Book Review: The Short-Timers

We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.

You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!

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Like all my book reviews, this isn’t really a book review. It’s more of a reaction.

After finishing Love My Rifle More Than You, I wanted to take a short break from war books. They can be draining. Unfortunately, I came across this blog post (by way of The Fighting Leprechaun) that argues Stanley Kubrick messed up the movie Full Metal Jacket (one of my favorites) by not sticking to some of the original plotlines in the novel it is based on, The Short-Timers. Mistakenly, I always thought that FMJ was based on Michael Herr’s Dispatches – it turns out that was Apocalypse Now.

As you can see, it all gets pretty confusing.

As a big fan of FMJ, I set out to read The Short-Timers and it totally sucked me in. Lots of the dialogue in FMJ is lifted right off the pages of The Short-Timers, and it was interesting to read the book with the images I already had of Joker, Cowboy, GySgt Gernheim, and Animal Mother in my head. In some cases this made the dialogue jump out at me, since I could hear Joker imitating John Wayne in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I was just reading the novel for the first time. But it also handicapped me in other ways. I loved Animal Mother in FMJ as a necessary evil. The guy you need in your squad, despite wanting to admit it. The “you need me on that wall” guy. In The Short-Timers, Animal Mother is hardly likable at all. He’s still a bad-ass, but he is a war criminal and a menace.

I’ve read a number of Vietnam books recently, and a lot of them were good. This book, however, really made me hate war. It was graphic and probably hyperbolic (it is a semi-autobiographical novel, after all). I found myself uncomfortable and disgusted reading it, but not able to stop.

Figuring that I was going to write a reaction blog to the book, I started to highlight a couple of passages that stuck out to me, because they were either similar to modern experiences or the opposite.

This is Cowboy talking to Joker about how the war is fucked up and why he can’t risk any more marines to try to take out a sniper that has already killed some of the squad. The whole dialogue is interesting, plus there’s the feeling of betrayal for not being able to hoist the American flag, something that was experienced in GWOT as well.

 Cowboy spits, his face a sweaty stone. “After the NVA pulled out, the lifers sent in the Arvin Black Panthers to take the Forbidden City. Shit. Nothing left but rearguard squads. We stomped the NVA and they stomped us and the lifers send in the Arvins, like the goddamn Arvins did it. Mr. Shortround said it was their country, said we was only helping out, said it would boost the morale of the Vietnamese people. Well, fuck the Vietnamese people. The horrible hogs in hard, hungry Hotel Company ran up an America flag. Like an Iwo Jima. But some poge officers ordered them to take it down. The snuffies had to run up the stinking Vietnamese flag, which is yellow, which is the right color for these chickenshit people. We’re getting slaughtered in this city. And we can’t even run up a fucking flag. I just can’t hack this shit, bro. My job is to get my people back to the World in one piece.” Cowboy coughs, spits, wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Under fire, these are the best human beings in the world. All they need is for somebody to throw hand grenades at them for the rest of their lives… These guys depend on me. I can’t send my people out to get that sniper, Joker. I might lose the whole squad.”

Clearing roads for mines/IEDs. Not a new thing.

 I was writing a feature article about how the grunts at the Rock pile on Route Nine had to sweep the road for mines every morning before any traffic could use the road.

Probably one of my favorite lines from the book. This line is a part of a long stream of consciousness explanation of how Joker sees himself as part of the machine, his place in the war.

In the darkness I am one with Khe Sahn – a living cell of this place – this erupted pimple of sandbags and barbed wire on a bleak plateau surrounded by the end of the world.

I find myself fascinated more and more with Vietnam not because it seems familiar – which it does at times – but how completely foreign the experience seems from my own. It’s something I’ll need to write about later.

After finishing The Short-Timers, I came across a couple of related and interesting articles. Gustav Hasford, the author of the novel, died in 1993. Someone runs a blog in his honor that runs pieces by or about him from time to time. The lead was this one, titled VIETNAM MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY. It’s a railing against Hollywood and especially the depiction of Vietnam veterans a lá Rambo. It’s fantastic.

Then, while searching for the etymology of the phrase “Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?” which was used in both the movie and the book, I came across this scholarly article about myth and myth making in America from WWII through Vietnam. It’s really fascinating. John Wayne was the hero that simultaneously made war palpable to the Vietnam generation but was rejected when the reality of war – and homecoming – became apparent.

Who is the John Wayne of our generation?

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