You can read this story for free, thanks to Baen e-books (via the Free Speculative Fiction Online site).
This is an undeniably powerful story that tackles the mad business of war with chilling precision. It suggests a near future dystopia USA that’s stuck in a jungle war in Latin America supported by man power brought in by a draft. The American soldiers rely on some kind of stimulant drug to encourage a zealous approach to combat. Our hero, Dantzler, is one of the draftees, despite his own sense of unfitness for the whole enterprise:
“The chickenshit infantry should take ’em,” the D.I. had said. “You bastards are brave already. You’re born killers, right?”
“Right, Sir!” they had shouted.
“What are you?”
“Born killers, Sir.”
But Dantzler was not a born killer; he was not even clear as to how he had been drafted, less clear as to how he had been manipulated into the Special Forces, and he had learned that nothing was optional in Salvador, the possible exception of life itself.
However, the drugs make everything easier, and Shepard gives us a vivid sense of what it’s like to be battle high:
Gradually his arms and legs lost their heaviness and his heart rate slowed. His vision sharpened to the point that he could see not only the pinpricks of fire blooming on the slope, but also the figures behind them, half-obscured by brush. A bubble of grim anger welled up in his brain, hardened to a fierce resolve, and he started moving toward the volcano. By the time he reached the base of the cone, he was all rage and reflexes. He spent the next forty minutes spinning acrobatically through the thickets, spraying shadows with his M-18; yet part of his mind remained distant from the action, marvelling at his efficiency, at the comic-strip enthusiasm he felt for the task of killing. He shouted at the men he shot and he shot them many more times than was necessary, like a child playing soldier.
The story’s got heaps of atmosphere and conjures up the claustrophobic nature of jungle warfare brilliantly. Sorry for another long quote, but check this out:
They had planned on negotiating the cloud forest by nightfall, but they had underestimated the difficulty. The vegetation beneath the clouds was lush – thick, juicy leaves that mashed underfoot., tangles of vines, trees with slick, pale bark and waxy leaves – and the visibility was only about fifteen feet. They were gray wraiths passing through grayness.
There’s only a few directions a trajectory like Dantzler’s can take him, and maybe that’s what makes me less enthusiastic about this story than the enormous technical skill on display perhaps deserves. It feels very much of its times; this one was first published in 1984 (in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy) and I remember those days very well. This story combines two of the great themes of the era, American imperialism in Latin America and the Nam story.
America’s interventions in Latin America were a live issue in the 80s, with scandals like the Iran-Contra affair and secret deals with Pinochet and other South American strong men coming to light. At the same time, the ’Nam generation was maturing and beginning to reflect on its experiences, which saw the boom in ’Nam-era stories like the acclaimed movies Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July and their lesser brethren starring the likes of Arnie, Sly and Chuck. This story fits right in to that kind of narrative, left or right – innocent grunts driven to the edge by a fickle high command and corrupt politics. The Latin American setting brings with it a light gloss of Carlos Castaneda-style Indo-American shamanistic magic realism, with the combat high acting as the kind of initiatory psychedelic sacrament.
There’s also something about this story that doesn’t quite feel like science fiction. Replace the jungle with the desert and the story nearly gets things right. The powerful battle drugs (although the military has always issued soldiers with stimulants of different kinds) and the open war in Latin America are really the only speculative elements here, and the soldiers lack any of the telecoms, computerised maps, helmet-mounted cameras or drone recon that we’re familiar with today. Far from futuristic, this story ends up feeling quite old fashioned.
Themes: Uncle Sam eats his young, war is heck, drugs, colonialism.