This violent novel,
written in rapid-fire style, graphically depicts the Vietnam War in shocking
but realistic terms. There is no discussion of rest-and-recuperation
leaves, frolics with prostitutes or Saigon bar girls. It is an intense
work about a group of American Marines, trained to kill and molded into
brutal creatures by a basic human desire to survive a nightmarish war.
Joker, the main character of Hasford's novel, serves as narrator through the dehumanizing experience of Marine recruit training, arrival in Vietnam as a combat reporter dung the 1968 Tet Offensive and a stint as a squad leader during the relief of the base at Khe Sanh.
The novel is economically worded, giving the reader little time to recover from mind-numbing passages of savagery before another similar scene ambushes the reader again. Hasford does not intend to shock, although the grim realities of war make one recoil at the inhumanity practiced by human beings. Those who have never endured combat may find themselves thankful for missing such an experience, as Hasford's novel unfolds. Those who survived fighting in the mucky rice paddies and sweltering jungles of Vietnam may find experiences they wish to forget vividly bouncing in their minds.
Hasford and I served together as Marine combat correspondents in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. Much of his novel is based on true events and is written with a believable clarity that only one who was there could effectively produce.
Hasford wrote many parts of the novel--especially the opening section, which deals with Marine boot camp--during spare moments at the Marine combat base at Phu Bai. He has worked on the novel intermittently over the years and it was undergone numerous revisions and literary surgery. Several publishers were less than enthusiastic about the book. Its acceptance now perhaps indicates Americans are willing to read more works connected with the war.
The Short-Timers lacks the literary polish of Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, but has greater impact on the reader. Michael Herr's best-selling Dispatches, covers a wider scope but does not draw the reader into the quagmire of war as well as Hasford does.
The faceless characters who populate the novel--Animal Mother, Rafter Man, Crazy Earl and Alice--are almost indistinguishable. Their dialogue is strong and often weighty with gallows humor.
"Nam may kill me but it can't make me care," one grimy character quips. "This isn't a war," a Marine says about the battle for Hue City during the Tet, "it's a series of overlapping riots." Another Marine, viewing a blackened pile of North Vietnamese killed by napalm, observes, "The aroma of roasted flesh is, admittedly, an acquired taste."
Statements by cold-hearted people? As Joker observes about the intensity of Marine training: "Marines fight or they do not survive. There is it. No slack."
The killing and subsequent mutilation of a female sniper by a Marine squad during the Hue battle is probably the most impressive scene in the novel. Even in this grotesque passage, Hasford maintains a lack of feeling in his characters as they perform the gruesome tasks for which they have been trained.
But this is not the most brutal part of The Short-Timers.
Earlier in the novel, Joker asks the division information services officer who was responsible for quashing a story he wrote about Marines using a beehive artillery round--a shell filled with hundreds of tiny, steel darts. These beehive rounds, which turn human beings into pieces of bloody flesh, were, according to the colonel who killed the story, not used by Americans. They are inhumane and Americans don't use such weapons, he said.
Hasford actually wrote such a story when we were covering elements of the Fifth Marine Regiment in Hue and a colonel at the Marines' combat information bureau in Danang killed the story. He even wrote a letter to our commanding officer demanding Hasford be reprimanded for fabricating a story about a weapon the colonel insisted Americans never used in Vietnam.
Perhaps that colonel, comfortably ensconced at the Danang Press Center with its steaks, fine liquors and close proximity to plush brothels, was unaware of the use of beehive rounds. His ignorance may be considered more inhumane than a beehive round.
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