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!

timers2

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 lĂĄ 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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Grunt lingo: “There it is” (Vietnam)

There it is.
There it is.  (pic from the blog “We’re Just Sayin”)

Over the past few months, I’ve read a number of books about Vietnam. I’m currently reading The Short-Timers which is the book that Full Metal Jacket is based off of (along with Michael Herr’s Dispatches). I’ve come across the phrase “there it is” numerous times and for the most part just glossed over it. Eventually, I realized that it was part of the lingo, but a phrase that has completely fallen out of favor. I’ve never heard any service member or veteran say the phrase. So I started Googling and this is what I came up with.

From Urban Dictionary:

English phrase, the literal meaning of which is obvious.In American English, the phrase is commonly associated with American servicemen in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, with American veterans of the Vietnam War. The particular usage of American servicemen varied wildly. While the phrase could be used literally, it was often used in a figurative, and decidedly fatalistic, sense. The meaning was usually something along the lines of, “I cannot put into words what I mean, but this situation/scene/event/dead body/etc contains all the truth necessary to understand precisely what I mean, if you can only see it through the right eyes. I don’t know how to express that truth or I do know the right words but it would be too painful for me to actually express them.”

The phrase was the most common example of “grunt lingo” and was repeated ad nauseum.

There it is, they’d say, over and over, as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing without going. There it is, which meant be cool, let it ride, because oh yeah, man, you can’t change what can’t be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and fucking well is.

Better, is this blog post I found from the blog “We’re Just Sayin.”

“There it is
.” There is what? you ask. And just where IS ‘there?’ Well no sense in trying to read too much into it. “There it is
” said with a flat tone, mildly strong emphasis building up to “is” was the one lingua franca which all GIs shared. Well, officers, not so much. But if you were under the age of 25, had been drafted, and didn’t particularly want to BE in Vietnam, “there it is” was your key to sanity. The three words which let you express your profound emotional mĂ©lange of disgust, annoyance, fear, despair, surprise, acceptance, satisfaction, and occasionally contentment. Once I arrived in Saigon in October, 1970 and began a two year interaction with the world the American GI, it was a phrase which meant so little, yet so much. You could almost say that it meant whatever you wanted it to mean, and be interpreted almost any way. It often just served as a coda in conversation. It was the comment which had the force of finality in a discussion where soldiers were otherwise unable to explain something. “There it is
” was a way of just saying, ‘yeah, that’s how it is here, and this is how we have to deal with it.’ What has always surprised me is that once back home, the phrase seemed to disappear. The context for its usage was gone. Without the very personal, very weird, perplexing, illogical elements of the war lived first hand, it seemed to no longer have a proper context.

Maybe I’m out of touch, but I can’t think of a comparable line that we have in the Army today that has the same resonance.

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Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!

I finished two books over the past week: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The first is a classic that I just never got around to reading until now and the second is what I hope might become a new classic.

The Things They Carried, like many good war stories, blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, and in doing so comes closer to telling the truth of “what it’s like” than any straight telling of the facts ever could. Some of the stories are so fantastical that they seemingly cannot be true, yet they tell something deeper about war and soldiering in combat that just could not be told any other way (the improbable story of Mary Anne Bell, for example – the peppy girlfriend of a soldier who flies to Vietnam to be with her boyfriend and instead becomes consumed by the war, teaming up with a team of hardened Green Berets and going on ambushes).

Weaving between time in Vietnam, time before the war, and time after the war, O’Brien tells the story from his omniscient position as a “43 year old writer, twenty years after leaving Vietnam.” O’Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman which helps legitimize the detailed descriptions of life in Vietnam. One of the strongest parts of the book is dedicated to O’brien’s personal struggle before the war deciding whether to attempt to dodge the draft.

While most of the book discusses O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam, I would classify this as a post-war book. This isn’t a historical recounting of battles or a chronological record of a deployment experience. It’s a looking back at the totality of a war experience and a retelling of that experience after years of thought and analysis. And that retelling has been embellished and filtered to get to a more accurate “truth” even if some of the individual stories are blatant lies.

Unlike Tim O’Brien, Ben Fountain did not serve in the military, which made me skeptical about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The author’s lack of military service or experience left me wondering how the story would unfold and I was immediately looking for the author to simply use the story of soldiers to tell some other, “greater” lesson. While it might be argued that this book uses the ‘coming home’ story of a squad of soldiers to paint a picture of modern day America, Fountain gets so much right that to me, it’s a legit post-war story, even though entire thing is a work of fiction.

The gist of the story is this: a squad of infantrymen gets into an intense firefight early in the Iraq War and that firefight is caught on camera by a Fox News crew. The video shows the squad taking it to the enemy and it becomes a feel-good morale booster for a home-front completely cutoff from the reality of the war and starved of any good news stories in the first couple of years after the September 11th attacks. The squad is then sent home from Iraq on a two-week “victory tour” which culminates in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where the squad will participate in the Halftime Show of a Cowboys/Bears game.

I don’t know how, but Fountain manages to capture both the zeitgeist of what it was like to come home in those early days of the Iraq War and the complete feeling of emptiness that going to war and coming back can have for soldiers. The book will resonate with any veteran that has been to a bar and showered with awkward “thank you’s” as patrons glanced over briefly before turning back to their beers or who were forced to stand up to be recognized at some event, where the act of thanking seemed more a cathartic exercise for the thanker than the thanked.

Billy Lynn’s squad (known as “Bravo Squad” because the media mangled the unit designation – they were part of a Bravo Company) is constantly peppered with questions about what it was like to shoot the enemy in such a non-chalant manner because their exploits became a media sensation. With the exception of a few cutback scenes, the entire story takes place in the less than 24 period that the squad spends in their last day at Texas Stadium for the Bears/Cowboys game. They are shuffled around, moving from their sideline seats, to the owners’ box, to the locker room for an awkward meeting between the soldiers and some of the Cowboys, who begrudgingly sign autographs for the soldiers and some young children with cancer while they get ready for the game. All the while, the squad is followed by a Hollywood agent who is trying to spin their story into a movie. The soldiers, who are being hailed as heroes everywhere they go and who have become celebrities of the week are told they can expect a huge pay-day for the exclusive rights to their story. The rub comes when that “support our troops” attitude meets the reality of people having to lay down real money – a sentiment that has been felt by many veterans who have heard in the same sentence “I support the troops and thank you for your service, but there is nothing I can do.”

Like The Things They Carried, one of the key issues comes when Billy’s sister tries to connect him with an anti-war group that specializes in getting soldiers out of the military. Billy flirts with the idea of deserting, in the same way O’Brien flirted with the idea of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.

The central question that hung in my mind as I read both books was “what is the deeper meaning of all this?” It seems that in post-war stories, the author is trying to tease out what the purpose of the war was, not on a strategic level, but on a personal level. What does my service mean for me?  Both books left me wondering what it all means. Neither book provided an answer, and I’m not sure there is one or that one will ever exist.

The New York Times Review of The Things They Carried
The New York Times Review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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