If there is a novel
that illustrates the extremes to which the American soldier in Vietnam
was driven, then Gustav Hasford has written it. The author of Short
Timers, the novel from which Stanley Kubrick's movie Full
Metal Jacket was made, Hasford has written a sequel to that novel
which takes its reader from a hot fire base at Khe Sahn, to a Viet Cong
village, to a rehabilitation hospital, to an anti-war demonstration, to
a dirt road in Kansas.
Joker, or James Davis, the peace-nik turned soldier in the first novel, is again the narrator, and his hatred and bitterness color each of the scenes, providing the one constant in the novel's three sections. Joker is first seen as a Marine grunt, then as an enemy sympathizer, then as a wounded vet coming home to protests and a lack of understanding and care.
The novel begins with Khe Sahn under fire. Here Hasford fully captures the totality of the violence thesesoldiers faced. In their actions, their treatment of each other and the enemy, and even their language, the combatants reveal no respect not for anything. It is a book that thrusts its readers fully into war and all its accoutrements.
Joker leaves the base in search of the Phantom Blooper, a mysterious enemy figure. The major event in the novel is Joker's capture and transition from Marine to Viet Cong sympathizer once he is among the enemy, whose actions to protect their homeland and culture he comes to understand fully. Gentle and warm when not fighting, they are not what he had come to hate as the enemy.
However, the transition is largely undocumented. The second section, just after his capture, opens a year later with him comfortably living in an enemy village. He considers possibilities for escape but puts them off. Though this section illustrates the full character of the supposed enemy, it is difficult to see why Joker has changed.
Joker understands the enemy's defensive stance only when he returns to rural America and sees what he has been fighting for alongside what he has been fighting against. Though the conclusion, set in Kansas, reads like Hasford depended upon bad westerns for his dialogue, it effectively shows Joker struggling to find home.
This is no glorified version of war; there are no heroes. Hasford makes this clear from the start, where he dedicates the book to the veterans of the Vietnam War, "three million loyal men and women who were betrayed by their country." The book is a major contribution to our continuing examination of the Vietnam War.
John S. Nelson is an assistant professor of English at Saint Mary of the Plains College, Dodge City.
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