Sunday, May 25, 2014


 By Gustav Hasford

Sleep, America.
Silence is a warm bed.
Sleep your nightmares of small
     cries cut open now
     in the secret places of
Black Land, Bamboo City.

Sleep tight, America
     dogtags eating sweatgrimaced
Five O'clock news: My son the Meat.

Laughing scars, huh?
     Novocained fist.
Squeeze every window empty
     then hum.

Fear only the natural unreality
     and kiss nostalgia goodbye.
Bayonet teddy bear and snore.
Bad dreams are something you ate.
     So sleep, you mother.

From Winning Hearts and Minds, a collection of poetry by Vietnam vets, published in 1972.

"I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War while I was still in Vietnam. About February, '68. Also, I had a poem in Winning Hearts and Minds, published by the First Casualty Press, which was the first anthology of writing about the war by the veterans themselves."
--Gus Hasford, LA Times Magazine, June 28, 1987

Editorial, L.A. Times, 1980

Still Gagging on the Bitterness of Vietnam 
By Gustav Hasford
LOS ANGELES TIMES, April 30, 1980

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. After millions of words have been written trying to determine the lessons of Vietnam, I can only share what I, as a Vietnam veteran, believe that I have learned. (I am not, and will never be, a spokesman for Vietnam veterans. I speak for myself alone.)

The very first thing that I have learned about Vietnam as a writer is that I am no longer talking to two-thirds of you. The word "Vietnam" in the first sentence of this article triggered a negative response somewhere, and most of you are about to turn the page. To those stalwart few who remain: Welcome to the world of the disenchanted.

The second thing that I have learned after 12 years as an unreconstructed Vietnam veteran is that, while I deeply respect, and would fight to preserve, the Constitution of the United States, I am now and must remain a devoted enemy of the federal government of the United States.

Talking about Vietnam, I have learned, is like talking about cancer at the dinner table. For more than a decade now, my friends have humored me in what they have called my "tiresome obsession" as I continue to work at understanding the roots and lessons of our involvement in Vietnam. It is difficult for them to understand what I mean when I attempt to explain that I cannot forget the war because there's gunpowder in my cereal bowl.

I write about the war in Vietnam in a more or less futile attempt to convince a dwindling handful of people that an important part of the American dream is dead and down there in the tomb with John F. Kennedy. When the battle is lost, the soldier attacks. When the cancer is malignant, the doctor operates. So do writers write. And I echo the words of Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, who said: "They should be glad that I came home from Vietnam and wrote a book. I could have bought a gun."

I am not an expert on the Vietnam War. All I know is what I read in the newspapers and what I observed as a Marine Corps war correspondent in Vietnam.

During the five years since the fall of Saigon, I have learned almost nothing about the longest war in U.S. history from television, except that the world is full of violent Vietnam veterans who have inconvenient memories of combat experiences and who subsequently shoot at people they believe to be Viet Cong. After a satisfyingly dramatic climax, the crazed veterans are captured unharmed and turned over to sympathetic social workers by compassionate SWAT teams. Recently, the TV executives who during the war cut from body bags to beer commercials have given us a new sitcom called "Six O'Clock Follies," featuring two GI reporters and a "cute weather girl" in the Armed Forces radio station in Saigon.

The most important truth that I have learned about Vietnam came from the Academy Award-winning documentary, Hearts and Minds, when Daniel Ellsberg, with tears in his eyes, said that when he heard that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated he suddenly felt that there was no longer any hope of changing America.

From politicians the verdict on our Vietnam adventure has been more encouraging. Jimmy Carter, the first political faith-healer to win the presidency, has granted the American people a verbal presidential pardon for any and all sins that we might have committed in Vietnam, and has officially designated Vietnam to be over and done with, case closed, blood under the bridge. Henry A. Kissinger, for whom no American ever voted, has called Vietnam a "mere footnote" to the great achievement of the new relationship with China. And former President Richard M. Nixon, ignominiously forced to leave the White House after the Watergate scandal, has assured us that Vietnam was "America's finest hour."

From my fellow citizens I have learned that people fear change more than they fear oppression. We Americans are like cancer patients who prefer to die before accepting the fact that we have sickness that requires treatment.

From my fellow veterans I have learned the most meaningful lessons of all. Vietnam veterans in America are the children of Frankenstein; you know that you are a Vietnam veteran when your sister won't let you hold her baby. I have learned that for many Vietnam veterans life is a flower without color. Vietnam veterans are often unable to transcend Vietnam, to build on the experience, to go beyond the war to other stages of their lives. For many of us, the Vietnam experience damned the American way of life as a lie from top to bottom. The war shot away our roots.

I've seen the quiet vets who work organizing rap sessions, who publish newspapers for veterans, who have marched arm in arm into forests of police batons. But I have met the casualties as well. I've met the closet veterans who deny that they served in the war at all, cowed vets who are intimidated by their peers' demand that they repudiate their true experiences and perform as dishonest mimics of themselves, touting the exciting fabricated war stories that everybody wants to hear. I've met the bitter veterans with "bad-paper" discharges who hate themselves and everybody else, too. And the maimed and the lame, the blind and the speechless, the victims of Agent Orange who love their deformed children fiercely, the multiple amputees who needed assistance when they came to throw their Purple Hearts and Silver Stars onto the steps of the Capitol, the apprentices at suicide, the angry and violent veterans who vowed to turn the guns around, who swore that "If we fight again it will be to take these steps . . . the Capitol steps . . . ." And then there are the endless ranks of psychic burnouts, the zombie veterans who were killed in action for all intents and purposed but who don't know enough to lie down and die. And I have met dozens and dozens of Vietnam veterans who tell me that they have been completely unaffected by the war, while it is obvious that they have pushed it down deep, that they have swallowed a whole continent of pain and sadness that remains undigested and is choking them one day at a time.

Hawks hate the Vietnam veterans for being a candy-ass who couldn't get the job done; those World War II boys won their war and didn't whine about how tough it was, either. Doves hate the Vietnam veteran because, in their view, each and every one routinely slaughtered helpless civilians, especially babies.

America's breast is a milkless stone, and she demands heroes from her sons. A recent Harris poll shows that 63% of the American people feel that Vietnam veterans "were made suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong place at the wrong time." Vietnam veterans probably will in fact go down in history as "suckers," but we fall from glory alongside the nation that bred us, because a country that degrades, stigmatizes and humiliates its young for committing the heinous crime of steadfast loyalty can no longer be trusted or taken seriously by anyone. Even animals protect their young.

What have I learned about Vietnam from the federal government? I have learned, for one thing, that politics is a ballet of devils, and that politicians, with paper roses falling out of their mouths, cannot conceal the blood from distant wounds that stains their neckties--but they do try, and millions do listen and believe, and choose not to see.

Vietnam, in my opinion, never ended. Peace is only a continuation of hypocrisy by other means, just as Watergate, for example, was a continuation of Vietnam by other means. Now, five years after the last American soldier left the soil of Vietnam, the sum of our added knowledge is small. Smug in our apathy, few of us would take time to admit that today's problems might in some way be related to the war in Vietnam.

Our refusal to face our Vietnam experience honestly has meant that the national nightmare of Vietnam continues to poison this country's sense of itself, and that refusal postpones the needed reckoning with our own dark history as well.

Today, I talk to the 19-year-old children who will soon be dead in the Oil Wars (to them Vietnam is some kind of Chinese breakfast food), and their face-value acceptance of what the government has defined as their patriotic duty puts a cold chord of fear and helplessness into my gut that is not unlike Daniel Ellsberg's response to the death of Robert Kennedy--total impotence in the face of unbridled ruthlessness.

Recently I have been investigating the possibilities of living in Australia. Perhaps someday the survivors of America will come back and will build log cabins in the streets. At least, as Hemingway said, it's pretty to think so.

Meanwhile, I ask you to join me in celebrating the fifth anniversary of the final withdrawal of the United States from Southeast Asia with a degree of pageantry and excitement comparable to that we all enjoyed during Vietnam Veterans' Week--by popping open a cold can of beer and raising a toast: "Here's to the good old days, when we knew who our enemies were and were sanctioned by society to deal with them accordingly. Here's to the good old days."

 Goodby, America. And goodby to Vietnam and the friends who died for nothing.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gus on the set of FULL METAL JACKET, October 1985

I went out to the set where Stanley was supposed to be filming in a little place called Beckton, near Essex. It's on the Thames, an abandoned gasworks.  I wanted to see in fact whether the picture was being made.  I was contemplating legal action at the time, and it would've been pointless if there were no movie.

I took a couple of friends along with me. We dressed up in tiger-stripe clothes. Our idea was that they'd be shooting and we'd simply blend in as though we were extras. We went in, and this little go-fer took us over to the commissary tent while somebody checked out who I was.

We were having doughnuts and the go-fer asked: "Who are you? Why'd you come here?"

I said: "Well, I'm the guy who wrote the book that this film is based upon."

His eyes lit up and he said: "You're kidding! You're the guy? That's you?"

I said: "Yeah, yeah, I wrote the book."

He said: "Well, I want to shake your hand, because Dispatches is the best book I ever read."

"Hey, I think so too," I said.

--from The Several Battles of Gustav Hasford, LA Times Magazine, 1987

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Interview with Gus, Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1987

The Several Battles of Gustav Hasford
by Grover Lewis 


A Candid Conversation With the Co-Writer and Fierce, Real-Life Protagonist of Full Metal Jacket


"You and me, God--right?"

--Cpl. Joker in Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers


   GUS HASFORD WAS HOME FROM THE MOVIE WARS, drinking a beer in Santa Monica.  The heat had been fierce in the first week in June, but a late afternoon sea breeze had begun to play through the palms outside the windows, and in the distance you could see the hotel with the glass elevator where Lee Marvin threw one of his enemies off the roof in Point Blank.
    In about three weeks, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the movie version of Hasford's novel The Short-Timers, was scheduled to open.  According to a poster in the lobby of the Wilshire Theater, Hasford shares full screen-writing credit on the film with Kubrick, the director, and Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches.  Nobody aside from friends knew how to reach Hasford just yet--his celebrity was still pending--and that tickled him immensely.  He opened another can of Coors.
    We were seated at a clean white table.  I had in front of me a letter Hasford had written to me on may 20, 1986, from Perth, Australia, where he had repaired after his screen-writing labors and the long conflict over the film's credits.  For 18 of the last 24 hours, we had been in constant company, talking most of the time, but I kept giving him sidelong glances, wondering what was different about him.  Nothing, I decided--nothing, so far, at all.  His beer belly looked well watered.  He was still rumpled, still piping full of it, still snapping off bull's-eye invective at his old, familiar targets.
    I read aloud from the letter:
    "In the cynical world of L.A., where show 'biz' deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note of (transitory) optimism:  I won my credit battle with Stanley.  I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all of the lawyers at Warner Bros., up to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer.  As a little Canuck friend of mine would say:  I kicked dey butt."
    "So what was going on?" I asked.  "Kubrick and Herr wanted you to settle for an 'additional dialogue' credit?"
    "Yeah, but things turned out happily in the end."
    "You said you weren't going to, but did you ever hire yourself a movie-business lawyer or an agent?"


    I FIRST MET GUS HASFORD in 1981 when a mutual friend brought him to dinner at my place in Santa Monica.  I had read his book only a short time before, and he seemed gratified to know that I had a decent opinion of it.  In fact, I thought it was the best novel I had read about the Vietnam War--the toughest and purest and most uncompromising.
    Hasford had served as a combat correspondent with the 1st Marine Division during the Tet Offensive of 1968.  That meant that he had carried a pencil and a notebook and a gun to defend himself and his fellow grunts during battle.  The Short-Timers was his apocalyptically imagined and stylized depiction of his experience in Vietnam, viewed through the eyes of "Cpl. Joker" as he accompanies the "Lusthog Squad" into the gore and madness of combat.
    Hasford is a big fellow, beefy to paunchy, an innately macho man in his code, but not physically intimidating to other men.  He has a resonant yet curiously high-pitched voice with a soft trace of Alabama accent.  That counted for something between us right away--the fact that we were both sons of the shirtless South.
    Once the ice was broken, we quickly discovered that we had common interests in such arcane subjects as "lost" Depression-era novels and the history of the American West.  That first evening, Hasford referred to his enormous and somewhat mysterious collection of books (which he keeps in storage), and then chatted freely about his admittedly grandiose literary plans.  He said he was going to write several series of books on various topics, in various genres.
    My wife, Rae, and I lived in an apartment with a lanai that looked out on downtown Santa Monica, and on his second or third visit, Hasford christened the place.  He called it the "Cafe Cafard," using an obscure French word meaning "beyond anomie or dread" that he associates with the defeated warriors of Dien Bien Phu, the granddaddy of all Vietnam defeats back in 1954.
    Cafard fits in a peculiar way.  We've decorated the walls with an antique neon cerveza sign and a Ralph Steadman litho for old times' sake, and there was the backdrop of white buildings and swimmy palms.  All very tropique, very tristesse.
    Hasford became a regular at the Cafe Cafard, sometimes bringing a date, sometimes not.  His attire ran to grunt t-shirts and torn sneakers.  He was humming and cooking, always.  He talked about whatever was on his mind.  His imprecations against his publishers--their neglect and abuse of him--were comic sermons that ran to heroic lengths.
    We became friends, I think, one night after a party for veterans in Venice.  To a civilian observer like myself, it was a tense, cliquish affair.  Hasford and I headed out early, both a little dispirited, and he offered me a lift home.  During the drive I asked him what he was doing for a living.  I mentioned that if he was free-lancing, I might be able to help with contacts.  Hasford said he was working as a security guard.  He was also living in his car.
    Hasford's fortunes improved overnight when a Munich businessman with no visible ties to the movie world optioned the screen rights to The Short-Timers.  Money, to Hasford, meant that he could buy books or travel.  He soon was off on his first trip to Australia, and by the time he returned to California, he knew that Stanley Kubrick owned the rights to his first novel.
    Kubrick, Hasford said, had begun to make serious sounds on the telephone about turning the book into a picture called Full Metal Jacket.  A major film, it went without saying, since Kubrick didn't make the other kind.  The mind reeled.  Hasford stood to make enormous royalties from his worldwide literary rights alone.  And the movie star who would someday play Joker would ultimately be playing Hasford.
    "Stanley" thus became a phantom presence around the Cafe Cafard.  Before long, Hasford was making plans to tour Europe and to drop in on Kubrick in London to find out what was going on.  He hadn't been invited onto the team as such, no, but Kubrick hadn't discouraged his visit, either.  Hasford counted on the fact that Kubrick liked to talk to him on the telephone.  True, Hasford had no contact, no agent or other representation--just a lot of lengthy phone conversations punched through the long-distance either.
    I saw Hasford off to England with misgivings near the end of 1984.  I was skeptical about his prospects for getting close to the reclusive Kubrick, but at the same time I wanted to egg him on to press whatever advantage he had.  I wanted him to get in the middle of things over there and help "Stanley" make a good movie.
    Little more than a month passed before Hasford's first letter arrived from his new digs on Cleveland Terrace, London W2.  Hasford posted us regular letters and made periodic calls and sent along generous packages of arcane books.  But his struggles for recognition for his contributions to the Full Metal Jacket screenplay seemed very distant.


YOU AND STANLEY got acquainted sort of transoceanically?
    Yeah, yeah.  After a while we were talking three or four times a week, usually for hours and hours at a time.  About the movie.  Sometimes about all manner of subjects.
    What's the longest you ever talked to Kubrick on the phone?
    Six or seven hours.  At least six hours, ranging over just about any subject you could think of.  During the initial period, Stanley was just considering making the film, mulling it over.  I don't know at what point I actually became convinced he was in fact going to make a film.  The steps were so gradual.
    In London, you gradually got involved with working on the screenplay.
    I was there for a while and I was just doing all the tourist things, and Michael Herr and I went out to Stanley's house and met him.  I mean, we'd talked on the phone before, and when I got to England, we were still talking on the phone.  Now pretty much every day we were talking on the phone about the film and it was getting more and more detailed all the time.
    So you didn't see him often?
    No.  I've only met Stanley one time.
    When the picture started shooting you were still uncertain about what your credit share might be.
    For a year and a half we were in disagreement.  From my point of view, I deserved a full credit.  I heard all the arguments against my attitude from Stanley and Warner Bros. and Michael Herr, and I was never convinced their arguments were valid.
    So you persisted.
    I persisted until I'd won.  Yeah.
    Did you observe any of the filming?
    I went out to the set where Stanley was supposed to be filming in a little place called Beckton, near Essex.  It's on the Thames, an abandoned gasworks.  I wanted to see in fact whether the picture was being made.  I was contemplating legal action at the time, and it would've been pointless if there were no movie.
    I took a couple of friends along with me.  We dressed up in tiger-stripe clothes.  Our idea was that they'd be shooting and we'd simply blend in as though we were extras.  We went in, and this little go-fer took us over to the commissary tent while somebody checked out who I was.  We were having doughnuts and the go-fer asked:  "Who are you?  Why'd you come here?"  I said:  "Well, I'm the guy who wrote the book that this film is based upon."  His eyes lit up and he said:  "You're kidding!  You're the guy?  That's you?"  I said:  "Yeah, yeah, I wrote the book."  He said:  "Well, I want to shake your hand, because Dispatches is the best book I ever read."  "Hey, I think so too," I said.
    Did you run around with Michael Herr much, or was it strictly a professional relationship?
    Michael and I got to be pretty good friends until we had the credit dispute.  As far as I know, he's still not speaking to me.  I'm speaking to him, but he's not saying anything back.  As much of my work was in the screenplay as he had in, but he still seems to interpret the fact that I got a full credit as an intrusion upon his turf.  Like, who is this interloper?
    But in fact, I worked on the screenplay for four years.  I had actually written things, you know, scenes and comments.  I would send my work to Stanley, and undoubtedly Stanley was having Michael write the same scene.  Then Stanley would work it around the way he wanted it.  For some reason, Stanley had given Michael a lot of my work to look at, but I never read any of the things Michael wrote for the film.  We really didn't talk about it much.  I mean, we'd talk about it in general terms like, "When is this sucker going to be finished?"
    What's your feeling about Kubrick now?
    I like Stanley.  Stanley is funny and human and not as eccentric as he would perhaps prefer to appear.  My favorite movie is Dr. Strangelove, and Paths of Glory is one of the great classic war films.  I'd stand Stanley a glass anytime.  Two, maybe.

YOU GREW UP in rural Alabama.
    That's right.  I worked when I was 14.  I worked for the Franklin County Times and the Northwest Alabamian, a regional newspaper.  I covered football games, car wrecks, stuff like that.  The first thing I ever published was an article about coin collecting in Boys' Life when I was 14.
    When did you get out of school?
    In '66.  I didn't graduate from high school.  I refused to graduate from high school.  I didn't want to validate what they were doing.  Around that time, someone did a survey of the state educational systems, and Alabama was No. 50, and I just didn't...
    I'd started a magazine for writers called Freelance, a glossy 56-page quarterly.  It had advertising and 1,300 paid subscribers all over the country, $5 a head.  I just did it.  My grandfather signed a note for me to borrow the money.  I ran articles exposing songwriter ads and other con jobs like that.
    Did you yourself research and write these stories?
    No.  All this stuff was written by professional writers.  I was just a kid.  I couldn't write the stuff.  I was 16.  But the experience and the contacts helped me get my writing job in the Marines.
    When did you join?
    September of '67.  I was 18.  I got assigned to be a 4312 Basic Military Journalist with orders to go on the staff of Leatherneck magazine.  But first I had to go for training to an Army school.  I hung around with all these beery Army guys....So I lost my discipline from Parris Island and became a hippie.
    For punishment, I was sent to a place in North Carolina.  Me and this other Pfc. were putting out the base newspaper there, publishing all these articles about Vietnam, and it was like Custer said:  "The only thing you have to know to be a soldier is to be able to ride toward the sound of the guns."  When you're reading all this stuff about big events happening somewhere, you get really curious to the point of it being painful wanting to know the real score.
    I applied to go to Vietnam.  It's called "requesting mast," which is a legal maneuver that you can do in the military if you feel you're being oppressed.  So I went to Vietnam even though I only had 10 months left to serve, because in a sense I specifically demanded to be sent to Vietnam, and so they couldn't think of any reason not to do it and in fact they were perfectly willing.  They had plenty of spots to send me.
    How soon did you begin to regret that?  Or did you?
    I never regretted that.  I never found the war to be a particular hardship.  You know there were some hard parts.  After the Tet Offensive, I was with the people on Operation Pegasus when it broke through to Khe Sanh by land, and that was the last major operation I was involved in.  But I mean, if you're gonna go out there and stick your face in it, you're gonna expect to get some lumps, right?  I couldn't complain.  If it hadn't been for my specific demand to go, I would never have been in Vietnam.
    When were you discharged?
    August, '68.  Let me tell you about that.
    When I came back and got off the plane, my parents picked me up and took me home to Russellville, Alabama.  I'm, of course, in total culture shock.  Then they announce they're moving the very next day to Washington state.  I've still got the dirt of Vietnam on (me), and I'm looking around the house and everything's gone.  All of it, all of my stuff, was already packed up and shipped off, and they wanted to know whether I wanted to stay behind or take off with them.  I said, you know, I think I'll go with you guys.
    Well...I don't think that was the best way for me to come home from the war.  Instead of coming back to a familiar place, I was there for one day and then the next day we went to a totally aline environment for someone from the South, which is the Pacific Northwest.  Just like moving to Germany or something.
    You settled in Kelso, Washington.  What happened to you up there?
    I got married, was married for two years.  Lived above a hardware store in a really, really cheap apartment.  My wife worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
    I was a desk clerk in a hotel that catered to loggers.  The reason I got the job was because they needed a big guy like to on the graveyard shift because that's when all the loggers would come in from the bars wanting to fight.  They'd already been in fights and they'd be dragging these scrubby, extremely ugly prostitutes with them.  The job gave me a lot of opportunity to read--like Nathaniel West, you know.  After about 3 o'clock when all the loggers had passed out...
    Did you join any veterans' groups after you left the Corps?
    No.  I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War while I was still in Vietnam.  About February, '68.  Also, I had a poem in Winning Hearts and Minds, published by the First Casualty Press, which was the first anthology of writing about the war by the veterans themselves.
    I assume you've seen Platoon.
    I've seen Platoon twice.  I'm glad it was made and glad it was a success, but the second time around it has no nuance.
    Have you, by the way, been to the Black Wall in the capital?
    Actually, no.  Personally, I don't consider visiting the Black Wall to be of any significance to me.  I don't need to look on that piece of stone to remember the people I knew who got killed in Vietnam.

WHEN YOU LEFT Kelso, you came to California.
    That's right.  My wife and I broke up and I came to L.A. with my friend Art Cover, who's a science-fiction writer.  We came down and we hung out and we sponged off of and roomed with our friend Harlan Ellison, another s-f writer, who was gracious enough to put up with two 22-year-old twits who had nowhere to go.  Harlan took us in until we could afford a place of our own.  I worked at being an editor, again using the credentials of having been a correspondent and having published a magazine.  I found an editorial job with an outfit called American Art Enterprises, which was then California's largest publisher of--how can we term this?
    How about racy material?
    Magazines with titles such as...?
    We had one called Playpen.  Which featured guys dressed up like babies.  Truck-driver types dressed up like babies and being attended to, not in any sexual way, by matronly looking middle-aged women.  We're not talking mainstream here.  And we put out 36 separate magazines a month, each one featuring some kind of kinky slant.  Someone was making some major bucks out of that place, millions of dollars.  I worked there for six months, and I even saved up some money myself and moved to Laguna Beach and started doing the starving hippie writer trip.
    When did you actually begin work on The Short-Timers?
    I wrote versions of it, drafts of it, in Vietnam because I was a correspondent and we would all be sitting around at the typewriter all the time, you know, writing stories.  That's why some of the characters in the books are named after friends of mine from Vietnam.
    How did you finally finish the book?
    I lived like a dog in L.A.  Worked in used bookstores, did anything to keep myself going.  The book took seven years to write and three years to sell.  It eventually was published in '79 by Harper & Row and Bantam Books.  But Harper had rejected the manuscript previously, and Bantam had rejected it, too, along with many others.  It was considered poison, box-office poison.
    Because it was about Vietnam?
    Particularly a novel about Vietnam.  And particularly by someone unknown.

YOU'VE HAD LOTS of ups and downs with editors and publishers.  In a letter you sent me last year, you said:  "Publishers are greedy S.O.B.s....I'm not a precious little pale academic who writes poetry and never raises his voice; I'm an ex-Marine and that makes me a hard and more or less fearless individual, and if these hardball boys from the Harvard School of Business want to play hardball, I'm in the mood to play hardball.  The next arrogant S.O.B. at Bantam that even coughs in my direction is going to wake up with a piece of the world nailed to the side of his head."
    God, what an arrogant, although funny, guy.
    The thing that strikes me is that you developed as a writer despite the fact that you were more or less self-educated.
    Well, I'm not more or less self-educated.  I am self-educated.
    Tell me about your book collection.  How big is it now?
    I have 10,000 books in archive boxes that are numbered, and I have a card catalogue that cross-indexes them according to the different subjects.  It's a research library.  I'm interested in hard-boiled detective stories, the American Civil War, Napolean, the Alamo, Custer, the Minoan civilization on Crete, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, ancient Greek coins--all kinds of things.
    I intend to write a biography of Ambrose Bierce, focusing only on his years as an officer in the Civil War.  I'm planning a trip to the battlefields to walk out his route at each battle and get the layout in my mind so I can know what I'm dealing with.
    What other books are you working on?
    I have two finished.
    The Phantom Blooper is a sequel to The Short-Timers in which Joker is captured by the Viet Cong and makes the decision to join them, fight alongside them.  The books shows the Viet Cong side of the war, which hasn't really been dealt with before.  Some editors have already rejected it on the grounds that's it's...politically offensive.
    The other book will be the first in a six-part series, the "Dowdy Lewis" series.  It's called A Gypsy Good Time, and it's in the tradition of tough-guy detective stories.  This Dowdy Lewis is a modern-day bounty hunter who also runs an L.A. bookstore featuring only books about the Old West.  Nonfiction books about the Old West--no novels.
    Would you consider writing another screenplay?
    Well...I don't want to be a screenwriter.  I've thought about suggesting to Stanley that he do They Don't Dance Much, that great '30s novel--you know the one--as his next picture project.  But I'm afraid he might get interested and we'd be on the phone again for four years.
    Theoretically you stand to make a great deal of money if Full Metal Jacket is a worldwide hit.
    Well, theoretically, yeah.  With a capital T.  I have points in the film, yeah.  But that's movie money.  It's like fairy gold, the leprechauns' gold.  I don't think I ought to make too much money.  I'd just sit around all the time reading my Civil War books.
    WHEN I TURNED OFF the tape recorder, Hasford popped his hands together.  "Am I famous yet?"
    He started leafing through the pages of his victory letter from Australia.  "Hmm...hmm....Maybe you better put in that Stanley Kubrick is a diamond cutter of men.  I don't know for sure what it means, but it sounds good."
    He began to gather up his gear to go.  "And put in that I'm not anything like Cpl. Joker.  I am not personally a Lusthog beast.
    "And, let's see, put in that I am zany and amorous.  Tell the women of the world that I am probably in love with them."

Friday, January 04, 2013


Advise & Dissent
From Penthouse, June 1987

The difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is that a fairy tale begins with "Once upon a time" and a sea story begins "This is no shit." Listen up, people, this is no shit: History may be written with blood and iron, but it is printed with ink, and it is made real and dangerous when it is put on film, the alternate literature of our times.

When Joseph Heller went to the war he would later bring to life in his masterpiece, Catch-22, he says, "I actually hoped I would get into combat. I was just 19 and there were a great many movies being made about the war; it all seemed so dramatic and heroic. I remember my mother weeping as the trolley car pulled away with me on it. I couldn't figure out why she was so unhappy. I felt like I was going to Hollywood."

Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood--we've all been there. From the maudlin soap opera of The Green Berets to the cartoon slaughterhouse of Rambo, Vietnam veterans have remained strangely silent while bombarded with Technicolor counterfeits of the Vietnam War flogged off like swampland by Hollywood Jacuzzi commandos, a Vietnam War as true to the facts as a platoon of Parris Island recruits double-timing down the Yellow Brick Road into the Emerald City.

In First Blood, Rambo, John J., articulated in fluent growling-dog (suggesting that speech impediments may be an overlooked symptom of Post-Vietnam Syndrome) the civilian alibi for why three million Vietnam veterans are such a mess and a public disgrace: All of our best friends were blown up by Communist shoeshine boys. The gruesome deaths of some three million Communist shoeshine boys traumatized even us, the callous and dehumanized, and gave us defective headgear.

Rambo: First Blood Part II--the Triumph of the Will for American Nazis--is proof of the Marine Corps proverb that there is always some asshole who does not get the word. Even at this late date, Rambo argues that despite appearances, and despite the facts, the Vietnam War was a righteous cause. Rambo satisfies our pathetic need to win the war and gives us another coat of whitewash as bumbling do-gooders, innocent American white-bread boy, pulled down into corruption by wicked Orientals. We should have won, and we could have won, Rambo argues, if only the dumb grunts could have been saved by grotesquely muscled civilians who somehow skated the shooting war (we're the same age, Sly), all of whom seem to be Green-Beret-Medal-of-Honor winners packing James Bond hardware.

Hollywood Jacuzzi commandos are not men with paper assholes playing war, they're working the rubes, as usual. When we were kids and John Wayne charged up Suribachi, he was 40 feet high on the screen and tromping on wicked Orientals, a big white Godzilla, a hero of Homeric proportions, a winner. The genius of Hollywood is that it always knows which side of the bread contains the butter. For Vietnam War films, the smart money has always backed a policy of "reviling the veteran." The signing of a Big Millions deal for Rambo 3 and 4 says Hollywood is still on target and firing for effect, content to go on trivializing the war as long as it sells popcorn to U.C.L.A. coeds.

The phrase "reviling the veteran" was first quoted to me by Stanley Kubrick, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker, during the shooting of Full Metal Jacket, a film based upon The Short-Timers, my novel about Marine grunts fighting the battle for Hue City during the Tet Offensive. "Reviling the veteran" is a serviceable phrase.

Before the paperback edition of The Short-Timers was published, I received an author's proof of the cover. My civilian blurb writer, appealing to the prejudices of civilians everywhere, hailed my book as a story about "Vietnam violence freaks who kill and kill without a twinge of guilt." I put an arc light of angry objections across the hostile terrain of my publisher's intention. I was personally offended by the exploitative and factually inaccurate injustice of the blurb, which was obviously designed to sell books to civilians at the expense of veterans. Anticipating the appeal of Rambo by five years, the blurb was revised to read:"...a gung-ho bunch, some of whom kill and kill without a twinge of guilt."

The motivations that have made "reviling the veteran" a civilian hobby are complex. My theory is that civilians are jealous of Vietnam veterans because we can skillfully shoot up heroin, barricade the door, and adjust the scope on a sniper's rifle all at the same time--no easy feat, as we all know.

Another civilian alibi for branding us the children of Frankenstein and chasing us through newsprint villages with paper pitchforks with such neurotic intensity, for all these years, is because we are psychovets, trip-wire vets, walking time bombs.

Are we plain fucking crazy? Did we, in some black jungle, lose our grip on the burned edge of reality? Make no mistake, the civilians revel in painting us as crazy, at least in their own movies. Or is it because Vietnam was the education we never go in school? Do they hate us because Vietnam veterans are fierce witnesses to hard facts civilians lack the intestinal fortitude to confront, even second hand? Truth is stranger than fiction, but is has never been as popular. If we can be dismissed as Section Eights, we can be pitied and patronized, a civilian tactic to resist our expert testimony with a willful ignorance as hard as iron.

Do Vietnam veterans feel guilty? Only one individual in ten ever fired a shot in anger. Even Marines in the field rarely knew if they hit anything. Rambo has "59 confirmed kills," first tour, and scores another 90 during the film, for a total of 149, not counting blood trails, civilians, and water buffalo. My own score was perhaps more typical. In Vietnam I fired more rounds than the Stonewall Brigade fired at the Battle of Gettysburg. I was highly motivated, but my body count was a standing joke: I killed as many of them as they did of me. Looking back with flawless hindsight, I hope I hit nothing but trees, and I hope the trees lived. If I did kill a human being in Vietnam, it was a tragic accident or self-defense; I regret it, but I do not apologize.

Civilians, weaned on recreational gore, do not understand that unreconstructed Vietnam veterans are not misfits. We're the first team, the varsity; we may not have been the brightest (the trouble with real life is that it's all first draft), but we were the best. Maybe we didn't have the money to buy our way out, but we had the balls to go to war, just as others had the balls to go to prison or Canada. What hurt us was coming home to confront civilians who were pale shadows of--and poor substitutes for--our loyal brothers in Vietnam. Civilians will never understand that if Vietnam veterans have been tortured, it was not by the Viet Cong but by the wives who still don't know we were there, the parents who demanded that we not express our pain, the sisters who were afraid to let us hold their babies, and the girlfriends who believed that if they made us angry we would kill them, because that's what the Vietnam veterans on television would do in the movies of the week that have been manufactured like cheese to accommodate the most irrational prejudices of a civilian audience.

Before patrols, we said, "I think I'm going to hate this movie." Today, Vietnam veterans have not overrun the movie industry, but there are sappers in the wire. Besides Oliver Stone's acclaimed Platoon--and, of course, Full Metal Jacket, with a screenplay by Kubrick; Michael Herr, an honorary Marine and the author of the literary classic of the Vietnam War, Dispatches; and myself, Corporal, U.S.M.C., Retired--there's Hamburger Hill by James Carabatsos and 84 Charlie Mopic by Patrick Duncan, both in production, with more films by veterans on the way, many, many of them.

Fighting history is a ball-breaking hump, and it is not for everyone. But Vietnam veterans who get tired of sipping their beer will be forced to accept the bitter, insufficient truth: We were not G.I. Joes passing out gum to orphans. John Wayne never cried, Audie Murphy never died, and Gomer Pyle never dipped a baby in jellied gasoline. Being young is the art of survival without weapons, but we had weapons, and we used them to burn Vietnam alive. Why did we go to war? They've been trying to figure that out since Hitler was a corporal. We were young, and the young love to travel.

In Vietnam, we sometimes lacked grace under pressure, but we stuck it out, just the same. We died for Nixon's pride. We were an Orwellian army, it's true, but then in Vietnam nice guys didn't finish as all. It was Victor Charlie's land, and we were on it, and he made us get off. Not since my great-grandpappy was in the Georgia Militia have American soldiers been defeated. So the V.F.W. pretends that we're not veterans. And we try to pretend that Vietnam was an exceptionally noisy frat party in the hootch with warm beer, and not a cross between a gang-bang and a Chinese opera. Vietnam means never having to say you're sorry. We don't like to see ourselves as the last of the Keystone Kops. But there is no discharge from that war. We weren't Rambo, betrayed by C.I.A. spooks. It was a fair fight and we lost. That's some cold shit, man, but there it is.

Now pogue historians want to embalm us and put us on exhibit, more gargoyles for the museum, while Rambo fans in the White House, who think they are Wyatt Earp and that Russian is Ike Clanton, yearn to provoke another Vietnam, somewhere, anywhere; same song, second verse. It's amazing how brave some people are willing to be with other people's sons. It's time to stop sipping our beer and get wired and hit back at all these silly people who presume to define us, our actions, and our motives. It's time to throw off the leper's bell of the Vietnam veteran. It's not enough to touch the names on the Black Wall and remember. Our finest tribute to our fallen dead would be to convince their sons that we were not Rambo and neither are they.

Vietnam veterans have been buffaloed by self-serving civilians long enough. It's time for us to come out of the closet, to join ranks, to stand tall, lean, and mean--we are United States grunts, and we've come down here to battle. Stop patronizing us, keep your pity, do not presume to condemn us for things you know nothing about, stop telling us who we are, shut up while we sound off--all together now, girls, by the numbers--because, as the Spanish say, there is only one man who knows, and that is the man who fights the bull.

Plato said only the dead have seen the last of war. Now war drums in the Rambo movies call us to another nightmare of lies and death. More than anyone, Vietnam veterans know what that means in hard facts. To the current crop of teenage cannon fodder, Vietnam is some kind of Chinese breakfast food. We've got to force them to listen to us. We owe it to them because we know their fathers. And we owe it to ourselves.

If H.G. Wells was right about human history being more and more a race between education and catastrophe, we've got to denounce this silly but dangerous Rambo myth before some miscalculated O.K. Corral renders the entire continental United States into radioactive powder. If we can fight against the Rambo in each of us, the Rambo in our American bones, then, as Rambo says, maybe this time we'll win, and be soldiers on the good side, walking point for America again, until the stage blood dries and the future is a cold LZ.

History is not over yet, and history collects its debts.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Letter to U.S. Customs Office, 1987

January 2, 1987
Letter to U.S. Customs Office
From Gustav Hasford, Australia

To: U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICE, LOS ANGELES and Leaseway International Corporation, Carson, California

SUBJECT: Shipment from London, England, 124 pieces, 120 Royal Mail mailing cartons and four blue metal trunks

This letter is intended to be both an official customs declaration (as per form 3299) and my authorization to the U.S. Customs and to Leaseway Corporation for the purpose of naming my friend Robert M. Bayer my representative in the matter of clearing my shipment through customs.

Actually, I do not understand why this procedure cannot be delayed until my return to the United States, but since it is necessary for me to remain in Australia until the end of March, I see no alternative but to inconvenience my friend Bob, who has kindly agreed to deal with the paperwork.

CONTENTS OF THE SHIPMENT: First, I will tell you what it does NOT contain. There are no plants, animals, fur, bone, weapons (with the exception of a replica German officer's dagger), no explosives, liquors, perfumes, diamonds, counterfeit money, chemicals, food, or midgets. I've been through customs inspections in a lot of countries (Australian customs is the most strict, by far) and I can't think of anything in the shipment that anybody would object to.

What is in the shipment, primarily, are books. Books shipped to England from the U.S. by myself, and books purchased in England. There are several boxes of stationary supplies--pens, paper, index cards. In one box there is a plaster bust of John Keats, the English poet. I don't know what else. Just junk and papers. Newspaper clippings. Piles of notes and manuscripts and papers. And, of course, souvenirs of the usual tourist type, a brass Eiffel Tower, things like that.

I spent a year in London writing the screenplay for the upcoming Stanley Kubrick film, FULL METAL JACKET (see article attached) and I needed this ton of books and papers (600 pounds?) so that I might steal my ideas from the widest possible range of sources, the secret of good writing. If any additional information is required, please feel free to call me collect.

Gustav Hasford

The Short-Timers hardcover first edition

The hardcover first edition of The Short-Timers, published by Harper & Row in January 1979.

Dust jacket copy:
From its opening pages in Marine boot camp on Parris Island to the excruciating suspense of its climatic finale during the jungle battle for Khe Sanh, The Short-Timers is a brilliant and savage reenactment of the descent into barbarism that formed the bottom line of the American intervention in Viet Nam.

Terse and brief as a scream, The Short-Timers traces the career of a sardonic narrator ("Joker") through the organized sadism of basic training, into a distasteful assignment as a combat reporter, and finally to the command of a platoon of "grunts" in the chaos that followed the Tet offensive. It is a story about some of the most harrowing experiences Americans have ever been made to endure, the story of a gallery of young Americans who are turned into violence freaks while still remaining individuals--comic, pathetic, repellent, proud and caring.

Sometimes surreal, sometimes all too realistic, and, without warning, funny, here is a novel that is--like its subject--as incongruous and undeniable as an exploding booby trap. It is a brutal novel because it is about the brutality of men trained to violence; but it is a book filled with the very rare and great compassion available to men who have survived the loss of their humanity in combat. This is a truly remarkable accomplishment for a first novel--which it is--or a tenth.

Dust jacket photo of Gus.
Gustav Hasford served as a Combat Correspondent with the First Marine Division in Viet Nam. He now lives and works in California.

From the back cover:
Advance comments about The Short-Timers:
"Gustav Hasford has managed to capture the Viet Nam War's gritty realities without trying to deliberately shock, and its aura of unreality without degenerating into surrealism. Most of us who fought there will never put it behind us, and Mr. Hasford is obviously among those who cannot forget. It is a beautiful story, and it is true, and as he himself has said, 'The truth can be ugly.'"
--Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War

"Many are already forgetting the Viet Nam War. Actually, it is only now being discovered. Americans (except for the few who were in it) are only now learning what Americans did in that war--and what they will be doing in any other war that may 'break out' in the near future. To those who refuse to forget, who, instead, wish to know, I recommend Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers.
--Eric Bentley, critic

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

About This Site

My name is Jason Aaron. I write comic books. Gus Hasford was my cousin. My mom's nephew. I only met him two or three times in my life, and he died in 1993, when I was just out of high school, but nevertheless he had a tremendous influence on me.

A few years after Gus died, I started to put together a website devoted to him, compiling what little I knew about Gus and whatever articles I could track down online. That site grew and grew over the years, to include dozens of short stories, interviews, remembrances, photos and more. Through that website I met Gus Hasford fans from all over the world, and ultimately even got invited to the reunion of Gus' fellow Vietnam War era Marine Combat Correspondents.

Eventually though the site became terribly neglected and dated. This is me trying to dust it off and give it a new face. I'll be reposting most everything from the old site here and maybe even including some other stuff that never made it online.

Please join me in continuing to celebrate the life and work of Gus Hasford. Thanks.



    "Yes, SIR!"  I snapped to attention and saluted a granite-jawed Marine major whose immaculately green razor-creased jungle utilities must have looked splendid in snapshots taken in the tall grass behind the CP and sent home to his wife.
    The major executed a flawless Short-Pause--a favorite device of Leaders-of-Men, designed to give its victim a case of terminal insecurity.  Not wishing to shatter his blatant self-confidence, I gave him my Parris Island rendition of I Am But a Humble Enlisted Person.
    "Marine..."  The major was ramrod straight--Fists-on-Hips.  This stance, coupled with a deep, masculine Leader-of-Men voice, gave him that certain air of command, despite that fact that I was a good foot taller and he was looking at the bottom of my chin.  "Marine..." he repeated.  He seemed to like the word.  "What is that you're wearing?"
    For a brief, horrible moment I thought he meant the Be My Valentine's Day underwear my girl had sent me from San Francisco.  But he was looking at my chest.  The button!
    The major stood on tiptoes as though he wanted to kiss me, but he only wanted to breathe in my face.  I'd just returned from two weeks in the field and hadn't been breathed on by a CP officer in all that time.
    "Marine!  Speak up!  I asked you a question!"
    "You mean the button, SIR?"
    "What the hell is that thing, Marine?"
    "It's a peace symbol, SIR!"
    He paused and pondered.  I waited patiently, knowing that the major was obviously trying to remember his O.C.S. classes in "Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships With Subordinate Personnel."  The other possibility was that he was going to hit me and couldn't decide between kicking my shins or slapping my face.
    His breath smelled of mint.  Marine officers never had bad breath, B.O., acne, or dirty underwear.  Marine officers didn't have anything until it was issued to them.
    The major jabbed the button with a green forefinger, and cut loose with a really admirable Polished Glare.  Green eyes sparkled as he opened his red, white and blue teeth and growled, "That's right, corporal.  Act innocent.  But I know what that is, and I also know what it means!"
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "It's one of those damned Ban-the-Bomb things--Admit it!"
    "No, SIR!"  I was getting stiff from being at attention so long.  Shifting weight--right leg, left leg, right leg...
    "Then what is it?"
    "It's a peace symbol, SIR!"
    "Oh, yeah?"  He breathed some more--up close--as though he could smell lies.
    "Yes, SIR, it's..."
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "Yes, SIR!"
    The major moved around me, stalking me, craning his neck to toss little "kill!" glances.  He smirked and bared green fangs, "Do you call yourself a Marine?"
    I crossed my fingers.  Kings-X.  "Yes, SIR!"
    "Now look, corporal," he began to magnificent Fatherly Approach.  "Just tell me why you're wearing that Ban-the-Bomb thing.  You can level with me.  I want to help you."
    His plastic smile told me that in exchange for finking on my fellow conspirators I'd receive a cookie and would not be shot by the CIA for my un-American Activities.
    "Where'd you get it.  Marine?  Don't you know that Charlie Cong, the Dreaded Laundryman, has been distributing those things all over the base?  Why, they're made in Hanoi!"
    "My girl sent it to me, SIR!  On a postcard, SIR!"
    "From the states?"
    "From California, SIR!"  Pause.  "San Francisco, SIR!"
    The major's eyes grew big at my confessing of consorting with demons, communists, intellectuals, or worse.
    "California.  I see.  A hippie?"
    "Yes, SIR!"  I smiled proudly.  "An art student, SIR!"
    He sneered.  "Do you think we should ban the bomb, Marine?"
    I was solemn as hell.  My back was screaming.  "No, SIR!  We should bomb them back to the Stone Age, SIR!  But this is a peace button, SIR!"
    "HA!  So you admit it!  You advocate peace!"
    "Yes, SIR!"  Pause.  "Doesn't the major believe in peace, SIR!"
    Long, long pause.  "You can't wear that button, Marine.  If you don't remove it you'll be standing tall before the Man."
    We stood nose-to-chin on the side of the road near the entrance to Phu Bai Combat Base.  Ghostly scenes from The Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne flickered around us.  Somewhere in Never-Never Land Jim Nabors was singing:  "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli..."
    A huge white question mark hovered over a green world...
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "This is a combat zone, Marine.  Remember that.  And you are a junior non-commissioned officer in the finest military machine in the world--our beloved Corps.  We're here to defend Freedom and Justice so that all men may have the right to express themselves without fear of reprisal.  That's why I'm telling you--you can't wear that button!"
    "Yes, SIR!" I screamed.  "Kill the dirty rotten gooks, SIR!  We can lick 'um all, SIR!  A good gook is a dead gook and three cheers for the VFW, SIR!"
    "That's more like it, leatherneck.  You're going to be okay."
    "But can't I kill for peace and still believe in peace, SIR!"
    The major suddenly became fascinated by his wristwatch.  "I...uh...I've no time for this nonsense."  He had Big Problems to solve--Big Decisions--papers to initial, a big desk to sit behind and drink coffee, Real Guts magazines to read, a chest toupee to comb.  Besides, I knew there was no answer to my question, at least not for the major.  It was like asking a hangman how he felt about capital punishment.
    I saluted.  The major saluted.  We both held the salute awkwardly while he added:  "Someday, when you've grown up a little, Marine, you'll see how childish you are."
    His voice--that beautiful strong deep voice--had broken into a squeak on the word "childish."
    I grinned.  His eyes fell.  Both salutes cut away nicely.
    "Good day, Marine," he said, and hurried away without looking back.
    "Yes, SIR!" I called out after him, "A beautiful day SIR!"  And it really was.

Published in MIRROR NORTHWEST, vol. 3, 1972.

"Mirror Northwest is a magazine of literature and art by students and instructors of Washington State's community colleges."

Gustav Hasford is a free lance writer presently a student at Lower Columbia College.


 Jerry Gustav Hasford in Vietnam, circa 1968.
"You're reading all of this in the papers about all these things going on in the world, and it just seems so exciting, and you just want to go somewhere," Hasford recalls.  "Where do you go if you're an Alabama kid with no money and you don't know anybody outside of Alabama?" 

You join the Marines, and in 1967, you go to Vietnam...

"It was exciting," Hasford continues.  "It was a foreign country, even if you didn't exactly know where it was.  I didn't have the slightest clue of where Vietnam was.  People say, 'Weren't you afraid you'd get killed?'  Nah. When you're 18, you don't have any fear that you're going to get killed.  You think you're immortal." 

--from the Birmingham News, 1987

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."

Friday, July 18, 2008