The sequel to an 80s war film teaches us the gift of harsh truths.
“Now I am the Woodcutter’s experiment, his theory that victory requires knowledge of the enemy, along with an unflinching acceptance of any unendurable truths.”
— James “Joker” Davis, from the novel The Phantom Blooper by Gustav Hasford.
Of all the striking, bizarre, profound, shocking or otherwise delightful quotations I have highlighted in Gus Hasford’s little known Vietnam war novel The Phantom Blooper, the one above seems the least striking, bizarre, profound, etc. Yet it stopped me “like muzzle flashes in a treeline” (an image from the book’s last sentence) and made me think about an essential quality of a life well-lived: An unflinching acceptance of any unendurable truths.
I spent my youth papering over unendurable truths, or denying them, or reinterpreting them. But as I creak toward the last decade of middle age, I have at least begun to see that facing the truth is not only an agony, but also a gift. I want more of it, if I can stand it.
The Phantom Blooper is the second novel of an intended trilogy (Hasford died before writing the third). The first novel, The Short-Timers (1979) tells of Joker’s journey from Marine Corps Basic Training at Parris Island to combat in the cities and jungles of Vietnam, and his evolution from wise-cracking teenager to calloused Marine. The Short-Timers received good reviews and eventually became the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.
The Phantom Blooper begins with Joker on duty at Khe Sanh, days before the Marines are scheduled to evacuate the base. In the near constant rain, Joker patrols the trenches naked except for a Stetson cowboy hat — his last connection to a friend, and to his own humanity. He is well past the breaking point. His moral compass is gone, along with most of his reason. He is ruled by his inner obsessions and also by a voice shouting to him from outside the wire. This is the voice of the Phantom Blooper, rumored to be a white American, a former Marine listed as MIA years earlier, apparently having gone over to the other side. We never meet this ghost of an infantryman. We don’t have to. We’ll see his essence soon enough in Joker, who will soon take a similar journey.
For in short-order, Joker is captured. But he isn’t dragged off to the Hanoi Hilton or any other notorious prison camp. Instead he is held captive in a small country village where, over a long period of time, he is given the chance to live with the people of the resistance, and to face some unendurable truths about them. And perhaps, to join them.
There is much to love about The Phantom Blooper. I for one am a big fan of its many glimpses into Joker’s inner world, turned out in well-crafted writing. For example:
“I think about my father, always working, always making a crop, but never making a dollar ahead of next month’s feed bill, happy just to be alive and healthy with honest work to do.”
“Every time I dream about Cowboy the nightmare ends in a fearful splattering of blood and I wake up in a cold sweat, wanting to scream, but afraid to give away my position.”
But I don’t recommend it to many people. First off, it’s out of print, so you have to work a bit or spend a bit to get a copy. But the main thing is that many of my friends and family today would see The Phantom Blooper not just as anti-war or anti-Vietnam-War but as anti-American. While The Short-Timers, and Full Metal Jacket with it, end with Joker’s disillusionment, Blooper sets Joker on a journey that may or may not end with his rejection of America. Many people these days consider that possibility, even in a novel, to be something close to treason.
Why is that? Because it’s hard to face unendurable truths. And The Phantom Blooper raises some of them.
There are many explanations for the difficulties of the American military in Vietnam, and most of them have to do with people unwilling to face unendurable truths: Politicians and policy wonks who thought war could be projectized, planned, and perfectly executed; Generals who didn’t understand the limits of superior firepower in confined spaces; Strategists who underestimated the sacrifices people will make when they are fighting for their own country, not to mention how many people were available to stream across the borders into Vietnam to keep the war going. Few American leaders wanted to face these truths.
Private Joker was part of the problem and he knew it. He went to Vietnam (as did Hasford, upon whom Joker is partially based) as a reporter:
As a Combat Correspondent I was part of the vast gray machine that does not dispense clean information. The American weakness is that we try to rule the world with public relations, then end up believing our own con jobs. We are adrift in a mythical ship that no longer touches land.
But there is one person in the novel who is different, and that is the Woodcutter, who took Joker into his home, as his prisoner and as his experiment. The Woodcutter needed to see what an American Marine was like. Could he be tamed? Could he be converted? Could he at least be used, maybe against his will, as an agent of propaganda?
The Woodcutter kept Joker close in order to learn if there was any hope in winning this current war, or if instead there was a desperate need for change — an unflinching acceptance of any unendurable truths.
The Phantom Blooper makes the reader, especially the American one, think about some unendurable truths too. Through Joker’s eyes, we have to take a painful look at this country, patriotism and small-town values, faith and following orders. What do we really owe our nation? Our families? Ourselves? And what does it mean to live authentically when your world, or a big part of it, has swallowed the Big Lie? Here’s how Joker came to see it:
(Y)ou can stay here and live with us in our constructed phantom paradise if you promise to pay lip service to the lies we live by. If you salute every civil service clerk who claims to be Napoleon, you may play in our asylum.
In the land of a thousand lies, to be an honest man is a crime against the state.
All of us have experienced at least some of this institutional dishonesty. We can’t say everything we think to our family at Christmas Dinner. We have to keep silent and, to some degree, play the game at work. It’s a childish fantasy to suppose otherwise.
But there comes a time when we must, each of us, look at ourselves and face the truth of who we are, where we are heading, and what is the likely outcome of these in terms of our relationships and our legacy.
Few of us are consistently willing to face unendurable truths, or even unpleasant ones. But it is no small part of a significant and worthy life to do just that.
When I think back over the decades, I begin to see how much I have lost by failing to face hard truths, mostly ones about myself. How much better could my life have been if I had accepted early on some of the unendurable truths about my own selfishness, for example, or about the effects of my anger on my wife? What if I had owned up earlier and without reservation to the addictions and near-addictions, the laziness, the ulterior motives in relationships? What if I had made a harsh assessment years ago of the true level of my own abilities? What if I had not only been open to good, honest feedback, but had actually sought it out?
I always thought I would be an honest person when I did my best to tell the truth, or at least to not lie. But that’s only half of being honest, or maybe less than half. The bigger part is an unflinching acceptance of any unendurable truths. Unless you can look the at the truth squarely and see it for what it is, there’s no way to be truly honest. How can I speak truthfully about what I haven’t faced up to?
That’s why I highlighted Joker’s description of the Woodcutter. Unflinching acceptance of any unendurable truths surely sets the Woodcutter apart from most people. It’s something I have been pursuing myself over the last several years (at least some of the time, to face the truth about it).
How does someone learn to recognize the unendurable truths (the necessary prerequisite to facing them)?
For one thing, we need to understand that we are ill-equipped to do it alone. This is because the part of our brain that deals in logic and rational decision-making is not the same part as the one that generates emotions like anger, arrogance and defensiveness. Yet both parts send me their messages. Both parts ARE me, in fact. Without training, it’s easy to react negatively to the unendurable truths I most need to face. Even with training, it isn’t easy. The defensiveness and anger still boils up.
This is why we can often bring more calm wisdom to the problems of other people than we can to our own. When it’s someone else, especially someone I’m not too emotionally wrapped up with, I can listen to their words without my own emotions getting engaged. I can’t do that easily with myself, so I need people who will tell me the truth, and not be influenced by my defensiveness or anger, or by a fear of hurting my feelings.
It’s not especially easy to find such people, especially if you have a long history of defensiveness and anger. But it is absolutely essential to have someone like this. For me, this role has been played at various times by friends, professional counselors, my wife, my father-in-law, my first boss (at a job I had while still in high school), my brothers, and my Dad. These, and a few others, spoke up from time to time to tell me the truth about myself, and they didn’t let any fear of my reaction stop them. The best of them did it out of concern or even love. But even the less-than-tactful ones, the ones who had little to gain or lose from me and therefore probably didn’t care if I responded or not — even they gave me something to think about.
But the best of counselors are of little use to the person who won’t face the truth within. And we all have a built-in reluctance to do that.
The Phantom Blooper takes Joker, and the reader, on a long, tragic and excruciating journey. It’s a well-written novel. It can be delightful and heartbreaking. It is occasionally childishly cynical. At the end, Joker has to face some unendurable truths. Mostly about himself.
That’s a place I’m trying to get to.