The Short-Timers

The Short-Timers
   Writer GUSTAV HASFORD served as a combat correspondent with the First Marine Division in Vietnam, and out of that experience wrote his first novel, The Short-Timers. The story begins at the U. S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina. In the novel’s first section, “The Spirit of the Bayonet,” fresh recruits are taken through boot camp. The senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim (called Sergeant Hartman in STANLEY KUBRICK’s 1987 adaptation, FULL METAL JACKET),“an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki,” strips them of their civilian identities in order to turn them into “ministers of death. ” The narrator of the novel (Hasford’s alter ego) is nicknamed Private Joker because of his tendency to crack wise and imitate John Wayne. Only one character is given a regular surname and first name, Leonard Pratt; he becomes the unit’s scapegoat. Beginning a continued pattern of harassment and humiliation, the drill instructor calls him “Gomer Pyle. ” Eventually Leonard is transformed into a killer, but not a marine. He becomes an insane “minister of death” who snaps, kills the drill instructor, and then commits suicide. Joker describes Leonard as “a defective instrument” for the power that was flowing through him at that point. As Joker says in the novel, “It is a hard heart that kills, not the weapon. ” This statement becomes a major motif throughout the novel. The second section of the novel, “Body Count,” follows Joker, now a combat correspondent, to Da Nang. The time is 1968,“Tet:The Year of the Monkey. ” At this point Hasford explains the novel’s title: “Almost every Marine in Viet Nam carries a short-time calendar of his tour of duty—the usual 365 days—plus a bonus of 20 days for being a Marine. ”The Vietcong’s Tet offensive is at hand. Joker gives advice to a marine nicknamed Rafter Man (“Rafterman” in the film): “In this world of shit you won’t have time to understand. What you do, you become. ” The action moves to Hue, the Forbidden City. There is a brutal encounter with a female Vietcong sniper, who is seriously wounded. Joker puts her out of her misery. Joker’s colleagues are killed, one by one. Rafter Man is run over by a tank and cut in half. The last section of the novel, entitled “Grunts,” takes Joker to Khe Sanh. He is no longer a “new guy,” but a hardened “grunt. ” As Joker explains, fatalistically,“I’m not the author of this farce, I’m just acting out my role. ” One marine is pinned down by sniper fire. A corpsman goes out to rescue him, and both of them are shot to pieces. The sniper hits a boot-camp friend of Joker’s named Cowboy, who has gone out on a mission of mercy to put the others out of their misery. Joker puts Cowboy out of his misery. By this time Joker is “hard,” a leader and a killer. The novel is astonishingly brutal and repulsively graphic. Kubrick’s filmed treatment, which also seems brutal, in fact sanitizes the violence. Hasford puts the emphasis on combat as the ultimate experience that turns men into trained killers. Kubrick’s film, Full Metal Jacket, puts the emphasis on basic training, and that is the reason the boot camp sequence weighs so heavily in the film version. The Short-Timers might be considered a “writing cure,” as Hasford attempts to put the trauma of Vietnam behind him. The novel is a work of surreal incoherence, a nihilistic response to an apparently absurd universe. Working with journalist MICHAEL HERR (the author of Dispatches 1977, about the Vietnam War), Kubrick transformed the novel into a coherent narrative.
   ■ Hasford, Gustav, The Short-Timers (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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