A Common Virtue by James A. Hawkins

James A. Hawkins served eleven years as a U. S. Marine, and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His Marine Corps Vietnam War novel, A Common Virtue (Naval Institute Press, 240 pp., $29.95), takes place during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Paul Jackson, an eighteen-year old recon Marine sniper, is the lone survivor of a massacre on a hillside. This is the information we are given in the cover blurb. It goes on to say that the book “is about growing into manhood in a toxic America and a world gone mad.”

That is the true subject of this first novel. I had expected and hoped for a Marine Corps adventure novel. The author seems filled with bitterness about America. The book begins with a brief author’s note in which Hawkins mentions that Marines “returned to a thankless nation.”  Later he says that Marines served in a war “that even today America despises.”

That led me to believe that Hawkins is pissed off about not getting a homecoming parade in which Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” was played. I hoped this attitude would not undermine the entire novel. I also hoped that the book contained no anti-Jane Fonda rants and no scenes of returning veterans being treated badly in an American airport by a braless hippy chick.

The writing in this novel is for those who are deaf to cliché and insensitive to plodding prose. Someone, for example, actually says, “We’re all gonna die.” And Hawkins writes: “His scarred face looked as if it had been burned by napalm and somebody had put it out with a garden rake.”

On the very same page we get: “The malevolence in his voice chilled Rivers to the bone.” All the way to the bone? As I read that my expectations for the novel sank even lower.

We get the usual John Wayne references found in Marine Corps books:  “John Wayne routine,” “John Wayne incarnate,” and “instructions on how John Wayne would use a knife to cut a throat.”  We get two references to “feather merchants,” and countless “saddle up’s.” I lost track of how many times they got out of Dodge, but there were at least five of them.

We get a mention of lima beans and ham, which I was thankful for, but when I read, “happier than a pig in shit,” I was compelled to ask myself, how happy is that pig? I believe that pigs actually prefer to be clean whenever they can be. When an NVA is shot, he “dropped like someone slugged in the stomach with a baseball bat.”  I’ll bet he did not.  And it was likely to be “darker than midnight in a coal bin” when that happened.

We get a reference to “hippy bastards,” and when our hero passes through an airport, he has to deal with “a large gathering of long haired, scantily clad demonstrators” One of their signs reads, “Welcome Home, Baby Killers.”

Were the “scantily clad” demonstrators wearing bikinis? I’d love to know since I went to a lot of antiwar rallies and never encountered anyone who was scantily clad. I wish I had been so lucky.

Civilians are casually described as “fat, dirty.” REMFs are mentioned countless times in the novel—never in a kind way.

The one true villain in this novel is a REMF Marine Corps officer, who vilely undermines the authority and credibility of the hero, Paul Jackson, causing the deaths of many Marines.

I would have liked to have read a lot more of Marines in combat, and more about the setting up of the “two-man reconnaissance-team concept in the Vietnam War” and a lot less social commenting.  My theory, based on the author’s comments, is that Hawkins could not help himself. The book was his chance to express long-lived bitterness, and he let it rip whenever he could jam it in.

It does not benefit what could have been an exciting Marine Corps novel about an exceptional teenaged Marine. At least Jane Fonda went unmentioned.

—David Willson

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