Killing Ground
by Walter Clemons
NEWSWEEK, January 1, 1979


    This brief, extremely ugly first novel is the best work of fiction about the Vietnam war I've read.  Gustav Hasford was a combat correspondent with the First Marine Division:  his fictional narrator, nicknamed "Joker," serves as a combat reporter before taking command of a grunt platoon during the defense of Khe Sanh, where his outstanding act of leadership is to facilitate a retreat by killing his earliest friend from boot camp.
    The Short-Timers is a study of brutalization, narrated with a fastidious nonchalance that only a careless reader will mistake for lack of feeling.  Its marines are trained killers whose aim is easily deflected toward themselves:  at the end of training at Parris Island, the private who has been named outstanding recruit is overheard talking amorously to his gun after lights out; when interrupted, he put the loaded weapon in his mouth and fires.  Shipped to Vietnam in time to face the Tet offensive, the others take their place in the corps that "came to be called by many the finest instrument ever devised for the killing of young Americans," as Michael Herr told us in Dispatches.
    Hasford's book is glancingly funny.  Joseph Heller, who has influenced most war novels written since his, might be glad to have thought of a field commander named General Motors.  The talk is sharp and convincing, as is a shot of a CBS camera crew "surrounded by star-struck grunts who strike combat-Marine poses, pretending to be what they are."  The horrors, when they occur, are described with a matter-of-fact swiftness and economy that make one blink.  It's not easy nowadays to shock the reader; Hasford does it repeatedly.  "Why talk about it?" one of his marines says.  "The Nam can kill me, but it can't make me care."  Joker delivers the book's motto:  "In this world of shit you won't have time to understand.  What you do, you become."
    Frieze Figures:  This excellent novel has a severe limitation.  Hasford is so determined not to write schmaltz that he seldom allows himself the open portrayal of feeling.  His best page, describing the killing of a 15-year-old girl sniper, is an exception.  His characters -- Rafter Man, Cowboy, Animal Mother, Alice and Donlon -- are frieze figures, insufficiently differentiated.  One must read the book twice to remember that the man whom the narrator kills at Khe Sanh was his first friend in training camp.  The Short-Timers is, nonetheless, an unnerving achievement.

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