The writing credit on Full Metal Jacket reads “by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford” but the more accurate description would be “selected incidents from the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, as expressed in the style of Dispatches by Michael Herr.” As I’ve said, it’s the tone of Full Metal Jacket that makes it so unique and effective, even for Kubrick, and Herr and Hasford are largely responsible for it. More than any other Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket shows how far he would go in breaking down the story of a source novel to create the film. The Short-Timers feels both compressed and scattered, and that’s a good thing. Kubrick kept the essential structure: Joker goes through basic training and then jumps directly to Vietnam, the Tet Offensive begins, he meets the Lusthog Squad, and ends up in a showdown with a VC sniper at the end. There are more incidents and more downtime, and Joker has much more presence and character than he does in the film.
Removing much of Joker’s personality almost all of his voice was a risky move but it worked. Risky, because eliminate too much of a personality and you end up with something like Twilight’s Bella Swan, a protagonist so generic that audiences project rather than empathize. It worked, though, because it allows us to experience Joker’s journey towards becoming a killer from within. The Short-Timers is written in Joker’s first person, and he spends a lot of time addressing the reader directly.
There it is. Nobody asks us why we’re smiling because nobody wants to know. The ugly that civilians choose to see in war focuses on spilled guts. To see human beings clearly, that is ugly. To carry death in your face, that is ugly. War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere.
That last line appears twice in the novel, which could be because Hasford sees it as his theme or it could be sloppy editing. Without those lines ever appearing, Kubrick brings us into the headspace of them for the entire movie, their simplicity and force. (It’s so right that the final scene shows everybody smiling.) The lines appear near the end, and they summarize and engrave so much of what Hasford has to tell us.
The incidents and characters in The Short-Timers are more openly brutal and violent than in Full Metal Jacket. A Marine recruit bayonets the drill instructor in the thigh; Rafterman gets run over by a tank; after Joker kills the sniper in Hue, Animal Mother chops her head off “and sticks the bloody ball of gore in all our faces”; and at the end, when Joker has to kill Cowboy,
my bullet passes through his eye socket, through membranes, nerves, arteries, muscle tissue, through the tiny blood vessels that feed three pounds of gray butter-soft high-protein meat where brain cells arranged like jewels in a clock hold every thought and memory and dream of one adult male Homo sapiens. My bullet exits through the occipital bone, knocks out hairy, brain-wet clods of jagged meat, then buries itself in the roots of a tree.
A question I can never definitively answer is whether Kubrick was right to tone down the gore. I usually think it works, because Hasford writes to shock and to witness, to communicate to us what he saw, so different from Kubrick’s tone of acceptance. Comparing The Short-Timers with Full Metal Jacket, Pauline Kael wrote “the novel has an accumulating force of horror and the movie doesn’t,” probably the most succinct description of the difference between the two. There’s a rawness to The Short-Timers that fits a first novel; it’s driven by Hasford’s need to get us to see what he saw. Kubrick, though, follows that key passage of Hasford’s and chooses not to focus on spilled guts; I think Kubrick knew that when you make a film that’s too gory the gore is all we can see, and he’s pursuing feeling and understanding rather than seeing. (A film takes care of seeing, anyway.) He still conveys what’s essential: in the novel, when Animal Mother waves the sniper’s head around he laughs “Hard? Now who’s hard? Now who’s hard, motherfuckers?” and Cowboy replies “Joker is hard, Mother. You. . .you’re just mean.” That penultimate scene in Full Metal Jacket does convey that sense of what hardness is and it’s more than just fucking people up. Still, I wonder if he could have kept the level of violence in the novel and still had the same effect.
By selecting incidents from across the novel, Kubrick, Herr, and Hasford shaped an effective narrative from Hasford’s somewhat disjointed work. (The powerful final lines of the film occur near the middle of the novel.) The through-line of Full Metal Jacket is simple: Joker’s journey to his first kill. One of the things that always marked Kubrick’s talent in adaptations was his understanding that what works in a book doesn’t work in a film, because books give you the opportunity to jump around, put it down, set your own pace. The Short-Timers has many incidents that give such a sense of place and character but don’t advance the plot at all: at one point, Hasford digresses into a conversation between Private Joker’s Mind, Body, and Spirit; at another, the Lusthog Squad just converses with each other for several pages with no sense of urgency. (Kubrick called this scene “C-Rats with André” in the screenplay.) It’s realistic, no doubt, replicating the boredom of war, but they were right to take it out and toss some of the lines into the interview scenes.
Unsurprisingly for a first novel, Hasford doesn’t go fully past cliché. At the end of the first section, the DI promotes Joker to Private First Class and gives him his old PFC stripes; the moment feels too much like something we’ve seen before, too much like heroism. (Is this you, John Wayne?) The novel’s climactic scene has Cowboy running into a clearing to kill two of his own who have been wounded by a sniper, and that leads to Joker shooting Cowboy to stop the rest of the squad from going after him. (The final sequence in the film mixes elements of two scenes with snipers in the book, the first in Hue, the second in Khe Sanh.) There’s too much self-sacrifice in that moment, complete with Cowboy explaining himself (“It’s my job. . .”) and it feels out of place here. It would feel even more out of place in the movie, because Kubrick does so much to make these Marines not heroes. Sometimes his co-writers did that for him: for a long time during the writing process, Kubrick wanted Joker to die at the end. (“It’s the Death of the Hero, it’ll be so powerful, so moving. We’ve seen it in Homer, Michael. . .”) It’s not the first time he had a stupid idea for his films, particularly the ending, and it’s not the first time he had to be talked down.
As journalists Hasford and Herr got to hear a lot of the language of combat, some specific to Vietnam, and brought that into the film: refusing to accept the situation, number ten, get into the shit, Condition Red and expecting rain, outstanding, thousand-yard stare, get some! and the all-purpose Vietnam blessing there it is. Some of the incidents in Dispatches get into the film as well; the door gunner who explains how he can shoot women and children (“Easy. You just don’t lead ‘em so much”), the colonel who asks Joker to “get with the program, jump on the team and come in for the Big Win.” Also, the peace symbol on Joker’s uniform comes directly from Hasford, but Herr saw a soldier with “Born to Kill” next to it (the Jungian thing, sir) and made it Joker’s emblem.
Herr goes much farther than the movie could into the theme of language, and says something broader and more powerful about representation. You could summarize the American experience and American failure in Vietnam as a systematic refusal to accept the situation, more than that, as a demand to understand Vietnam in entirely American definitions, on all scales except the smallest. (Attempting to understand Vietnam in Vietnamese terms was a fireable offense or worse in 1960s America.) Herr tracks this, from the geographical imperative to “impose a new set of references over Vietnam’s older, truer being, an imposition that began most simply with the division of one country into two and continued–it had its logic–with the further division of South Vietnam into four clearly defined tactical corps.” (With “it had its logic,” Herr made himself a Kubrick collaborator before it ever officially happened.) He tracks the endlessly deceptive press briefings, called the Five O’Clock Follies by correspondents; he reports on the battle of Dak To, where Americans claimed four thousand Vietnamese dead, and “when the top of the hill was reached, the number of NVA found was four. Four. Of course more died, hundreds more, but the corpses kicked and counted and photographed numbered four.” He records the unique American terms for the strategy of this uniquely American war, where one country tried to fight another into liking it, where the deception gets embedded in the syllables: “frontier sealing, census grievance, black operations (pretty good, for jargon), revolutionary development, armed propaganda. I asked a spook [spy] what that one meant and he just smiled.” Contrasting this, Herr gives us stories of the American soldiers and their language, and the poetry he found there: “. . .and a couple of times you’d hear something high, like the corpsman at Khe Sanh who said ‘If it ain’t the fucking incoming it’s the fucking outgoing. Only difference is who gets the fucking grease, and that ain’t no fucking difference at all.’” The poetry comes from the compression and the rhythm of the language, as if being under fire and subjected to constant horror burns your words down to the simplest meanings, the most direct syntax. Like Joker, Herr’s soldiers are too close to reality to be anything but honest about it, and that also means being honest about the absurdity of the position they’re in, something you can see in the performances of Full Metal Jacket.
Herr loves these soldiers, without sentiment, without seeing them as heroes. Some of Dispatches questions the idea of heroism itself: “a lot of what people called courage was only undifferentiated energy cut loose by the intensity of the moment. . .if he survived it he had the chance later to decide if he’d really been brave or just overcome with life, even ecstasy.” Herr also understands how heroism gets used, commodified really, in a war like this one: “I went out and killed one VC and liberated a prisoner. Next day the major called me in and said I’d killed fourteen VC and liberated six prisoners. You want to see the medal?” Really there are no heroes in Dispatches, and the closest thing to villains are the superior officers; Herr also writes well on the respect the soldiers have for the enemy, common to most wars.
I stood as close to them as I could without actually being one of them, and then I stood as far back as I could without leaving the planet. Disgust doesn’t begin to describe what they made me feel, they threw people out of helicopters, tied people up and put the dogs on them. Brutality was just a word in my mouth before that. But disgust was just one color in the whole mandala, gentleness and pity were other colors, there wasn’t a color left out.
The whole of Dispatches, and Full Metal Jacket, lives up to the promise of those sentences, to see the world as it is and love it. Herr records violence, boredom, compassion, so much humor, insight, and madness, and usually shifts between them on a single page, sometimes a single sentence. No feeling cancels out any other feeling; no feeling of empathy here denies judgment. It’s a lot like a Kubrick film that way.
Since so much of the American experience was about not understanding Vietnam, so much of Herr’s writing is about his attempt to understand. Reading Herr, you get the rare joy of reading someone who has broken through and found his own language, someone who, in Don deLillo’s words, has found the “moral force in a sentence when it comes out right.” (It’s impossible to read someone like that and not have it shape, literally, your thinking; I suspect that my use of semicolons comes from Herr.) He’s vivid to the point of hallucination, trying not really to describe what he sees but to convey the feeling of seeing it: “six shades of green, motherfucker, tell me that ain’t beautiful.” It’s a carefully constructed language that gives such a feeling of immediacy, even shock. Appropriately for the writer of Apocalypse Now’s narration, Herr’s literary ancestor is Joseph Conrad: smart, rhythmic, overheated as not just Vietnam but America was in the late 1960s (“The Sixties had made so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn’t even have to fuse.”) Herr should be read, but if you imagine Conrad describing the music of Jimi Hendrix you have an approximation of what he does.
What Herr does with language bleeds into what Kubrick does with film in Full Metal Jacket, more than anything the ability of both to close the distance between the witness and the actor. That closing of the distance figures all through Dispatches, never more so than in the long section “Colleagues,” about journalists and photographers. (At the top, that’s a picture from one of Herr’s buddies, photographer Dana Stone, who went into Cambodia with another friend of Herr’s, Errol Flynn’s son Sean, in 1970. Neither has ever been heard from again.) Herr reflects directly on the business of being a war correspondent, what can and can’t get printed, the thrill of it, and the moral calculus:
[And what am I if I use that story in an essay, building whatever reputation I have? What are you if you read it and get anything, judgment or insight, from the death of a Marine?] Herr follows his words with “the combinations were infinite, you worked them out. . .” and it’s clear that the answer to all of these questions starts with I’m part of it. However small, the act of witnessing, or reporting, makes Herr (and I, and you) part of whatever we see. What Dispatches and Full Metal Jacket most powerfully have in common is the way they both collapse critical distance and transform it into empathy. That distance was so critical to Kubrick works like Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, and it’s gone here. Neither Dispatches nor Full Metal Jacket denies judgment, but both deny the distance and alienation of criticism, and both embrace community over that distance. (I’m not a critic. I’m an audience member who can type.) Near the beginning, Herr writes
There’s no way around it, if you took a picture of dead Marine and got something for it, you were some kind of parasite. But what were you if you pulled the poncho back first to make a better shot, and did that in front of his friends? Some other kind of parasite, I suppose. Then what were you if you stood there watching it, making a note to remember it later in case you might want to use it?
I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at everything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.
I read that sentence for the first time over twenty years ago, and back then, it had the feel of something that only made sense to the author and not to me. I’ve since come to understand. What Herr learned in Vietnam was a deep, strange, and necessary truth: that to be truly human, you have to accept all the implications of what humans can do, which is to say what you can do. It is one more journey to the Shadow, Herr’s “personal co-pilot in Vietnam, where I learned to know and respect it.” That binding to humanity, with all its glory (not heroism) and horror, is exactly the feeling I have at the end of Full Metal Jacket. Joker’s journey in The Short-Timers gave the film its material; Herr’s journey in Dispatches gave the film its tone.