“What you do, you become.”
The full text of Gustav Hasford’s half-legendary The Short Timers is available in its entirety online. You should go read it. In its own way, it’s a classic.
This is the book on which Stanley Kubrick’s (inferior, in my opinion) Full Metal Jacket was based. As you probably know if you’re at all familiar with the film, it’s a detailed, graphic description of what war and the culture of war do to the people closest to its prosecuting edge. Hasford is particularly strong on what happens to language under these conditions, the flat, banalized and roughly poetic stew of jargon, invective and malign power-words into which the spoken language deforms. I’ll admit to having taken a certain glee in this deformation in my time; it was one of my favorite things about being in the Army. For sure, no ripe habitué of the Deux Magots ever got any closer to an understanding of existentialism than that enshrined in the grunts’ compulsive observation: “There it is.”
You won’t find every last word of the snarling runs of genius-level humiliation you probably remember from the film’s Parris Island sequence – apparently a good deal of that was improvised on the spot by former DI R. Lee Ermey – but Short-Timers nonetheless captures perfectly the cadence and sense of the spoken language as it’s used by people who know perfectly well they’re little more than fungible components of a sprawling, indifferent war machine; in that, it’s kind of a companion piece to Michael Herr’s luminous Dispatches, which remains one of my all-time favorite books.
I don’t believe that people who have never been in combat can ever really wrap their heads around what it entails – and I haven’t, so it’s certainly possible that I’m talking out my ass here – but these books strike me as being about as close as most of us are ever going to get. I would hope that onlookers, and most especially those that claim to “support the troops,” would do the men and women actually involved the courtesy of trying to reckon with their experience (even at one remove, through reading works like these) before letting themselves discourse of surges and their “effectiveness” and so on. You wouldn’t think that’d be too much to ask, but recent history sadly suggests otherwise.