How many people did you kill in Vietnam?
by Kim Newman
CIRCUIT, August 14, 1986



    Gustav Hasford is author of probably the best work of fiction about the Vietnam War, The Short-Timers, which is currently being filmed by Stanley Kubrick as Full Metal Jacket.  KIM NEWMAN met him outside the Texas Lone Star Saloon in Queensway for an interview, but Hasford did all the talking.
 

    The first fiction I wrote was this book, which I started writing when I was in Vietnam, which is why the characters tend to have the names of people that were friends of mine.  I'd be sitting around in the squad room and say "hey, who wants to be the drill instructor?"  There was this guy called Earl Gerheim, also known as Crazy Earl.  Earl says "I will", and so, okay Earl gets to be drill instructor.
    I thought "what the heck, I'll put all the guys in."  It started out as kind of a joke book, the book of the unit.
    I worked on the screenplay.  My credit is still being determined, because Stanley worked on the script too, and also Michael Herr, who's the author of Dispatches.  The film focuses much more on the battle for Hue City than the book does.  I'll be interested to see how it looks, because the visual conception is going to be Stanley's, not mine.  Stanley made Paths of Glory, which is one of the best war films ever made, so I'm not too worried.  In terms of selling my book, I can't lose.  If Stanley makes the worst movie he's ever made, it'll still be a Stanley Kubrick movie.
    I worked on the book for seven years, then it took three years to sell.  I have a whole file of letters from editors saying "God, I like this book myself, but of course we can never publish it."  This was '78, the war had only been over for four years.  It was like writing about cancer or something.  It's a depressing book for Americans, because we lose the war.  These movies like Rambo about getting prisoners back are all addressing themselves to the incredible psychic need of Americans to win the war.  If we couldn't win it on the battlefield, we'll try to win it in the movies.
    Actually the whole subject of Vietnam bores me to tears.  I wrote this book ten years ago, it's been published for six.  I have other interests, I'm working on other books, I'm doing other things.  It's almost as though I played in a baseball team when I was a kid, and I get to spend the whole of the rest of my life endlessly talking about it.  I'm only 37 years old, and it's a little premature to be Walter Brennan.  I don't really look forward to when the film comes out, and all the questions:  Where do you get all your ideas?  How many people did you kill?
    That's the popular one--how many people did you kill?  I slaughtered millions of people, all helpless, innocent civilians.  I threw them up and cut them down like dogs.  Actually, I try to give people an honest answer.  They have a conception that war is like John Wayne movies.  You walk along, some Japanese soldiers walk out, you say, "hello Japs, eat lead," and shoot them down.  In real war, you rarely see the enemy.  It's more a question of walking along, somebody starts shooting at you.  They shoot over here, you shoot over there.  You can't see anything.  Later you go over and there are some shot people.  You don't know who shot them.  Very few people in Vietnam saw someone and shot them.  You're holding your rifle, firing over your head, thinking "I hope I don't get shot."  You're not really going around taking score.  I was under fire about 50 times, but I only saw the enemy once.  At Hue, we could see for about 500 yards, and what you saw was these little teeny-tiny ants.  You couldn't even tell they were people.
    John Wayne was the central mythic figure in Vietnam.  He was used in so many ways.  He permeated the language.  To do John Wayne was to do something senselessly heroic and stupid.  If anyone was real gung-ho, we'd call him John Wayne.  The name was invoked all over Vietnam.  It was almost like a presence, because the mind-set of the people came from watching these old war movies.  If there's a machine gun nest, you throw in a grenade and blow it up and get the medal of honor.  Well, that's stupid.  A lot of young guys come to Vietnam, and before they got an opportunity to adjust to the reality--which is that if you jump up and throw a grenade at a machine gun nest, they're going to shoot you and you'll be dead in a body bag--they would get killed.  It worked out better for John Wayne, because he had it in his contract that he'd never get killed.
    I don't like most of the Vietnam movies.  I liked Apocalypse Now, except for the ending.  I really like the character of Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, he is really interesting.  I didn't like The Deer Hunter, Robert DeNiro playing the bearded version of John Wayne.  And how he has a beard in the Green Berets I'll never know.  He never shows fear or doubt or any kind of human emotion.  He's perfect, which is bullshit.  You're playing Russian roulette, you're going to be scared to death.  They were resurrecting John Wayne so that when we go into Nicaragua kids will say "I wanna be like Robert DeNiro, I'm gonna do all this heroic stuff" and get killed.
    It's one thing I worry about with Stanley's film.  I worry about people who come out of the film with an idea that war is somehow glamorous and fun and let's go to Nicaragua and blast this communist blob that's taking over the world.  It's difficult to deglamorise war even when you know how horrible it is.  In movies, it looks so attractive.
    Movie clichés carry weight.  In WWII, they characterized the American soldier as some sort of saint with a gun.  GI Joe, an apple-cheeked boy.  Audie Murphy giving gum to orphans.  You know Audie Murphy, the war hero who became a Hollywood actor.  After the war, he'd sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow.  He once shot his alarm clock.  And yet people characterize Vietnam veterans as being crazy.  The other day a woman saw a copy of my book and said "oh you were in Vietnam, are you crazy?"  I'm supposed to say "yeah, sure, I'm revving up my chainsaw."  You can see how insulting it is to have people think you're liable to go berserk every minute because you happened to have served in your country's armed forces.  Again it's the movies.  The crazy Vietnam veteran has become a stock character.
    A lot of Vietnam veterans probably are crazy, but it's not because of anything that happened to them in the war.  It's because of the way they've been treated back home.  The belief that all Vietnam veterans are crazy was deliberately fostered because they came home saying things about Vietnam that people didn't want to hear.  During the '60s, hippies were protesting the war, but they were dismissed as cowards, potheads, wimps.  But when veterans said "the war is stupid, we should get out," America didn't want to hear.  It needed a rationale for dismissing everything they said, because how could you say to a marine lieutenant with silver stars and stuff "you don't know what you're talking about"?  So what they said was "all these guys are crazy.  Every one of their best friends got killed in Vietnam and it made them crazy.  They don't know what they are saying."
    In Northern California, there are 400 vets living in the woods in little cabins.  They're called tripwire veterans.  The sheriff's department leaves them alone.  They don't bother anybody, but they have guns and stuff and say "if you come up here and mess with me I'll kill you."  They're so angry at society.  I'm rabidly against the federal government of the United States.  It was an attitude already present, because Southerners already distrust the government, but being in Vietnam didn't help.  Most of the soldiers in Vietnam tended to be poor white Southerners or black people from all over.  Black people are one tenth of the population, but half the servicemen in the fighting were black.  Of course, black people always hated the government.
    Veterans in general distrust everything, because they feel they've been lied to.  People say this was a long time ago, but the same thing is going on.  The Vietnam veteran sees the machinery going on to go into Nicaragua, using exactly the same rhetoric, the same lies, the same clichés.  It makes them insane, furious.  Look at this, they're pulling the same bullshit.  They're gonna send another bunch of guys to get slaughtered.  Veterans are standing on the sidelines saying "no, no, don't do it."
    I sent my book to the Marine Corps, and I said "you guys read this, and I'll listen to any suggestions you might make."  I tried to be fair.  They didn't make any specific criticisms, but they didn't like the book.  They said "we do not consider this an accurate portrayal of the Marines in Vietnam."  In other words, "you don't show us giving gum to orphans."  What the Marine Corps would like is an old John Wayne movie.  Maybe they won't like Stanley's movie when it comes out.  I hope they don't.
 
 

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