Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Interview with Gus from SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY TELEGRAM-TRIBUNE, January 31, 1979

Morro Bay vet writes war novel
"You can't ignore" Vietnam
by Steve Churm

Gustav Hasford laughs a lot.

It's an infectious laugh that wells up deep inside his imposing frame and bursts forth with the staccato impact of a machine gun.  The roar of his rapid-fire chuckle is followed by a wide grin that splits his long, round face.  The grin is commonplace these days.

Tuesday was no exception.

Staring at the bleak, gray day from the living room of his Morro Bay home, he erupted again.

"Look at it," Hasford said, as the driving rain pelted his slick, concrete patio slab. "It was like this almost every day in Vietnam.  Hell of a place to vacation.  Ever been there?"

Most who have, went on orders--not by choice.

Those who haven't, should feel lucky, Hasford said.  

Richard Nixon was president in 1969.  Student riots at Kent State University had split the soft, vulnerable underbelly of American society.  Out poured bitterness and anger.  Vietnam was an undeclared war, fast escalating into the bloodiest and costliest conflict in history. 

Gustav "Gus" Hasford was a raw, untested 18-year-old.

He was a high school dropout, the son of a German aluminum factory worker.  He was also one of 30 boys in the deep South village of Russellville, Alabama, eligible for the draft.

Like so many, Hasford was faced with a no-win proposition:  Enlist or be drafted.

"In a sudden wave of patriotism I enlisted," Hasford said.  "Did I really have a choice?"

Six months later he was in Vietnam filing news reports as a frontline combat correspondent with the First Marine Division.  Sometimes he'd write 10 stories a day with such battlefield datelines as Hue, Da Nang and Quang Tri.

Each story was meticulous, composed to strengthen and promote the Marine image--all guts and no fear.  Fact became fiction; the truth was lost in the translation.

The tour of duty lasted 10 months for Hasford.  Then it was over.

He lived to come home and write his side of the story.

Gustav Hasford in 1979.

The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, published by Harper And Row, is a fast-paced novel about a sarcastic two-bit Marine combat reporter, whto rises to command a platoon in the wake of the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.

In the end, the reporter kills his earliest friend from boot camp in order to survive.

"It's not autobiographical," Hasford explained.

"Those that read it and know me, swear the main character, Joker, is me.  They're wrong.  Sure, the story is based on my experiences to a degree, but I've changed the names, places and times.

"No, Joker is a kind of vague character--by design.  The book is written in first-person, present tense to lure the reader into the character.  I want them to feel, taste and sense the experience.  He is like most of the young boys who fought in Vietnam.  They're all lost, undeveloped and downright scared.

"I want the readers to work.  They must make up their own mind about the book, and more importantly this brief excerpt from the war.  I can't hand them the answers."

Once discharged, and back in the States, Hasford started his own search for the answers.  One solution was to write The Short-Timers.

It took 10 years to finish and another three years to get published.

To bankroll the book, Hasford worked six-month stints as an editor and copyreader for a rack-full of so-called slick, girlie magazines in Los Angeles.

"It was tolerable if one understood it was to pay the way.  Listen, there were guys who were 45 and making a career at those magazines.  Fortunately I had something else."

That something else was The Short-Timers.

"After the war I was angry," Hasford said, sipping a beer and tilting backward in a swivel chair.  "The book proved to be therapeutic.

"I wrote for all those veterans who wanted to express themselves, but just couldn't.  Nobody seems to listen to them, but they know the real story.

"Veterans have either been ignored or made scapegoats for the war.  But they didn't want to go.  And when they lived to come home they were hassled and abused.  People asked them why they did all those horrible things.

"Particularly older folks are resentful of veterans.  It was those people who felt the war here at home--the loss of lives and limbs.  And it was those folks who pressed hardest for answers from veterans."

But Hasford admits peoples' attitude toward the war, its atrocities and its apparent failures and futility is slowly changing from bitterness to lukewarm acceptance.

"Three years ago you couldn't get a book like this published anywhere," he said, resting his chin on his long, boney fingers atop an electric typewriter.

Once Hasford's wife Charlene turns in at night, he writes till dawn.  Since his first story on coin identification appeared in Boy's Life for $5 when he was 14, Hasford has been a writer.

Now, at 31, his subject is Vietnam.

"The topic has mass appeal.  There's a natural curiosity with the war now.  It's become more of a historical event, something to study and draw conclusions from.

"At one time the word Vietnam could split a cocktail party faster than a brush fire.  On one side would be the bleeding hawks, the other the soft-stroking doves.

"Now people realize you just can't ignore the war.  It will always be something to scream, cry or laugh about."

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