If you had to sit down with a pencil and paper and come up with who you think is the best soldier in American history, who would you choose?
Before we ask who we would choose, we better think of HOW we would choose, because to call this a hard question would be an epic understatement. How would we even pick what elements factor in? To make things easier, perhaps we could name some of our most famous fighting men and work backwards to the question. General George S. Patton and Gen. “Chesty” Puller probably come to mind for most history buffs; both were legendary leaders and tremendous force multipliers. If there was no Patton leading tanks across Europe or Puller commanding Marines in the Pacific, you could safely make the case that World War II would have been longer and more costly.
But narrowing our hypothetical question down to famous officers is too narrow of a scope. Besides, if you invented a program that mass-produced officers on par with Patton and Puller, but didn’t have spectacular privates and non-commissioned officers to command, that force would be combat ineffective. So what about enlisted soldiers like Audie Murphy, who is perhaps the most-decorated soldier in our history? We have to be careful when considering medals, because the military awards process is flawed and highly subjective; for example, the chain of command can lose paperwork (perhaps intentionally); acts can go unwitnessed, such as if the whole unit is wiped out; the war might be unpopular; the secretive nature of special operations forces or combat taking place in sensitive areas; or any of a number of other factors. Plus sometimes well-connected people, like Naval officer (and U.S. Congressman) Lyndon B. Johnson, are awarded medals that they didn’t earn.
Though the system has its flaws, at least medals are a decent indicator of valor, and that is why we publish citations for valor on this site.
Setting aside the big picture, what about a love of your cause or your fellow men that is so strong that you are not just willing, but knowingly sacrifice yourself? A man can do incredible things when pushed to extremes when it comes to staying alive and coming home — some good and some bad. But what about the thousands of Americans that saw an enemy grenade land in their position, and in a split second decided to jump on that grenade to save his comrades? These men knew that — if they were lucky — the grenade will kill them instantly. Otherwise, they were almost guaranteed to die a slow, excruciating death. Whatever it is that makes a man make the instant decision to sacrifice himself for others makes a truly remarkable soldier.
Could we consider the impact a man had on the service, both on the front lines and later as an advocate for the troops or making a political stand? A young Smedley Butler lied about his age to join the Marine Corps, then fought in the Philippines, Cuba, China, Mexico, Hayti, and several other Central American countries before heading to Europe for World War I. The highest-decorated Marine of all time, earning two Medals of Honor and the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, became a veteran advocate after his career in uniform and wrote a book warning Americans of the racket that is war, and seeking to prevent the next war of choice, offered suggestions to limit the ability of the powerful to get rich off the sacrifice of young men.
Considering the numerous wars the United States has sent young men to fight and die during our brief existence, should we weigh service in certain wars more heavily than others? All wars are hell; some moreso than others. Plus, most of us know just a relative handful of people that served during our nation’s earliest wars, and, since human nature doesn’t change, you can bet there was just as much heroism shown during our 18th Century wars as there was in modern-day conflicts. Because while technology has changed over the ages, the basic components of war and human nature have remained constant since before Moses was even a corporal.
If you’re like me, at this point you are still staring at a blank piece of paper, and have more questions about who may be our finest soldier now than you did before.
My conclusion is that it is virtually impossible to fairly pick one man out of tens of millions. Instead we could cheat and actually get somewhere by expanding to a list of our ten best soldiers. Near the top of my list would definitely be the late Col. David H. Hackworth.
Hackworth began his career at the tender age of 14 when he lied his way into the Merchant Marine and served in the Pacific Ocean. Once the war was over, the 15-year-old snuck his way in again, transferring into the Army, where he served occupation duty in Italy. He would later spend three years fighting in Korea, earning a battlefield promotion (making him the youngest captain in Korea), then spent another five years in Vietnam (the youngest “full-bird” colonel in Vietnam). During his storied time in uniform, Hackworth would become the most-decorated soldier since World War II, earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, ten Silver Stars (the most ever), eight Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts (tied for the most), and many others totaling 91 decorations.
Hackworth was a soldier’s soldier. His first taste of war was at the age that we were just beginning high school. He worked his way through the ranks and, by the time he was a commissioned officer, hadn’t lost touch of what it was like to be a private. He was extremely innovative, looked out for his men, and was damned effective in the field.
Yes, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration executed the war in such a way that there was really no chance for victory. But much of the blame also falls on the shoulders of the Pentagon officials that Hackworth referred to as “perfumed princes.” Like Gen. Smedley Butler before him, Hackworth became an outspoken critic of our policies as a journalist and war correspondent and said that our military leaders “didn’t know what the hell they were doing.” His books and interviews are essential reading for anyone destined to lead Americans into combat and are a great example of the lessons our leaders should have learned and how we failed to adapt. You may not agree with his positions during the Vietnam War and afterwards, but if you look at what he is saying and consider why, it’s hard to argue him on principle. He isn’t some think tank analyst who might not even have any military service and he isn’t carrying water for a particular political party or ideology (not that I can tell at least); he is a man whose positions are founded on lessons learned from a lifetime on the battlefield, coupled with a love for his brothers-in-arms.
David Hackworth was one hardcore soldier and clearly cared deeply for those whom Washington sends to war, and belongs in the top of my list of best American soldiers of all-time.
Featured image: Hackworth receives the Silver Star from Gen. Omar Bradley for heroism under enemy fire in Korea on Feb. 6, 1951. This is a thoroughly updated version of a post on Hackworth that was originally published in 2009. Click here to read citations for his two Distinguished Service Crosses and ten Silver Stars.