The Phantom Blooper
continues the story of Joker, the Marine in Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers
who is forced to kill his friend Cowboy when Cowboy is pinned down and
repeatedly shot by a Vietnamese sniper.
Now busted in rank, Joker has a battle-tempered edge that makes him a take-charge soldier anyway, in the last days of the Marine stand at Khe Sanh.
He has taken to running through the wet clay of no man's land wearing nothing but a Stetson with a peace button attached, being laughed at by the ''Phantom Blooper." Thought to be a Marine, the Phantom Blooper arrives every night with a "blooper" - an M-79 grenade launcher - and attacks the Americans.
One night Joker, naked but for his Stetson and mud, is captured by the Viet Cong and carried away to a farming village. He already has dreamed of a Viet Cong connection with the soil of Vietnam.
"The Americans fill up the soil with Viet Cong bones, really fill it up, totally, so that the Viet Cong farmers can't find one ounce of earth in which to plant a rice stalk. . . . On a night when there's no moon to shine on their magic, the Viet Cong bones reassemble themselves into people. Finally, talking and laughing, the Viet Cong are free to walk hand to hand across the surface of their own land, the land of their ancestors."
Joker cannot support the U.S. mission in Vietnam; he comes instead to support the morality of the Viet Cong. Eventually, when he returns to the United States, he finds less of a home than he did with the Viet Cong.
There are elements of brilliance in the execution of The Phantom Blooper, if not in its overall view. It leaves out too much of the horror perpetrated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese before, during and after the war to be a completely successful effort. Still, the writing is often brilliant and enthralling, and it is as real and raw as a bleeding, sucking chest wound.
"You cannot defeat us," a Viet Cong printer tells Joker. "You do not even know who we are. You cannot even see us. Your country lives inside a dream and tries to kill anything outside of the dream, but we live in the real world, so you cannot kill us."
Later, Joker is attacked by a U.S. helicopter and draws the printer's conclusion for himself:
"I can see the pilot's face before he drops his sun visor and squeezes his thumb on the red firing button on the toggle switch. The pilot is an up-and- coming young executive in the biggest corporation the world has ever seen, and through his gunsights people on the ground are not human beings at all but are only A's running toward his report card."
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