Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944
It is appropriate that 365 Days should begin and end with a sense of the interconnectedness of the medical and combat services, for their members are the true heroes and heroines of these sketches. Just as Glasser recognized that “there is not . . . a community in America that would not have been proud” to claim Zama’s hospital for its own, so he himself is able to feel proud of the soldiers he comes to know and respect. In writing of moments in the soldiers’ and medics’ lives, Glasser emphasizes a pattern of naivete, dedication, frustration, and personal sacrifice. This archetypal pattern of the loss of innocence links these diverse sketches together.
Ultimately, the author focuses on the naive goodness of the soldiers and medics. In “The Shaping-Up of Macabe,” for example, Glasser relates how Macabe evolves from an idealistic college Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet into a pragmatic and efficient artillery officer. Glasser writes, “Hemingway had his Spain; Macabe would have his Vietnam.” Macabe volunteers for one specialized training course after another, from artillery training to “jump” school to ranger training, and learns that this war is not romantic. He comes to focus, even while in training, “always on the immediate.” According to Glasser, Macabe and the other soldiers in his unit “were learning how to live with someone trying to kill them.” Thus Macabe’s violent retributive actions become understandable in the context of his situation, for their “unit had been hit three nights in a row.”
This American pragmatism, born of naivete, is effective—“most of the time it works,” notes Glasser. In “Gentlemen, It Works,” Glasser interweaves the stories of two soldiers, Dienst and Washington, with a brief history of military psychiatric practices. Beginning with the errors of the past (the evacuation procedures used during World War I and the individual, intensive psychotherapy emphasized by Freudians during World War II), a psychiatric medical adviser suggests a newer, pragmatic approach, stressing that “health rather than disease” is the most efficient way of treating combat exhaustion. In depicting the successful return of both Dienst and Washington to their units, Glasser advocates the ultimate compassion of this approach, for “a year’s problem does not become a lifelong disability.”
Because of the essential goodness of both the soldiers and the medics, Glasser’s focus on their psychic and physical wounds assumes an understated but tragic tone. When he mentions, at the end of “Come On! Let’s Go!” that “4,114 Americans were killed, 19,285 were wounded, and 604 were lost,” the cold statistics take on meaning because of the human story that introduces those numbers. The cumulative effect of the woundings and deaths described is a strong sense of loss.
More pervasive, however, is the theme of selfless sacrifice that runs through the seventeen sketches. Troops live where it is “115 degrees in the sun,” where soldiers are required to spend the night in two-man perimeter defense positions armed only with bayonets and knives, where endless five-hour marches are punctuated with a deadly sniper round or pressure-detonated mine. For the medics—the “young [who] are suddenly left alone to take care of the young”—the situation is worse. Becoming deeply attached to their units, they sacrifice by “cutting down on their own water and food so they can carry more medical supplies.” Even the doctors at Camp Zama, one step removed from direct combat, make their sacrifices, both in the long and grueling hours that they work and in their contact with the wounded and dying soldiers. As Glasser has noted in another context, “Doctors should be taught right through school to deal with grief, suffering, heartache and anguish.” For the medics and doctors, as much as for the soldiers, personal sacrifice brings a muted tone of nobility to their stories.
Still, Glasser’s view is not without cynicism. Embedded in these tales of sacrifice by essentially good and honest people is a sense of disgust at bureaucratic bungling, waste, and dishonesty. Macabe, for example, despite all of his extensive training as a ranger, is assigned duties as a forward observer, and Deneen, trained as an airborne officer, is assigned to a mechanized battalion. Glasser is also critical of the medical corps—for example, when certain of its personnel unthinkingly follow army regulations to the detriment of their patients. The majority of his criticism, however, is aimed at civilian contractors working in Vietnam. In “$90,000,000 a Day,” Glasser describes how Herman London bribes a sergeant in headquarters to transport a case of liquor to a civilian construction site in the jungle.
Clearly, the prevailing tone of 365 Days is that of an elegy. Amid the stories told from differing points of view there emerges an acceptance of pain and suffering and a stoic faith in one’s unit and its individual members. The penultimate story, “Brock,” brings many of these themes together. A member of a covert special forces unit working behind enemy lines, Brock visits wounded members of his team at the Camp Zama Evacuation Hospital. Disdainful of the army hospital’s protocol, Brock places personal loyalty above regulations and continues to visit his men. Reticent about his accomplishments and sacrifices, he later quietly recounts the story of his specialized unit’s professional pragmatism. In essence, Brock is the archetypal hero of these sketches. Yet the story ends in a fashion typical of the other stories. En route home at the end of his tour, Brock is told, “There’s no one out there any more.” Although that is literally the truth, it underscores a more substantial truth: that Brock, because of the depth of his experiences in the war, will always carry, within himself, vestiges of those experiences.
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