Gustav Hasford died
January 29, 1993 on the Greek island of Aegina. He was 45 years old.
That last day probably unfolded much like his days of the previous few months, when he slept all morning, wrote all afternoon and spent the night drinking at a local café, where he’d usually pass out until closing time when the bartender would give him a ride home. “Home” being a cheap motel with a view of the Saronic Gulf and the remains of the Temple of Apollo.
Hasford was well liked among the citizens of the tiny island. His landlords and the local mailman would remember him as the large, jovial American writer who was always reading, always writing, and unfortunately always drinking. He was also allowing his diabetes to go untreated.
“Everything the doctor tell him, he do the opposite,” remembers the mailman who became his drinking buddy. “He drink wine, milk, two or three ouzo, beers, Coke—but all at once, you understand, all on the same table.”
Hasford’s hands shook so bad that his last few postcards to friends in America were practically illegible. Writing to his friend, Bob Bayer, he apologized for his “semi-literate Alabama hillbilly handwriting” and observed, “I’m so much smarter in a 10-point typeface.” Living in Greece had been a longtime dream, but in one of his last letters he admitted, “Fighting the diabetes for the past 16 months has been a nightmare.”
As he lay down, alone, in his motel bed that last morning, never again to rise, perhaps he thought back to happier times, just six years previous, when he spent his nights in a much nicer hotel. Back when his most celebrated novel was still in print. Back when his screenplay was about to earn an Oscar nomination. Back when he was still surrounded by his precious book collection and his tight-knit group of friends and fellow Vietnam veterans, the Snuffies. Back before he ever started drinking heavy. Before he’d ever been to jail.
In the summer of 1987,
when Full Metal Jacket came out, Warner Brothers put Gus Hasford in a room
at the ritzy Westwood Marquis Hotel. He spent two weeks running up
a huge tab, ordering $10 hamburgers, beer, and milk. Room service
would bring the milk up in a silver wine bucket. He called his friends,
bragging, “You know, the hamburgers here are $10, and I can have all I
want.” He’d go down to the bar, meet a few people and invite them
up to his room for burgers and beer.
He also conducted phone interviews with reporters from around the world, reporters eager to learn about the writer behind Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the Vietnam War.
Hasford told the reporters about growing up in Russellville, Alabama, a town of a few thousand where “People used to come into town and look at the street lights.” It was where he covered car wrecks for the local paper when he was just 16, where he frequently got in trouble with his factory-worker father for spending all his time reading, and where he refused to take his high school graduation exam, in protest of the state’s poor education system. “I didn’t want to validate what they were doing,” he said. “I guess I was being rebellious.” Instead, his education and his writing continued in jungles half a world away.
“The South is a big Indian reservation populated by ex-Confederates who are bred like cattle to die in Yankee wars,” Hasford wrote. “In Alabama there is no circus to run off to, so we join the Marines.” After doing just that in September of 1967, he was assigned to be a 4312 Basic Military Journalist. But life in North Carolina, putting out the base newspaper, publishing articles about the war in Vietnam, did not appeal to him. Seeking what Hemingway called “man’s greatest adventure,” Hasford applied to go to Vietnam, a military maneuver called “requesting mass.”
Hasford told the reporters about Vietnam. “It was exciting,” he said. “It was a foreign country, even if you didn't exactly know where it was. I didn't have the slightest clue of where Vietnam was.” But of course he soon learned, becoming initiated into the First Marine Division ISO (Informational Services Office), a tight-knit group of combat correspondents with whom he would maintain lifelong friendships. Self-proclaimed “Snuffies,” their ranks included future Hollywood technical adviser, actor and author Dale Dye and Bob Bayer, who eventually became an editor at the L.A. Times, in addition to becoming Hasford’s best friend and longtime caretaker of his vast book collection and various affairs. Hasford, at 19 the youngest of the bunch, often liked to remind his peers that he considered himself a non-combatant, an observer, in country solely to chronicle the experience. His fellow Snuffies in turn would remember him as “the reluctant, wandering hobo of the war” and “the goofy, flower-child in green fatigues.”
As a Marine combat correspondent, Hasford served on Task Force X-Ray and Operation Pegasus, which broke through to Khe Sanh by land in the wake of the Tet Offensive. He sometimes wrote ten stories a day with such battlefield datelines as Hue, Da Nang and Quang Tri. It was while covering the Fifth Marine Regiment in Hue that his story about the Marines’ use of beehive rounds, a type of artillery filled with hundreds of tiny, steel darts, drew the ire of a colonel at the Marine combat information bureau. The colonel killed the story, demanding that Hasford be reprimanded for even suggesting that American soldiers would use such an inhumane weapon.
“We were public relations men for the war and the Marine Corps,” Hasford said of his job as combat correspondent. “We appeared to be journalists, but we were really simply promoting the war and promoting the Marine Corps.”
“In war, truth is the first casualty,” Hasford wrote in The Short-Timers, his first novel. “Correspondents are more effective than grunts. Grunts merely kill the enemy. All that matters is what we write, what we photograph. History may be written with blood and iron but it’s printed with ink.”
“An ocean of smiling faces greeted Marines distributing 500 baseball caps to the Vietnamese children of An Ngai Tay and Hoa Ninh, near Da Nang,” read one of Hasford’s stories, published July 1968 in Leatherneck magazine. “’We thought we'd do something for the kids,’ said GySgt R.E. Maddox, NCOIC of the battalion's civil affairs office.”
Out of frustration, anger, and a terribly pessimistic sense of humor, Gus Hasford’s literary alter ego would be born.
Sitting on my rack,
I type out my story about Hill 327, the serviceman's oasis, about how all
of us fine young American boys are assured our daily ration of pogey bait
and about how those of us who are lucky enough to visit the rear areas
get to see Mr. John Wayne karate-chop Victor Charlie to death in a Technicolor
cartoon about some other Viet Nam.
The article I actually write is a masterpiece. It takes talent to convince people that war is a beautiful experience. Come one, come all to exotic Viet Nam, the jewel of Southeast Asia, meet interesting, stimulating people of an ancient culture...and kill them. Be the first kid on your block to get a confirmed kill.
Private Joker, with
his peace button, his comic impressions and his vicious sarcasm, would
serve as narrator for Hasford’s fist novel, The Short-Timers, the
sharply disturbing book that takes readers from a nightmarish Marine basic
training at Parris Island through to the bloody battle for Hue City and
the final days at Khe Sanh, a landscape, haunted by the ghost of John Wayne,
through which dehumanized young men stagger, charged by their beloved Corps
to “keep Heaven stocked with fresh souls.”
Newsweek would one day label it “an unnerving achievement” and
“the best work of fiction about the Viet Nam War.” But in 1968, when Hasford
began writing what would eventually become The Short-Timers, he
was still in Vietnam, and the novel would take over seven years to finish.
Hasford told the reporters about being a struggling young writer. After his discharge in 1968, he moved with his parents to Washington State, where he found a job working the night desk at a hotel that catered to loggers.
“The reason I got the job,” Hasford remembered, “was because they needed a big guy like me on the graveyard shift because that's when all the loggers would come in from the bars wanting to fight. They'd already been in fights and they'd be dragging these scrubby, extremely ugly prostitutes with them. The job gave me a lot of opportunity to read… After about 3 o'clock when all the loggers had passed out.”
He also took some classes at nearby Lower Columbia Community College. It was in 1972, while a student there that his short story, “Is That You, John Wayne? Is This Me?” appeared in Mirror Northwest, the literary publication for Washington community colleges. The story, based on Hasford’s actual Vietnam experiences, details the confrontation between a peace button-wearing Marine and his angry superior. The scene would eventually find its way into The Short-Timers as well as the resulting film version, Full Metal Jacket.
Hasford soon moved to Los Angeles, where, under the pseudonym “George Gordon,” he started writing for American Art Enterprises, which was then California’s largest publisher of pornography. “Doing the starving hippie writer trip,” for a time living out of his car, Hasford would save up enough money to allow for brief periods of uninterrupted writing.
At one point in the early 70s, Hasford attended the Clarion Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy at Tulane University in New Orleans, where science fiction writer Harlan Ellison tore up one of his stories and hit him over the head with the scraps. Future sci fi writer Arthur Cover was also at the convention.
“Every year Harlan had a tradition of picking out the single worst writer with a personal ego who could handle it, and tell him he should give it up, get out of the business,” remembers Cover. “This was Gus' year. Gus was not deterred. No one felt he had talent. Not even me. Especially me.”
Returning to L.A., Hasford, a self-proclaimed “22-year-old twit who had nowhere to go,” found himself and Cover being taken in by Ellison, until they could afford a place of their own.
As Cover recalls, Hasford was working on a novel titled The Tattooed Chicken. It was a series of surreal vignettes about the Civil War that also included three chapters set in Vietnam. When Cover had a chance to read the finished product, he pointed out that Hasford really had two different books, “The Tattooed Chicken and this Vietnam thing where the characters turned into werewolves whenever something violent happened. Gradually the werewolves were excised (though I always liked it). Writing all that experimental fiction was the only way Gus could back into writing directly about the war.”
The finished product of The Short-Timers was a novel Hasford hoped someday could serve to “mangle frail civilian sensibilities.”
Publishers, however, did not share his hope.
“When I'd submit (The Short-Timers),” said Hasford, “editors would write to say they liked the manuscript. But they'd always end their letters saying, 'Of course, we could never, never possibly ever publish this.'" Hasford had the novel rejected by all the major publishing companies, some more than once. "Nobody would publish it because Vietnam was a bad dream that we wanted to tuck away forever. It was like writing about cancer.”
It was Harper & Row who finally said yes, after having previously passed on the book. In January of 1979, the first hardcover edition of The Short-Timers was unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace.
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims his index finger between my eyes and says, "You. Yeah--you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister." He grins. Then his face goes hard. "You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you."
“A terse spitball of
a book,” raved Kirkus Reviews, “fine and real and terrifying, that marks
a real advance in Vietnam War literature.”
“It is one of the most amazing stretches of writing I’ve ever encountered,” said Harlan Ellison, of his old roommate’s first novel. “Hasford has written a fine, fine book: honest and painful and terribly important.”
“I meant to read only a few pages,” commented Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam classic Dispatches, “but I could see immediately, in one paragraph, that this was impossible. When I finished the opening section, I felt as though I'd read a whole novel, and it was twenty-eight pages long. I knew I was reading an amazing writer. He was telling a truth about the war that was so secret, so hidden, that I could barely stand it. It was a masterpiece that absolutely anybody could pick up and read in a couple of hours and never forget.”
Hasford mailed a copy of his novel to the Marine Corps, seeking their opinion, but none came. One doesn’t imagine they were thrilled with a story where appallingly harsh verbal and physical abuse from a drill instructor leads one Marine recruit to commit both murder and suicide, where an American soldier decapitates a young, female Vietnamese sniper, and where the climatic action consists of one Marine executing another.
While positive reviews were plentiful, sales of The Short-Timers were not. The hardcover sold in the low thousands. It was already out of print by 1982, when legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick purchased the film rights to what he called “a unique, absolutely wonderful book." Soon, Hasford received his first phone call from Kubrick.
“My famousness seems out of control and may grow to proportions so awesome I'll be scared to speak to myself,” Hasford wrote to friends in November 1982. “Yesterday I got a call from Stanley Kubrick -- no shit--I kid you not. It was like Moses talking to the burning bush, a pea picker from Alabama and your basic cinematic legend… Don't tell anybody, but I think I wet my pants…I feel totally out of my class. Good thing I’m so conceited... So now I'll be more famous and more people will get mad at me, but there it is. And I’ll be rich and the IRS will expect me to pay taxes… Just don't anybody accuse me of becoming arrogant -- I always been arrogant.”
The ensuing relationship would consist of three year’s worth of marathon, international phone arguments (sometimes as long as seven hours), one protracted legal squabble involving issues of credit (Hasford scoffed at Kubrick’s offer of an “additional dialogue” screenwriting credit, raging, “Those fuckers retyped my novel and tried to put their names on it!”), one dinner engagement (during which Kubrick passed a note to Michael Herr saying “I can’t deal with this man”), and one visit to the film’s set (which of course ended with Gus being banned for the duration of filming).
“(Kubrick) is a thoroughly charming and easy-going fellow,” wrote Hasford, in December 1982, “just a good ole boy who happens to have made about half of the classic films in America. I talk to him every few days. We are trying to come up with a more satisfying ending for ‘Shorty’... I said, ‘But Stanley...the Vietnam War bloody well wasn't satisfying.’ ‘Right,’ he said, ‘but they made you go...while we've got to convince people to pay to see this movie.’”
In January 1985, Hasford told friends, “Look for the movie around 1999 -- Stanley... insists on doing every single thing himself. Today Michael and I were joking with him, saying that when the film came out Stanley would probably insist on taking the tickets... Stanley didn't think it was funny. He just looked at us with that Buddha face of his, as though considering doing just that.”
“Michael says that he thinks the film is going to be a classic,” Hasford wrote in his private notes in May of 1985. “If so, then it will be in large part due to my book and my screenwriting..ie: a multi-million dollar success for which I have been paid peanuts. Typical of Stanley’s manipulations is his saying he’ll give me $7000 because ‘he likes me.’”
Throughout the film’s production, Hasford fired off a steady barrage of angry letter to Kubrick. “As for Full Metal Jacket,” he wrote in one of them, “I deny paternity. I don’t claim authorship of anything unless I am able to do my best, and I was not allowed to do my best…You say I’m not cooperative. I see no advantage in being cooperative. I’ve seen how you respond to people who are kind and helpful and on your side. So I’m not interested in being reasonable. I’m not interested in ethics and fair play. All I’m interested in is how to attack you where you are most vulnerable and where I can inflict the most damage if you don’t give me what I want….After this contract mess is sorted out, I’ll expect the same level of cordial cooperation from you people I have enjoyed in the past, that is, no cooperation at all.”
“I just wish this whole very difficult process was as glamorous as everyone (except me) seems to think it is,” Hasford wrote to Bob Bayer. “Me, I hate glamour; glamour makes me barf. I’m just a writer-grunt, a sort of literary snuffy, wading through bullshit, trying to find the Promised Land, or maybe Malibu, whichever comes first.”
After years of what he termed “severe jacking around,” Hasford was extremely weary of the whole Hollywood process. “I don’t think there is a movie,” he wrote in September 1986. “I don’t think there is a Stanley Kubrick. The whole thing is an elaborate hoax.”
Five years after that first phone call, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket finally reached theaters.
Hasford told the reporters
“I like Stanley. Stanley is funny and human and not as eccentric as he would perhaps prefer to appear. My favorite movie is Dr. Strangelove, and Paths of Glory is one of the great classic war films. I'd stand Stanley a glass anytime. Two, maybe.
“I still would like to see Killer's Kiss,” Hasford commented. “Stanley gets miffed every time I mention this film, so I mention it all the time. Or I say I liked Spartacus, another one he doesn't care for.”
One source of discontent between the two men regarded the film’s technical adviser. Hasford had suggested his old friend Dale Dye, but instead Kubrick hired Lee Ermey. While his performance as the drill instructor proved remarkable, Ermey lacked the attention to technical detail possessed by Dye, who ended up as the adviser on Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Hasford, who resented Ermey’s pro-war stance, labeled him "a fucking pogue lifer.” Ermey, in turn, when asked by Kubrick what he thought of The Short-Timers said it was “interesting as hell and off the wall” but “full of inaccuracies and a piece of shit as far as the boot-camp sequence goes.”
Still, all the trouble and struggle surely seemed worth it by the summer of 1987, when everything seemed to be looking up for Gus Hasford. Full Metal Jacket, hailed by some critics as the best war film ever made, was soon to earn him, along with Kubrick and Herr, an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Short-Timers was back in print, and in a dozen new translations around the world. Hasford also expected he’d have a hit with his recently completed second novel, a sequel to “Shorty” called The Phantom Blooper. In “Blooper,” we again follow Private Joker, from the last chaotic days at Khe Sanh to his eye-opening stint as a prisoner in a Viet Cong village and finally to his less than ideal Alabama homecoming. Hasford hoped the novel, which is at times more powerful and more personal than The Short-Timers, would show the world that his was indeed the main talent behind Full Metal Jacket. All in all, Hasford expected he’d be making a great deal of money in the near future, especially since his final deal with Kubrick gave him a piece of the film’s profits.
“I should get the big bananas for BLOOPER,” Hasford wrote to a friend during the film’s production. “And when the film comes out, SHORTY will be a bestseller, so we’re talking maybe $250,000, at least. And after that, of course, all of my books will go for big bucks. And I’ve got 2% of the gross of the film itself, that’s maybe a million, two million.
“In five years I should be Mr. Big Bucks,” Hasford imagined.
But in fact, five year’s after the film’s release, he’d be almost dead, almost broke and already forgotten as an author.
From his hotel room
at the Westwood Marquis, Hasford told the reporters about his book collection.
“I have 10,000 books in archive boxes that are numbered,” he bragged, “and I have a card catalogue that cross-indexes them according to the different subjects. It's a research library.” Hasford had always been a voracious reader and insatiable book collector. His favorite subjects included the American Civil War, hard-boiled detective stories, Napoleon, the Alamo, Custer, the Minoan civilization on Crete, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, ancient Greek coins, Mark Twain, anarchy, Van Gogh and Abraham Lincoln. Because he moved around so much, living in Australia, London, touring the American South and living all along the west coast, Hasford kept his book collection in a rental locker in San Luis Obispo.
In March 1988, that locker was raided by California Polytechnic State University campus police seeking 87 overdue books checked out from the university library in Hasford’s name. They seized the whole pile of books, which measured 27 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet tall. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and when he couldn’t be found, campus police joked about having the LAPD post an officer at the Academy Awards Ceremony scheduled a few weeks later.
On January 4, 1989, charged with stealing 748 books from eight libraries across the country and one in England, Hasford pleaded no contest to possessing stolen property. His lawyer argued that he was merely an eccentric writer obsessed with his research and shouldn’t be treated as a common criminal.
“One thing I’m persuaded of above all is that Mr. Hasford is not a common thief,” commented the judge, as he fined Hasford $1500, ordered him to pay shipping costs for the return of the books, and sentenced him to six months in a San Luis Obispo county jail.
Headlines around the country echoed every bad pun imaginable: Writer’s Block: He Fails To Return Library Books; Book ‘em, Dano; Overdue for Questioning; Will They Throw the Book at Author; Writer to be in Full Metal Cell.
During the whole legal ordeal, Hasford remained confident he’d come out on top. “This whole battle between me and the law is, as usual, portrayed as a moral issue when it is in fact, as usual, a power issue,” he wrote in October 1988. “These people think I have too much power, so they’re spanking me a little bit, putting me in my place, only they’ve ended up spanking me a lot, nine months, because I have absolutely refused to recognize they authority. They are small town people, stupid and vain, who don’t know any better than to be messing with me.”
A few months later, from jail, he observed, “James Cagney movies to the contrary, the worst part about jail is that it is boring. Oh, you’ve got a few tough guys who strut around the mod admiring themselves, but that’s the most boring thing of all… The only difference between jail and the Marine Corps is that in jail they don’t hit us and we don’t get to shoot guns.”
Asked what he did in jail to keep from going crazy, he responded, “We don’t do anything to keep from going crazy.”
After his release, he continued to see himself as a victim of “Moral Majority assholes.” In 1990, he wrote to friends and family, saying “For the past two years I have not read a book, have not had a spare moment to myself, have not written any personal correspondence at all. For the past two years I've been forced to devote absolutely all of my energy to resisting a vicious attack launched against me by moral majority fanatics backed up by the full power of the Fascist State. I have survived, and intend to do more than survive, but it has been a strain.”
Like comedian Lenny Bruce late in his life, Hasford started devoting his creative prowess to dissecting the details of his court case. He vowed to publish a book that would give his side of the story, uncovering all the conspiratorial motives of the district attorney and police department he felt had used his high profile case to better their own careers, as well as the angry ex-girlfriend, a librarian, he thought had blown the whistle on him.
“He just wasn't ever himself again after going to jail,” remembers best-bud Bob Bayer. “It weighed on him heavily, you know, on his mental attitudes. He was afraid to take planes afterwards, and he talked a lot about applying for political asylum in France. And that big expose he was planning to write -- hiring private dicks and everything? I told him, ‘Gus, nobody's gonna care about this shit three years from now -- it's a smalltime legal deal. Focus the energy you've got on your bigger projects.’ But he wouldn't let go of it.
“Gus started drinking around that time -- drinking a lot of beer and wine at night. Said he couldn't get to sleep otherwise. He'd never had that problem before. You know, he'd go out, maybe have a beer or two, but he never really drank all that much. He was living in a motel in El Cajon so he could be close to his books, which he was reorganizing after trucking them down from SLO. I was recycling cans at home, and he'd bring over big trash bags full of tall Colt 45 empties every couple of weeks. He drank those by the case. Plus, wine -- a lot of wine.”
His credibility destroyed, his health deteriorating, Hasford soon realized that nothing was working out quite like he had expected. The vast amounts of money he thought he’d make from Full Metal Jacket never materialized. The Short-Timers had not become a bestseller (perhaps in part because he refused to let it be reprinted under the title Full Metal Jacket). His frequent clashes with his publisher, Bantam, finally raged out of control with the release of The Phantom Blooper. Hasford mailed a press release to newspapers across the country, personally attacking his editor, raging that his book was “born dead” because the publisher failed to properly promote it.
“Publishers are greedy S.O.B.s,” Hasford roared to a friend. “I'm not a precious little pale academic who writes poetry and never raises his voice; I'm an ex-Marine and that makes me a hard and more or less fearless individual, and if these hardball boys from the Harvard School of Business want to play hardball, I'm in the mood to play hardball. The next arrogant S.O.B. at Bantam that even coughs in my direction is going to wake up with a piece of the world nailed to the side of his head.”
Upon its release in February 1990, “Blooper” received limited critical attention and virtually none from the buying public. Hasford, who claimed to have joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War while still in Vietnam, dedicated the book to “the three million veterans of the Viet Nam war, three million loyal men and women who were betrayed by their country.”
We hump through a
defoliated rain forest that is too dead even to smell dead. Ancient
trees stand stark and black and stripped of leaves. The black trees
are hung with limp windblown flowers that are parachutes from illumination
Later we see trees that are as white as bone, sun-bleached skeletons of the great hardwoods, white trees with black leaves. The trunks and branches of the trees are warped by unnatural cancerous growths that look like human faces and human hands and human fingers growing out of decaying wood.
In the poisonous fields of the defoliated rain forest we see monsters, freaks, and mutants. We see a water rat with two heads and as big as a dog, birds with extra feet coming out of their backs, Siamese-twin bullfrogs joined at the stomach. The bullfrogs scurry for cover with clumsy and desperately frantic movements horrible to see, finally sinking into oozing slime inhabited by shadows that are alive and best never seen by human eyes.
By 1992, when it seemed
like nothing else could go wrong, Hasford found himself struggling with
writer’s block. His third novel, A Gypsy Good Time, the first
in a planned six part series of LA detective stories, was on the verge
of being released when he decided to move to Greece, despite the objections
of all his friends. He was hoping to jump start his creative juices
and continue the series, just to get enough money so he could focus on
more important projects. Hasford had spent years researching everything
about the Civil War and in particular anything regarding Ambrose Bierce,
who he called “the only important American author to serve in the War For
Southern Independence.” His planned projects included a biography
of Bierce, focusing on his time as a Union topographer, a novel about Sherman's
siege of Atlanta, seen through the eyes of Bierce (“Gone With The Wind
from the Yankee point of view, minus the weepy Valley Girls”), and another
Civil War novel titled The Undefeated, described at one point as
“a Southern version of The Red Badge of Courage.”
A Gypsy Good Time, which would be his final published work, was both a horribly clichéd detective tale and a viciously bitter satire of Hollywood life. “You deal with Hollywood, you better keep your ass against the wall,” he wrote, “or somebody will try to unscrew it and sell it.”
“(Hasford) moved to Greece hoping to rekindle his creative fires,” remembers fellow-Snuffie Earl “Crazy Earl” Gerheim. “Instead, he just drank more, didn't take his medication for the diabetes and died.”
Gus Hasford returned from Greece in February 1993, cause of death listed as heart failure. After a brief hold-up at the Copenhagen airport (was it just a coincidence that his casket became lost at the airport that sells more beer than any in the world), a memorial service was held in Tacoma, Washington for all the Snuffies, and then his remains were interred at Winston Memorial Cemetery in Haleyville, Alabama. Hasford had always joked he wanted his ashes sprinkled along San Clemente beach so that the beautiful women there could sit on his face forever. Instead he was buried next to his father, in the “Free State of Winston,” at a little cemetery next to a dilapidated drive-in theater, the marquee of which struggled to remind Hasford’s few mourners, mostly family, that “Jesus died for us, we should live for him.”
Gustav Hasford was one
of the most accomplished writers of Vietnam War fiction, a self-proclaimed
“unreconstructed Vietnam veteran” who devoted much of his life to understanding
the lessons of that war, yet today all three of his novels are out of print.
Two years ago I started a web site devoted to the writings of Gus Hasford. Since then, I’ve received countless letters from fans around the world, delighted to see that one of their favorite authors hasn’t been completely forgotten. I’ve been contacted by various college professors who mourn the fact that they can’t teach Hasford’s books in their classes. I’ve heard from Full Metal Jacket devotees eager to read the book their favorite film was based on, surprised to learn it had a sequel. And I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend time with Hasford’s closest friends, the 1st Marine Division ISO Snuffies, who still set a beer aside for their friend whenever they gather, every one of them armed with a dozen different “Gus stories.”
“The cockroaches held major maneuvers in his place,” remembers Bob Bayer. “And it didn't help the situation that Gus was such a pig. He tried combating them by nailing a pest strip along the baseboard. Then when he ensnared one he'd hammer a nail through it to ‘scare off’ the others. I'd told him a better tactic would be cleaning up all the empty McDonalds cartons more than once a month.”
Fellow combat correspondent Steve Berntson recalls, “He came up one time and said, ‘Bernie. You and Craze meet me down here at the Copper Penny. I'm buying dinner. I just got a check from some German royalty for ten grand.’ Oh God, Gus has got money. When Gus had money it was good times. So we went there, we never got to the dinner, we stopped to have a couple beers. Course, you always had a couple beers with Gus… So anyway. We had a couple beers and a couple beers. Pretty soon we got around to saying, ‘Well, Gus, we probably oughtta eat.’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ It came time and the bill came around, he handed it to me and he said, ‘You'll have to take care of this, Bernie.’” As was common, it turned out Hasford had stopped at a bookstore along the way, and he was already broke.
“Slipped beyond the wire now, Hasford still taxed my ability to sum him up,” his friend Grover Lewis wrote for LA Weekly magazine in 1993. “But I could say for certain that he was irreplaceable. Full of shortcomings and human failings, not a grown-up at all on some level, afflicted with built-in buzz-saw cussedness and a deadly book jones, he had been nonetheless gallant, large-hearted, steadfast -- a man of honor with complicated gifts and brave, bad attitudes in a wretched time, a Southern romantic to the core and forever a soldier. Hollywood hadn't even looked up from its chips at his passing, but among those who'd taken the time to see him clearly, Gus was well-loved. I wondered if it was something he ever fully knew.”
Gus Hasford was born in the backwoods of Alabama, educated in the jungles of Southeast Asia, both praised and damned in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, and he died in a cheap motel on an island off the coast of Greece. He died alone, yet loved. Acclaimed, yet forgotten. A genius, but still a fool. His infamy would perhaps best be forgotten, but his accomplishments should forever be celebrated. Above all, his voice remains unique in American literature. Though silenced, he continues to be heard.
Winding up one of his
interviews during the summer of 1987, Hasford paused, reflecting.
“Maybe you better put in that Stanley Kubrick is a diamond cutter of men,”
he told the reporter. “I don't know for sure what it means, but it
sounds good… And put in that I'm not anything like Cpl. Joker. I
am not personally a Lusthog beast…And, let's see, put in that I am zany
and amorous. Tell the women of the world that I am probably in love
Special thanks to Tim Kreider (for the
details on Hasford’s time in Greece)
In the Words of Gustav Hasford
Quotes from his novels, essays, interviews and various personal letters
“Shut your scuzzy mouth, fat body, and listen up. I am going to give you the straight skinny, because you are the biggest shitbird on the planet… In Viet Nam nice guys do not finish at all and monsters live forever. You got to bring ass to get ass. A few weeks ago you were the hot-rod king of some hillbilly high school, stumbling around in front of all the girls and stepping on your dick, but be advised that Viet Nam will be the education you never got in school. You ain’t been born yet, sweet pea. Your job is to stand around and stop the bullet that might hit someone of importance. Before the sun comes up, prive, you could be just one more tagged and bagged pile of nonviewable remains. If you're lucky, you'll only get killed…We are teenaged Quasimodos for the bells of hell and we are as happy as pigs in shit because killing is our business and business is good. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has ordered you to Khe Sanh to get yourself some trigger time and pick up a few sea stories. But you are not even here to win the D-F-M, the Dumb Fucker’s Award. The only virtue of the stupid is that they don't live long. The Lord giveth and the M-79 taketh away. There it is. Welcome to the world of zero slack.”
The very first thing
that I have learned about Vietnam as a writer is that I am no longer talking
to two-thirds of you. The word "Vietnam" in the first sentence of
this article triggered a negative response somewhere, and most of you are
about to turn the page. To those stalwart few who remain: Welcome
to the world of the disenchanted.
The second thing that I have learned after 12 years as an unreconstructed Vietnam veteran is that, while I deeply respect, and would fight to preserve, the Constitution of the United States, I am now and must remain a devoted enemy of the federal government of the United States.
America invented Communism
when they ran out of Indians . . .
Communism is boring and does not work. But if the federal government of the United States died, I'd dance on its grave. I've joined the side of people against the side of governments. I've gone back to the land. When Americans lost touch with the land, we lost touch with reality. We became television. I don't want to be television. I'd rather kill or be killed . . .
Being young is the art of survival without weapons, but we had weapons, and we used them to burn Viet Nam alive. I'm ashamed of that. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but it was the wrong thing. In an unnecessary war, patriotism is just racism made to sound noble.
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.
Rambo has "59 confirmed kills," first tour, and scores another 90 during the film, for a total of 149, not counting blood trails, civilians, and water buffalo. My own score was perhaps more typical. In Vietnam I fired more rounds than the Stonewall Brigade fired at the Battle of Gettysburg. I was highly motivated, but my body count was a standing joke: I killed as many of them as they did of me. Looking back with flawless hindsight, I hope I hit nothing but trees, and I hope the trees lived. If I did kill a human being in Vietnam, it was a tragic accident or self-defense; I regret it, but I do not apologize.
Like a woman who has
never given birth, the man who has not faced death and inflicted death
will for all of his life feel somehow not quite complete. Combat
veterans are completely puzzled and bemused by the strangers who try to
start fistfights with veterans in bars to prove how tough they are.
Macho civilians envy the veteran for something the veteran, or at least
some veterans, would be only too happy to transfer, or get rid of, like
bad memories, or a plastic leg.
The soldier's war comes and goes, and ends. But noncombatants search endlessly for substitutes for war and attach to war that esoteric glamor which always attaches itself to the unattainable...
Veterans quickly learn that the fantasies of aspiring war heroes and the realities of the experiences of war, what you gain for a short time and what you lose forever, can never be bridged.
Civilians will never understand that if Vietnam veterans have been tortured, it was not by the Viet Cong but by the wives who still don't know we were there, the parents who demanded that we not express our pain, the sisters who were afraid to let us hold their babies, and the girlfriends who believed that if they made us angry we would kill them, because that's what the Vietnam veterans on television would do in the movies of the week that have been manufactured like cheese to accommodate the most irrational prejudices of a civilian audience.
From The Green Berets
to Rambo, from Apocalypse Now to The Deer Hunter,
Hollywood films have been manufactured like cheese to accommodate the most
irrational prejudices of a civilian audience, films featuring heroes 12m
high on the screen, white American godzillas trampling on wicked Orientals.
No one objected that John Wayne had never heard a shot fired in anger or that Sylvester Stallone (we're the same age, Sly) dodged the draft by working in a private girls' school in Switzerland. Gracious enough not to bore us with any facts, Hollywood has been content to go on trivializing the war as recreational gore as long as it sells popcorn to UCLA co-eds.
But stand by for a sweeping revision in how the world views the Vietnam war. Oliver Stone's relentlessly unpleasant and mercilessly honest Platoon is breaking the ground for a stream of war films by Vietnam veterans due to be released this year, films which will continue to mangle frail civilian sensibilities. Truth has no author and the truth hurts.
Before Platoon, the Vietnam veteran had not been forgotten by history but had been left out on purpose. Finally we exist, warts and all. To a brother in darkness and in light, I say: Get some, Oliver Stone. In Vietnam we were barbarian outriders for the Skull King of San Clemente, but we're all point men now, and we're all outside the wire.
Stanley (Kubrick) and
I, after about a dozen long talks, are lobbing frags. I told Stanley
he didn’t know shit from Shinola about Viet Nam. And he’s so sensitive,
he got mad…
Stanley thinks I’m an asshole because I am a vocal and adamant supporter of the National Liberation Front, or at least of the Vietnamese people in it…
Stanley and I still do not agree on several points, particularly on how to portray the Viet Cong. I think they are heroic and humane people and I’m glad they won. Stanley sees them as buck-toothed Japs left over from old John Wayne movies, who were out to spread the red blob of monolithic Communism across the face of the earth, in the name of Marx & Lenin. Not exactly a situation that results in a satisfying compromise. Meanwhile, Stanley has hired Michael Herr to help him, temporarily, which is pretty dumb, I think. Michael Herr hung out with the Marines, but hanging out with an organization and being part of it are far from the same thing. I have “hung out” with Zulus, but that hardly qualifies me to explain them to others. Anyway, we’ll see. And yes, I’ve already been advised, many, many times, that I should just shut up and do anything Stanley wants and make as much money as I can. In fact, everybody I know says that. With good intentions. But when you think about it, it’s a very insulting idea. I wonder exactly what it was that I did that gave people the idea I’m just some kind of silly Hollywood slut & opportunist. I just keep remembering all of the previous Viet Nam films and what incredible bullshit they were—Marlon Brando as a fat Hari Krisna quoting T.S. Eliot. Give me a break. And the great scene in THE DEER HUNTER when the NVA drops a grenade in on some women and children, on purpose. What racist bullshit. I’m sick of films that depict Viet Nam veterans as “Viet Nam violence freaks” (a phrase they tried to use as a blurb on SHORTY, before I politely suggested that the use of a such a phrase could possibly result in the instantaneous rotation of somebody’s fucking kneecaps) and I’m sick of us trying to pretend against all existing evidence, that the Vietnamese were not simply trying to free themselves from dominance by the United States and its appointed flunkies and collaborators. The key point of view to all of these films is that the viewer, a white liberal, can sit and watch, smug, pure, uninvolved, while those bad boys who didn’t find some way to weasel out of the war wipe out those evil Communist people (I suppose if you happen to live in a Communist country and are attacked by the United States your only honorable option is to allow yourself to be wiped off the face of the earth). Well, movie makers can stroke the whitebread fucking liberals and make them feel superior and above it all, but they’ll do it without me.
I spent a year in London writing the screenplay for the upcoming Stanley Kubrick film, FULL METAL JACKET (see article attached) and I needed this ton of books and papers (600 pounds?) so that I might steal my ideas from the widest possible range of sources, the secret of good writing.
Of course there are stories of how the "name" author finds a young writer with talent, takes him under his literary wing, and guides him to fame and publication. There are no such literary giants in this neck of the woods. Maybe one will turn up. Until then I struggle on, with even a victory now and then. Though I enter the jungle alone, at the mercy of publishers and farsighted critics with broken glasses, I am confident of great reward. The writer's world is a challenge, and hard at times, but it attracts the finest people on this earth. These are the people that really live, and the only people that are really alive. Artists, writers, publishers, I love them all.
Lao-Tze pointed out
that nothing worth saying can be said with words. Words are crude
and clumsy things, objects of ink, ultimately imprecise. And writing
is as much fun as giving birth to a Howard Johnson’s. Writers learn
to live with that fact the way a soldier learns to live with fear or the
way a doctor learns to live with death. When the battle is lost,
the soldier attacks. When the case is hopeless, the doctor operates.
So writers write. And whereas soldiers and doctors are allowed to
bury their mistakes a writer is expected to publish his.
Being a writer was not my first choice for a profession. I would much prefer to be an archaeologist, a sculptor, or a country-western singer. But then I had all these ideas for books which came to me in a vision. Since then, I have been convinced that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I say. Yet my work remains a personal statement--I speak for no groups or social factions. I have no goals beyond the completion of my next story. The praise I seek from my readers is that they finish my books. After being alternately damned and praised for equally invalid reasons, I am content to trade fame for accuracy of interpretation. Fame, for a writer, is like being a dancing bear with a little hat on your head.
This essay was commissioned
by Aura Literary Arts Review, published by UAB (the University of
Alabama at Birmingham), and first saw print in the Spring 2002 issue.
In their critique of that issue, the Associoated Columbia Scholastic Press
commented, "This piece on Hasford is fascinating--I didn't know about him.
It was very interesting; excellent writing that reveals a 'real person.'"
An updated version of the essay was published in the Viet Nam War Generation Journal volume 2, number 1, in August 2002. The journal, edited by David Willson, was named "One of the Ten Best New Magazines of 2001" by the Library Journal.
Copies of either issue are available for purchase from their publishers.