29 January 2017
Twenty-four years ago today, my Dad’s first cousin, Jerry Gustave Hasford, passed away on the Greek island of Aegina. If he were alive now, Gus would be seventy years old. I don’t know much about Aegina, and I never met Gus in person, but I hope it was a beautiful day and Gus found as much peace as he could. He earned it. He deserved it.
Gus was an Oscar-nominated author. Along with Michael Herr, he helped write the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, developed from Gus’s first novel, The Short Timers. You can still find The Short Timers in print if you look hard enough. It’s well worth the search.
Gus was a myth – an ether really – from my childhood: he was a writer whose book was made into a movie by THE Stanley Kubrick. I still remember the day when we received a first edition of The Short Timers in the mail with the inscription, “For Uncle Billy Ray.” (He called my Dad “Uncle” because Dad was a few years older than Gus.) I will never forget seeing Full Metal Jacket with my friends David and Melissa at the old Meadowbrook 6 Theater in Jackson. (At least that’s how I remember it: 1987 was a long damn time ago.)
My only experiences with war are second-hand: what I’ve read in books, and what I remember my Uncle Jack telling me about Peleliu and Okinawa with the Old Breed, the First Marine Division. He was proud of his service: “100%,” I heard him say more than once. But it was rare you could get him to talk about it. I think he dealt with the incomprehensible brutality of what he saw by staying more than a little aloof, and always wise-cracking. He also spoke of the randomness of war. When asked after basic training who could drive a tractor, Jack piped-up: he was a farm-boy from North Alabama. They sent him to tank school, and in the Pacific theater, any tank was a hell of a lot safer than being a grunt. Thank God he wasn’t facing Panzers and Tigers in the bocage of Normandy.
On those few occasions when he did talk about the war, what Jack said left me confounded and chilled: Was this the same war that Hollywood and John Wayne fought? Jack kind of ruined “Sands of Iwo Jima” for me when he told me about sleeping under his tank to avoid the vicious, unrelenting night attacks on Peleliu, how M4 “Shermans” were fitted with flamethrowers on Okinawa to burn men alive in pill boxes and caves, and how the bilge of Higgins boats turned rosy with the blood of wounded and dead Marines and soldiers evacuated off the islands. And I remember one dark summer night, on the porch of my Grandma’s house on Coburn Mountain, Jack telling us he would never, ever go back to war.
Years later, when I picked up Eugene Sledge’s book about Peleliu, the basis for a large part of HBO’s The Pacific, I understood.
My brother John recently gave me an incredible book called The Cat from Hue, by John Laurence. Laurence spent almost the entirety of the Vietnam War in-country reporting for CBS news. This memoir is gut-wrenching, and I think it finally made me understand, maybe just a little, what war does to the psyche of the soldiers, civilians, reporters and combat photographers who are caught in the maelstrom of arbitrary violence inflicted with 20th, and now, 21st century military technology.
Maybe you think we’ve learned our lesson with respect to foreign entanglements and conflict. I’m not sure we ever will: here we are in a historical moment that seems to be marked by vitriol, bile, hatred, racism, nationalism and paranoia ramped up with specious “alternative facts.” The current administration has attempted to ban an entire class of people, from select countries, when many of them are in dire need of the succor that this nation has always offered immigrants to help them start a new life. The veiled theorist behind these policies is the former head of an openly-racist blog, who claims that, “Twenty percent of this country is immigrants. Is that not the beating heart of this problem?” Although he got even these numbers wrong by any contemporary measure, he is still well, well off the mark. Recent census data shows that the Native American population of the US is about two percent. Using new math, and after a long, frustrating night with many broken pencils, I came up with the figure that about ninety-eight percent of us are immigrants. I’m guessing (and hoping) that the sixty-million or so Americans who voted for our new president didn’t know they were buying a matched-set of luggage. With the kit came a small overnight case whose mental real-estate seems to be occupied by a fever-dream parts Oswald Spengler and Cormac McCarthy.
My own family came to this continent 300 years or so ago.
When Hernán Cortés arrived in Meso-America in 1519, Tenochtitlan was perhaps the largest city in the world, with a population of between 200-300 thousand.
The point? We are ALL immigrants to one degree or another, and to say or imply that western European culture should somehow be more cherished than others is racist, vacuous and facile. (See “nativism,” if you need a history lesson on the subject.)
If you still believe in science, you might know that none of us would be here were it not for a chance but violent encounter with an asteroid moving at fifteen miles a second during the K–T extinction event some sixty-five million years ago. The exquisite devastation of this impact laid the conditions for humanoid evolution. We’re all just a cosmic blip, a lucky shot in a very cold, dark universe: humans are the evolutionary equivalent of a sixty-five-yard field goal with three seconds left.
You may think that this country could never fall apart to the extent seen in other nations of late, but you don’t have to look very far to be disabused of that notion. I do think we could easily be led into another major war in the next four years, and sadly, I do think it’s very possible that this country could fall into political dissolution that would mean the end of our republic as we know it.
Pick up a copy of My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. It will make you see how close the tipping point is for any nation. It will put those cool cable shows about Hitler’s Alien Zoos and The Top Ten Sniper Rifles in context. In the real world, 120 mm mortars land in crowded markets and vaporize men, women and children into foamy pink, horrifying shadows. War is Hell. Most people don’t own body armor.
Loyd’s memoir is at once mesmerizing and dreadful. And it shows that, again and again, it’s quite easy to pit neighbor against neighbor, and nation against nation, for no meaningful reason. There are always those whose phony morality and piety, packaged as patriotism, can lead others to perpetuate the most vile and cruel acts upon the innocent, the weak and those with little or no political juice.
I know enough history to ask that before we embark on any new adventures on the world stage, we consider what we are requiring of our service members and our country, and that we make sure we are as certain as we can be that we are doing the right thing.
If you read classics in political theory and ethics like Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars you may conclude that, yes, there are times when there may be no other options but the “use of force.” But it’s a slippery euphemism that means combatants and civilians will be killed and maimed in the most unspeakable ways, lives will be ruined forever, families torn apart, and refugees drowned in the oceans.
We owe it to all the people who are willing to put their lives on the line for us, and all the civilians caught in the crossfire, to think long and hard before we go on any more adventures.
And yet we also owe it to those who are suffering from conflict to try to put an end to madness.
There are no easy answers.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool.
A couple of weeks ago I updated my Facebook profile picture with an image from perhaps the funniest movie of all time, Dr. Strangelove. Although the subject matter is morose, it’s a great ride and the performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens and the other leads are for the ages.
The gallows humor of war through the lens of Strangelove is unforgettable and even charming at times…like a goofball comedy from the 30s.
The real thing, I can only imagine, is not much fun.
I have never served in the military, and thus can’t truly know the sacrifices made by, and express the gratitude and admiration for, the members of my family (and there have been many), and all of those who have risked their lives and their sanity to protect us. I can just say, “Thank you.”
Gus, from all I can gather, and like so many of his generation, never made it out of Vietnam. His body may have come out intact, but the rest of him was, I think, left behind – permanently stranded with thousands of other lost souls. Maybe he found some peace on Aegina.
I wish I had met him; I wish I could ask him.
I hope it was a beautiful day.
I’ve already lived longer than Gus did, and I have a wonderful family and a fulfilling career. It just doesn’t seem right.
Gus paid the price, a price we still ask of men and women today when we tell them to go abroad and fix our problems – some real, some woven from whole cloth.
I can’t put words into Joker’s mouth, but I think if he were alive he would be speaking out against injustice, intolerance, insanity and inanity. I think he would tell you to make a new friend, or at the least, not hate someone because their skin is a different color, or they worship a different god. First and foremost, I think he would say that we should give the benefit of the doubt to those fleeing lands enveloped in a conflagration of random violence, mayhem and murder.
We owe all immigrants, in this nation of immigrants, a chance.
If you don’t agree, then I would ask you to embark upon an experiment and reach out to someone not like you. You may find we are all more alike than different. It might start with one small act: make the effort to connect with someone you don’t know and find out what we have in common.
Maybe talk to an Iranian cab driver in Boston…You might find out, in a ten-minute ride, about his two daughters who are now doctors, and see the graduation pictures he proudly shows from his iPhone to probably every fare who will listen to his story. You might hear about his failed restaurant in DC, and yet, his still abiding faith in this ALREADY great country.
And know that the vast majority of immigrants and minorities have to work ten times as hard as the rest of us to just get by.
Connecting with others is not that hard. It’s also not a panacea, but it’s a start.
There are no easy answers.
Yet looking away won’t help. Read a book, read some “real” news for a change. Stay informed.
We owe it to everyone in the US, and on this planet, to just try to get along. The alternatives are horrendous – an expressway to the abyss – and we’ve seen it all before. Let’s not make our own K-T event. The cosmos will probably take care of that for us in a few hundred thousand years. Let’s all try a little harder, try something different, for Gus, for Joker, for my Uncle Jack, for all of the veterans out there, for the drowned Syrian boy found on the Greek island of Kos – about three-hundred miles east of Aegina.
There it is.
Really terrific piece.