Death becomes a bore
by J.B.
THE NEW REPUBLIC, January 27, 1979

    Death is the subject of this Vietnam War novel.  It is 154 pages long, and on what feels like 150 of those pages there are bloody and artistically implausible killings administered by whatever means of obliteration Gustav Hasford's obsessed imagination can contrive.  That, unfortunately, is all Hasford's imagination can do.  His characters--they have nicknames like "T.H.E. Rock" and "Mr. Payback"; the narrator is a certain "Joker"--are mere targets; and his story, which involves Joker's reluctance to take command of his squad (would you want to head a squad with T.H.E. Rock in it?), has neither impelling force nor unfolding logic.  Will the next victim get it in the eye or the groin?  Will it be a Marine run over by a water buffalo or a hapless Vietnamese farmer shot from a helicopter gun-ship?  That is the only kind of narrative expectancy--there is no suspense--Hasford builds up.  One reads on from morbid motives only.
    Mr. Hasford was a combat reporter in Vietnam, and this novel is clearly his way of discharging some very painful memories.  The Short-Timers may be an effective purgation, but as a novel it not only fails to move but to interest.  Death, so obsessively meted out, becomes a bore.
    Out of sympathy for Hasford's palpable pain, tender-hearted critics will be tempted to praise The Short-Timers.  If they do, watch out for the old imitative fallacy in its immediately plausible guise.  Vietnam, their apology is likely to go, was a body count war--that is, a war in which the sole military objective was death.  In making his novel a chronicle of death, Hasford has thus created a fictional model which reflects the truth about Vietnam.  The trouble with this logic is that Hasford's model is so meagerly imagined.  The tragedy of the war was that it destroyed full human beings with psyches torn by conflicting loyalties and fears, not the mannequins Hasford offers us, spouting their Spartan dialogue, enacting the Marine cult of cruelty and silence and dying their cardboard deaths, unmourned, unmissed.

Read the letter Gus wrote in response to this review.

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