In the great American
digestive system, the Vietnam War remains as a chronically painful metabolic
dysfunction. We may be at the apex of enlightened apathy but Vietnam
is still hard to swallow.
It's been a long haul from the body bag to the bookstores, but somehow The Short-Timers, a novel riddled with death, dying and more death, has crawled out.
To say this book is a downer, a vicious reenactment of our Asian crimes, is almost an understatement. The Short-Timers is a savage, unforgiving look at a savage, unforgivable time.
The focus of Gustav Hasford's first novel is the Marine Corps--specifically a group of marines who go from basic training at Parris Island to the hell of Khe Sanh. The narrator, a combat correspondent nicknamed "the Joker," tells us his story in the present tense (an interesting and almost successful style choice). "The Joker" does his hitch as a war reporter, but soon finds himself forced to take command of his squad in the chaos and confusion following the Tet offensive.
The artwork on the book's cover is enough to make you think twice about venturing further. It is a color drawing of a drab-green uniformed skeleton about to throw a skull--grenade style.
It is the first of many--too many--grenades to follow.
Hasford is trying to convince us that war is hell (he served as a combat correspondent with the First Marine Division in Vietnam), but so what else is new? To prove his point, he embarks on what seems to be a cathartic saturation bombing of our senses. The reader, more than his characters, becomes the victim of overkill. In his attempt to remind us of our days of the past imperfect, Hasford commits the ultimate war book crime: He destroys his chapters in order to save them.
The book is 154 pages long, but it could easily substitute as a Sears catalogue of atrocities. There are simply too many targets of opportunity in the story to sustain the deeper messages Hasford wants to impart.
Hasford's characters are nothing short of macho comic-book mannequins. They all have nicknames, like "T.H.E. Rock" and "Mr. Payback." Pick a way to die and these soldiers will have beaten you to it. For those who like to imagine a host of bizarre variations of death on the battlefield, this is the textbook.
Moreover, The Short-Timers is a disturbing piece of moral fiction. It is also a rather predictable piece of writing. After a woman VC sniper picks off half of the Joker's patrol, a tank blasts the building down from beneath her. She is quickly found and executed, and one of the marine grunts rushes over, cuts off her feet and drops them into a souvenir plastic shopping bag--full of other feet. A few dozen more of these Hasford stories, and deaths become almost boring. The impact is lost.
I am not arguing that The Short-Timers is not a reflection of truth. At the very least, I am convinced that this novel is chock full of undeniable truths. But it is a one-dimensional presentation of a war in which there was no clear military objective other than death itself. Simply recounting those horrors against the redemption of "short-time" (the days left to remain in combat) has produced an unfortunate, contrived novel that can't quite do justice to the war.
Read the letter
Gus wrote in response to this review.
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