A raw, visceral and no holds barred account of the horrors of the Vietnam Var, “Proud Bastards” is a ‘grunt’s perspective’ of the macabre dance of death played out within some of the densest foliage that the Planet has to offer. The mutual mayhem and massacre wreaked upon by the NVA and their opposing American soldiers neither had any precedence nor has – thankfully – boasted any successors. Goaded by the allure of becoming a Marine and a patriot, Michael Helms presents himself as a nervous recruit at the Parris Island Boot Camp. What follows is an ordeal that is downright unendurable. Finding himself under a Drill Sergeant whose USP is an expletive laden abusive tongue and whose inveterate hobby is a sadism towards subjecting the hapless recruits to a killing regimen of punishment exercises, Helms cannot wait for graduation day.
From training it is straight into the trenches, but not before a fleeting trip to California where the new graduates try to wing dainty damsels before puking their alcohol laced guts out. Helms – a Purple Heart Medal awardee, in addition to the Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry – recollects his nightmare experiences, both physical and mental, in the jungles of Vietnam, with not a trace of mellowness or discretion. No punches are pulled back as he recounts some absolutely damnable days. If he is not in the middle of a murderous combat where ‘gooks’ are getting the intestines carved out and heads blow away, he is “getting the shits and blowing his asshole out of orbit.” Expletives permeate every page of the short book as Helms gives complete and unfettered vent to his emotions.
“Proud Bastards” is where a Jack Kerouac-meets-Charles Bukowski rendition without the alcohol, or rather with an extraordinarily minuscule dosage of it. The ravages of the war on the human psyche and physiology is captured in an unbelievably emotional passage in the book. Spotting a sandbagged tent with a two foot long mirror balanced on a supporting pole, PFC Helms decides to have a look at himself in the mirror. The reflection staring back at him just poleaxes the young lad. “Jesus H. Christ! Who is this bedraggled looking bastard? Can’t be me. But it is. Dirty, sallowy skin. Sunken eyes that seem to look beyond the reflection and focus nowhere. Grimy cracks and crevices, overgrown with adolescent peach fuzz, like some farmer’s unkempt field. My skin bristles, my stomach knots, and I almost recoil at the ogre staring back at me…Jesus, what’s happened to me? What have I become….?”
Mr. Helms also cultivates some memorable friendships along the way and when friends get killed in combat the loss is an irreplaceable vacuum. When Mr. Helms himself gets seriously shot up and is convalescing in the hospital after multiple surgeries and unbelievably painful physiotherapies, he gets to lay his hands on an obituary listing. Pushing aside all his gut instincts, he traverses through the names hoping against hope not to see the name of best every buddy. But when the dreaded alphabet arrives…….
“Proud Bastards” is both a testimony to the courage and valour of hundreds of thousands of young lives unwittingly and inexplicably hurled into a mindless war, and a direct indictment of the blind sightedness of both politicians and policy makers who are oblivious to the futility of armed conflicts.
However, the one glaring and inexcusable element of the book is the insight provided into patriarchy and male chauvinism that was taken for granted in the earlier decades. When Mr. Helms and his mate invade a bar and the latter engages in a flirtatious conversation with the barmaid, Mr. Helms wonders as to what was that his pal saw in the ‘pig.’ “Come on, asshole, must be ten million broads in Southern California that look better than this porker. We’ve only got three days before we have to report to Camp Pendleton, and you’re trying to bang a boar. Headline: Bulldog Boom-Booms Bacon!” I wonder whether such a reprehensible and unpardonable employ of language to refer to any member of the fairer sex would pass by any publishing agency today.