“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.

8 responses to ““What you do, you become.””

  1. Tim says :

    You probably already know about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, but it seemed a fitting companion to the book above.

  2. speedbird says :

    Indeed I do, thanks. I’m very, very fond of the title story – I’ve sung its praises on many an occasion – and less so the others in the volume. Never have read his other novels, though. Have you?

  3. Tim says :

    I haven’t. I’ve added his first book to my list. And it’s been years since I read The Things They Carried. I think I’ll put that on my list as well.

    I was a Gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (M3, the Scout version) in the first Gulf War. I never experienced war in the intensity or duration O’Brien and others did, but he certainly nailed the mind set.

  4. Paul Raven says :

    Thanks for the heads-up, that’s a title I’ve not read yet. I have no military experience whatsoever, but enjoyed Dispatches and The Things ... very much, because of not only the lack of glorification but the lack of false piousness also. Have you read Meditations In Green by Stephen Wright? That’s probably my favourite Vietnam novel, although it’s plainly more ‘fictionalised’ than the others … not that I think it’s any less based on the truth, but that the symbolism is deployed in a much more consciously literary manner.

  5. speedbird says :

    Paul, I absolutely loved Meditations when I first encountered it at the age of 14 or 15, and on a second reading when I was in my mid-20s (but prior to my enlistment). For whatever reason, though, it simply didn’t stand up to a third, post-Army reading in my mid-30s. Not sure what that means. It is just possible that what happened in between was that I read Wright’s Going Native, which I found…upsetting.

    I am realizing, in the course of talking with you guys, that without much thinking about it I’ve actually compiled a decent survey of the “Vietnam literature,” at least on the fictional side of the house. On the historical side, I’ve only read Hell In a Very Small Place, FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake, and A Bright, Shining Lie – all of which I recommend very highly – and a stack of SOG- and SF-related histories I wasn’t so impressed by.

    I’ve found these books invaluable, but honestly, Dispatches is the one I keep coming back to. It’s That Good.

  6. Claus says :

    On comparison (and even on first viewing) Full Metal Jacket is much too restless, too goal oriented in getting to the gruesome end and Jokers initiation rite as hard core. The flow of the book works a lot better, each page worthwhile on its own.
    Good find.

  7. Vidiot says :

    yes, good finds indeed. I haven’t read many of the VN novels out there, and I’m enjoying “The Short Timers.” Second your recommendations for “A Bright Shining Lie” and especially “Fire in the Lake”, one of the few books from college that I’ve kept over the years.

  8. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Thanks for posting this, Adam … it is a great read, indeed more fulfilling than Full Metal Jacket. Have you, by any chance, checked out Stuart Cooper’s 1975 film Overlord? It is a narrative of a young British recruit, interspliced with footage from the Normandy invasion. The cinematographer on the film was John Alcott, who also shot Kubrick’s The Shining, Barry Lyndon, and A Clockwork Orange.

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