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The Short Timers
David Erben, English Department, University of South Florida
Vietnam war fiction is a mixed lot, with many of the texts falling along very traditional and predictable lines, despite the unstable nature of the war itself, so that even if a Vietnam war novel cannot embrace "victory" it can at least fall back on totalizing notions of "brotherhood" and "defeat with honor." One of the richest and most challenging texts to come out of the war, however, and one which directly confronts the totalizing tendency of traditional narratives (including history) is The Short Timers. I read this novel as a network, a network that crosses various boundaries and aligns itself with a number of poststructuralist concerns. The Short Timers was first published in 1979 and is the work upon which the late Gustav Hasford's popular fame rests. Hasford was a former Marine who served in Vietnam. He wrote a text, The Short Timers, which follows a character, Private Joker, through Marine boot camp and into the Vietnam war. The Short Timers interrogates western notions of history, and in particular the notion of history as fixed and stable.
One way the novel interrogates history is by demonstrating the power, and danger, of metaphors. Almost everything in this novel is born of or becomes a metaphor, including the "Marines," "Vietnam," "America" and the individual characters (for example, "Joker," "Cowboy," "Gomer Pyle," and "Animal Mother"), a strategy which links The Short Timers to what poststructuralist critics argue is the operation of language itself. That is, that language is always already metaphorical, it is just that some things have been metaphors so long (like "honor" and "justice" and "birth" and "America") that we have forgotten they are metaphors. Interestingly, the thoroughgoing metaphoricity of language comes from the same place that this novel begins, that is, Nietzche. Nietzche is the one who reminds us early on that language is metaphor and that it is tied to what in Latin is usura, which is both "usury," that is the question of surplus value and exchange that you normally associate with the verb usury, and also a constant wearing down or rubbing away until something is effaced.
What Nietzche and others argue is that a lot of the metaphors which are very powerful and which dominate western culture have been metaphors so long we have forgotten they are metaphors and behave towards them as if they are truths. A lot of what happens in Hasford's novel is that characters take metaphor for truth. The difference between truth and metaphor, of course, is that metaphors do not always have to arrive at their destination. With truth that's not supposed to be possible.
Take, for example, the nicknaming that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman does at the beginning of the text. The first thing that the Marine Drill Instructor does when the recruits arrive is to rename them, turn them into supposedly transparent metaphors, metaphors that somehow characterize each recruit. These first few scenes are where "Joker," "Gomer Pyle," and "Cowboy" are "born" (Hartman will, in fact, on the last day of boot camp tell Gomer that he is "born again hard.") Later in the novel, the former recruits engage in naming themselves, nicknaming "Rafter Man, "Crazy Earl," and "Mr. Payback," fellow marines who are named in the context of the war, and "Zipper Heads" and "gooks," the Vietnamese enemy. One of the things that happens over the course of this novel is that power is linked to who names things, who gets to create the dominant metaphors. In boot camp it is Sergeant Hartman who has this power; in Vietnam the former recruits, now "grunts," at least have acquired the power to nickname each other, their enemy, and the people responsible for their fighting (who they call "lifers" and "REMFs"). Power is fought over the right to call something something, and therefore legitimize it, regardless of whether it is for or against the system, the "green machine." Naming things is tied up to the business of writing history, that is, the act of naming is the business of writing history so that history is written by those who get the chance and have the power to name. This naming, which the text demonstrates is arbitrary, implies a chance relationship in terms of the relationship between objects in the world and what they are called, because obviously objects can be called one thing when one group is in power and something different when another group is in power, both names functioning, but in a specific context.
Another way that The Short Timers undermines fixed notions of history is through repetition, but repetition with a difference. This sense of difference is inscribed in the novel so that, even if you return to a place marked as being a place where history was enacted once, that place is different. For example, in the scene in Hue where Joker and Rafter Man are examining the mass grave, a lot of what happens in the novel is capsulated. First of all, Joker comes to a place where history has allegedly occurred. But the history cannot be exactly written because it is thoroughly contaminated by excess. History is found, but it is overgrown with excess, with "worms," and "damp earth" and excess story-telling. What you get, what is left over, is a monument. And by a monument, what I mean is something of a memorial nature, marking both the passing of and in the honor of something that no longer is. The mass grave becomes a monument to a massacre and also a monument to Joker's cynicism, as he "creates" a text for Stars and Stripes by forming a nuclear family out of the corpses, going so far as to break limbs to get the corpses to fit together, and binding them with barbed wire. It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in this text is what happens to the business of monumentalizing. Over and over in this novel what happens is that characters try to monumentalize things, memorialize them, pay homage to the past and what happens is that these memorials tend to get overrun and altered and so what you are left with (and this is the effect of too many stories being told about the memorials) is the impossibility and necessity of monumentalizing the past: and this unstable process, the novel demonstrates, is "history."
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