
This focus manifested itself into a difficult decision come war time. Does the mission or the individual soldier come first? Colonel Hackworth said the mission had to come first. If there was a wounded soldier in the middle of a battlefield, it was not right for other soldiers to go and risk themselves (and therefore the mission) in order to save the wounded soldier. All attempts would be made to save the soldier by sticking to the mission.
About Face connected very closely to book 21 of the Books of Titans reading list, Once an Eagle. In fact, Colonel Hackworth talks about Once an Eagle in About Face and relates characters in that fiction book to the real-life people in About Face. That was a neat connection.
There are probably more leadership lessons in this book than any 10 good business books. Colonel Hackworth was in so many different situations of leading men, encouraging them to join his team, and training men to be their best. He wasn’t trying to gain market share in his leadership. He was trying to keep his men and himself alive. That focus is what led him to share his disillusionment of the army with the world. He could no longer keep quiet because men were not being properly prepared for war.
This is an excellent book. It’s a challenging book. It’s a long book. But it was worth the read and it was worth it to take it slow.