The Phantom Blooper
WEST COAST REVIEW OF BOOKS, 1990


    Gustav Hasford's second novel begins where the first one, The Short-Timers (filmed as Full Metal Jacket) left off.  Private Joker is still at Khe Sanh, which is about to be abandoned by American Marines after withstanding a two-month siege.  Most of the characters from the first book are dead, even the seemingly indestructible Animal Mother.  Joker blames their deaths on The Phantom Blooper, supposedly an American, armed with an M-79, who fights alongside the Vet Cong against his countrymen.
    The Phantom Blooper is a fantasy, called forth from the storehouse of rumors that accompany any war.  Hasford quotes an August 1968 Newsweek article that tells of Marines near Phu Bai insisting that an American soldier, maybe many American soldiers, are fighting with the Viet Cong.  Hasford follows this lead to an ending that culminates in ultimate truth.
    Having killed his friend Cowboy to save him and his squad from being shot to pieces by a sniper, Private Joker takes off the night before the Marines are to leave Khe Sanh in search of the Phantom Blooper, who has become all the unknowns, the unexpecteds that men encountered in Vietnam.
    Joker is captured by the VC and held as their prisoner.  Wrapped in the rhythms of village life, he learns about the people he has been trying to kill.  He knows he is supposed to try to escape, but tells himself he is watched too closely.  Finally, he is recaptured by Americans and sent home to his family farm in Alabama.
    The Short-Timers was a novel about death, real death, metaphoric death, heroic death, senseless death.  The Phantom Blooper is a novel about life.  In the VC village, Joker learns a simple truth:  the people he has been trained to kill are people like himself.  They are farmers, trying to get by.  There is more courage and heroism in their struggle to survive than in all the John Wayne movies put together.  One country has betrayed the men it sent to fight the war.  American farmboys were told to kill Vietnamese farmboys, and before you can kill the enemy you must dehumanize him.  Joker comes back full of rage for the purveyors of that lie.  In fighting a war, we become the thing we hate and fear--the dehumanized and dehumanizing killer.  In search of the Phantom Blooper, Joker becomes the Phantom Blooper, one of us becomes one of them.  Or, as Pogo put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
 
 

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