Purple Days

Mark Ford

  • The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones
    Faber, 230 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 571 17134 6
  • The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, translated by Frank Palmos
    Secker, 217 pp, £8.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 436 31042 2
  • A Good Scent from Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
    Minerva, 249 pp, £5.99, November 1993, ISBN 0 7493 9767 5
  • Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation by David Wyatt
    Cambridge, 230 pp, £35.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 521 44151 X

George Bush’s proud declaration that by bombing fleeing Iraqi soldiers America had ‘kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all’, was one of the more startling instances from recent years of the Vietnam War’s continuing hold on the American imagination. One could just about suspend disbelief when Sylvester Stallone set about rewriting history, but it was disconcerting to find the President of the United States so clearly in the grip of the same fantasy of revenge.

The internal strife bequeathed by Vietnam has proved almost as intractable as the war itself. As everyone knows, more American soldiers have killed themselves – often after killing other people first – in the years since the war than actually died in battle. In Dispatches, Michael Herr describes meeting an ocean-eyed Lurp (a former member of a Long Range Patrol) who, between tours, would stick a hunting rifle out of the window of his parents’ home and draw aim on passing cars and people: ‘It used to put my folks real uptight,’ he tells Herr. In Thom Jones’s ‘Break on Through’, the incredibly savage Baggit also has trouble hacking it ‘back in the World’: a few months after his return, laden with honours, he barricades himself in a beauty parlour with his mother for 14 hours before shooting her and then himself. When the police break in and find the bodies, a bag of heroin and a blood-stained Medal of Honor, an all too appropriate song by The Doors happens to be playing on Mrs Baggit’s radio – ‘This is the end, my only friend, the end ...’

War stories are normally told by survivors about others – friends or enemies – who didn’t make it. Often the story itself becomes part of the process of surviving. One of the purest examples of this is Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Man I Killed’, a preternaturally lucid description of a young Vietnamese soldier blown up by the narrator’s grenade. O’Brien’s precise, almost entranced detailing of the star-shaped hole where one of the man’s eyes used to be, his torn ear lobe, his scattered sandals, a butterfly alighting on his chin, are punctuated by the urgings of a fellow grunt to put it all behind him. ‘You want to trade places with him?’ Kiowa demands. ‘Turn it all upside down – you want that?’ The story brilliantly reveals how that’s exactly what he does want, for only by imagining the dead soldier’s life as fully as possible can he cope with the trauma of having ended it.

The Recon Marines who feature in the Vietnam stories in Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest have no such qualms about killing. ‘There was a reservoir of malice, poison and vicious sadism in my soul, and it poured forth freely in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam,’ says the narrator of the title story: ‘I committed unspeakable crimes and got medals for it.’ Jones is not much concerned with the cultural or ideological dimensions of the war, beyond noting the bizarre moral warps which convert psychopathic killers into national heroes, and back again. In ‘Break on Through’ the compulsively violent Baggit is sentenced to hanging for the murder of a US naval officer, then ‘popped’ from death row to strut his stuff in the jungle once again. There he slices off his victims’ noses, and leaves an ace of spades in their mouths.

Jones presents combat as an ecstatic but essentially solitary trip, a quest for the hallucinatory ‘purple fields’ (the phrase is adapted from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ of 1967) of invulnerable power: ‘If you tap into the purple field you get a sixth sense, heightened hearing, a field of vision that picks up anything that shouldn’t be there, the smell of Charles, and even on some of the blackest nights on earth, I had the ability to see Charles in fields of purple – literally sense his location, see his energy and assume control of it and be the first to kill.’ This is to be ‘High on War’, as the helmet graffito used to run, with little possibility of ever coming down. The narrator – nicknamed Hollywood – begins to wonder if he hasn’t made some sort of irrevocable deal with the devil, whom he sees one night in the jungle, dressed in a Humphrey Bogart hat, a Burberry raincoat, and trailing a tail that is ‘muscular, purple, and thick with spines’.

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