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.


Don said...

Just finished The Short Timers and went Googling and found this page. Glad it's here.

Unknown said...

Hello from Finland! This is a really insightful piece of writing. All the more topical now that "Sly" has put out the latest Rambo.

Kaecyy Tay-McCarthy said...

This is a wonderful essay— it's sharp and angry, in the righteous tradition of the sermon.

I think it's clear Hasford would have been fucking pissed about Afghanistan, Iraq, drone assassinations, etc.

SJB said...

Thanks for keeping the site going. Gustav Hasford should be on every American Lit course.'The Short Timers' May not supplant 'The Red Badge of Courage' right away but stands very tall beside that great work. Steven Brown, Vancouver Canada.