The most persistent source of anguish in war stories may be the inability to tell them: the sense of a vast experiential and moral distance between the battlefield and the home front. The gap between what we did over there and what they know about us back at home continues to stun returning soldiers. Today’s anodyne phrase, “Thank you for your service,” conveys the same sense of incommunicability and incomprehension—the impression of “a distance, a veil”—that narrator Paul Bäumer recounted almost 90 years ago in All Quiet on the Western Front.
The recent wave of Iraq War fiction is as fixated on that gap as the novels of World War One. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain’s protagonist is besieged by a “fervor” of self-congratulatory gratitude, by a relentless attack of thank-yous that bring tears to the eyes of the people uttering them, so full are they of “love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness.” But that doesn’t make his stateside reception any less “weird and frightening.” In Phil Klay’s story “Bodies,” a marine who served in Mortuary Affairs reports the same experience: “I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for.”
Joker, the narrator of Gustav Hasford’s 1979 Vietnam War novel The Short-Timers, is perfectly aware of that veil between “in country” and “the World.” What makes his story so startling, even all these years (and wars) later, is that he couldn’t care less what we make of it. Joker addresses the World from in country, but he never agonizes over his or our understanding of what he has become. “In this world of shit you won’t have time to understand,” he counsels Rafter Man, a “New Guy” in the correspondents’ corps at Da Nang. Joker’s present-tense narration describes his hardening without sentiment, self-justification, or apology—with consciousness but without introspection. His detachment tells us all we need to know about how he “feels.”
Hasford’s narrator never bothers—or maybe it would be more accurate to say never condescends—to translate or explain.
If you, like me, come to The Short-Timers after seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 adaptation, Full Metal Jacket, Hasford’s Joker will look and sometimes sound like Matthew Modine. But there are crucial differences: the blandness of Modine’s voiceover and his character’s general befuddlement contrast with Joker’s relentless and unsettling irony in the novel. When the deranged Leonard kills the drill sergeant who has tormented him in boot camp, the Joker of The Short-Timers doesn’t shrink back in fear that he might be next. Instead, he calmly reflects on what has gone wrong in the process of turning this particular Marine recruit into a killer: “Leonard is not hard enough to harness the power of an interior explosion to propel the cold black bullet of his will.”
Hasford jumps from the boot camp scene (“The Spirit of the Bayonet”) to Joker waiting for his next assignment, writing “upbeat news features” to pass along to civilian correspondents. He is bemused that Rafter Man “can still be touched” by the letters the USO delivers from “children back in the World”; to Joker, “the letters are like shoes for the dead, who do not walk.” We learn that Joker has “been in the shit,” but we don’t get an account of what he has seen and done and how it has changed him, and he doesn’t provide one to Rafter Man either.
“There it is,” Joker and the other grunts often say. In The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien feels the need to furnish a translation of that enigmatic phrase: “Oh yeah, man, you can’t change what can’t be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and fucking well is.” Behind all his tough talk and cynical quips, that novel’s narrator constantly struggles with his responsibility for participating in and adequately telling the “true war stories” that this talk and these jokes try to gloss over. Hasford’s Joker, though, never bothers—or maybe it would be more accurate to say never condescends—to translate or explain. When he greets brutality with mordant humor, there is nothing behind it—no sensitive soul wanting sympathy, solace, or redemption.
Kubrick’s film files off many of The Short-Timer’s rough edges. Full Metal Jacket’s Joker follows a trajectory from innocence to experience, or at least from softness to toughness; the battle of Hue serves as his rite of passage. In the film’s climactic scene, the pursuit of a sniper in a decimated building, his rifle jams and he cowers behind a column while Rafter Man shoots the young woman. Mortally wounded, she pleads with the grunts to finish her off, and Joker reluctantly kills her. The Short-Timers’ Joker doesn’t betray fear when the sniper is poised to kill him, and he is matter-of-fact about killing her. “She recognizes me,” he says, “I am the one who will end her life. We share a bloody intimacy.” His friend Cowboy confirms what we already know: “Joker, that’s a well done. You’re hard.” No rite of passage here. Joker is provocatively static in the novel, moving chronologically but not progressively through its incidents, counting down his days in country like the other soldiers who give The Short-Timers its title.
Kubrick’s films are notoriously cold. The Short-Timers is colder. Its third section, “Grunts,” vanishes from Full Metal Jacket, and it is not hard to see why. “Grunts” takes Joker to the siege of Khe Sanh, where another sniper picks off members of the squad. Cowboy is shot, and Joker must fulfill his obligation as a Marine never to leave wounded comrades behind:
Bang. I sight down the short metal tube and I watch my bullet enter Cowboy’s left eye. My bullet passes through his eye socket, punches through fluid-filled sinus cavities, through membranes, nerves, arteries, muscle tissue, through tiny blood vessels that feed three pounds of gray butter-soft high protein meat where brain cells arranged like jewels in a clock hold every thought and memory and dream of one adult male Homo sapiens.
Then Joker tells a joke: a final verdict on his distance from the World, where “Nobody asks us why we’re smiling because nobody wants to know.” He looks into the faces of the squad and says, “Man-oh-man, Cowboy looks like a bag of leftovers from a V.F.W. barbecue. Of course, I’ve got nothing against dead people. Why, some of my best friends are dead!” There it is.
Hasford took a line from Michael Herr’s chilling Dispatches (1977) as the epigraph for “The Spirit of the Bayonet”—“I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods”—and Herr in turn collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket. But Hasford’s overlooked novel achieves something that sets him apart from both his Vietnam peers and recent chroniclers of Iraq: a verdict on war literature that goes beyond despair over the inadequacies of language, beyond even Hemingway’s famous disavowal of “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow” and embrace of the “dignity” of “the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
Joker’s narration recalls the voice of the anonymous grunt in Dispatches who not only dismisses the “overripe bullshit” of official euphemisms, but also cuts through Herr’s own literary self-consciousness—and any hope of salvaging dignity—with a vicious statement of the war’s true purpose: “We’re here to kill gooks. Period.” When nobody really bothers to try to distinguish between enemy fighters and civilians, when “progress” can only be measured by body counts and “kill ratios,” the evasions offered up by bureaucrats or politicians are obscenities, and writers’ hand-wringing over how to bridge the gap between the war front and the home front is pointless. “Don’t kid yourself, Rafter Man,” Joker advises the New Guy. “This is a slaughter.” Joker jokes, but he doesn’t kid.