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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

In terms of its action, Dog Soldiers may be considered a thriller. Its plot, however, is merely a vehicle for an elaborate superstructure containing a mordant, satiric, despairing meditation on the manner in which the experience of Vietnam invaded the American consciousness.

The plot tells of John Converse, a weak...

(The entire section contains 1632 words.)

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In terms of its action, Dog Soldiers may be considered a thriller. Its plot, however, is merely a vehicle for an elaborate superstructure containing a mordant, satiric, despairing meditation on the manner in which the experience of Vietnam invaded the American consciousness.

The plot tells of John Converse, a weak though talented journalist, and his scheme to smuggle three kilos of pure heroin from Vietnam to the United States. He has been sent on assignment to Vietnam by his father-in-law, Elmer Bender, the ruthless publisher of a sensationalist scandal sheet. The idea to smuggle the heroin is an expression of the increase in Converse’s amorality and confusion resulting from his exposure to America at war in Vietnam.

To assist in the smuggling, Converse enlists Ray Hicks, a former Marine Corps friend, and, to Converse, “probably a psychopath.” Hicks completes the task with ease. Then, as directed, he contacts Converse’s wife, Marge, who sells tickets at a pornographic cinema and lives on tranquilizers. At this point, however, everything begins to go dreadfully wrong, as though to confirm Hicks’s earlier perspective: “It’s gone funny in the states.”

Almost as soon as Hicks meets Marge, he is waylaid by hoodlums, and he and Marge are forced to flee. This flight across Southern California, and Converse’s subsequent pursuit of them, is the mainstay of the plot. The flight takes the characters through a generally unstable and often nightmarish social landscape. Among the characters whom Hicks and Marge meet is Eddie Peace, a sleazy Hollywood hanger-on, to whom Hicks unsuccessfully tries to sell the heroin. Shortly thereafter, Marge becomes addicted to heroin. Converse, on the other hand, is forced to pursue the heroin by some extremely unsavory lawmen, led by a certain Antheil. The differences between law and disorder are shown to be insignificant.

The flight ends in the mountains near the Mexican border, where Hicks visits his “alma mater,” an encampment run by Dieter, a guru of the Apocalypse. Here Converse and the lawmen corner them. Hicks, however, decides to make for Mexico with the heroin, but he dies of a gunshot wound, exposure, and exhaustion on the way. Converse, now reunited with Marge, finds Hicks but is too late to do anything to help. He decides to jettison the heroin, leaving it for the thuggish lawmen.

The novel’s action is accompanied by heavy symbolic and intellectual overtones. Characters exemplify a variety of philosophical and ideological emphases. Elmer Bender, for example, is a former Communist who served in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Lincoln Brigade. Now he is a malevolent cultural shyster, a remorseless manipulator of public taste and gullibility. On Dieter’s mountain, the action temporarily stalls to allow the guru to recount the commune’s history of drug-induced orgies of visionary overload masquerading as cosmic overview. In the context of these two embodiments of compulsive distorting, three kilos of heroin may seem to be a comparatively trivial matter.

Heroin, however, is a means of linking America at home with America in Vietnam. It unites the characters by revealing that, in the name of the drug, their behavior is distorted. Converse, having witnessed a United States Army drive to stamp out elephants—“enemy agents because the NVA used them to carry things”—reflects: “As for dope . . . and addicts—if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high. So there, Converse thought, that’s the way it’s done. He had confronted a moral objection and overriden it.” His thoughts anticipate Hicks’s remark to Eddie Peace: “I’m just doing what everybody else is doing.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017

John Converse, once an up-and-coming playwright, has not written a successful play in almost a decade. He begrudgingly works as a sensationalist journalist at his father-in-law’s tawdry tabloid, Nightbeat. Converse has convinced himself and his employer that an assignment as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam will benefit both the magazine and his own career as a playwright. He has been in Vietnam for eighteen months, working and looking for inspiration to overcome his writer’s block. He stays in touch with his wife, Marge, though letters. Marge works at an adult theater and is pronarcotics; the two of them have an open marriage and a young daughter named Janey.

Converse’s former lover and present narcotics connection in Saigon is an American named Charmian, a judge’s daughter who left Washington after her involvement in a political scandal. After acquiring uncut heroin from Charmian and briefly discussing a plan to smuggle the drug to the United States, Converse joins Jill and Ian Percy for drinks and dinner.

Ian Percy is an Australian agronomist who has been in Vietnam for fifteen years, working for any world organization that would hire him. Converse and Ian enter into an argument about the life and country of Vietnam. Ian takes offense and reacts strongly to Converse’s flippant attitude and callous remarks about the war and its victims. Ian maintains that Converse has not been in the country long enough to make jokes about it, and Converse rebuts that his presence at a fragmentation bombing in Cambodia gives him license to say whatever he wants. During dinner, a bomb goes off on the street, shaking the restaurant and sending people outside to survey the damage, count the death toll, and watch the police quickly secure the area with barbed wire.

Converse meets an old acquaintance named Ray Hicks on the American base of My Lat, where they discuss the details of transporting the drugs to the United States. Hicks, a merchant marine on his third tour of duty, is a follower of the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as of Zen Buddhism and the code of the feudal Japanese samurai. A volatile yet highly resourceful man, Hicks delivers the heroin to Converse’s house in Berkeley, California, but notices that he is being followed. Soon after he arrives, two men claiming to be special investigators break into the house to seize the drugs.

The men work for Antheil, a corrupt federal agent. Hicks finds out from the men that the heroin deal was arranged by Antheil’s connection in Saigon. Following a violent struggle, Hicks contains the men long enough for him, Marge, and Janey to escape. Janey is taken to safety after Hicks explains to Marge that they are in danger and must go into hiding. Hicks drives them deep into the mountains, where he has a vehicle and a hidden arsenal ready. They drive to San Francisco to see Eddie Peace, a sleazy man with many shady connections, who Hicks hopes will be able find a buyer for the heroin.

While Hicks and Marge (who is already a prescription pill addict) are sampling the heroin and waiting to hear from Eddie, Converse arrives home to find his apartment a mess and his wife and daughter gone. Converse is investigating the fate of his family when Danskin and his men abduct him. Attempting to obtain information regarding the whereabouts of their heroin, they drug Converse, beat him, and burn him on a hot stove; they then leave. In the middle of a conversation with the women who temporarily watched after Janey, Converse flashes back to the fragmentation bombing in Cambodia. He recalls an epiphany in which he realized that the physical world is a deathtrap—appropriately so, because human arrogance warrants annihilation.

Hicks and Marge are awakened without warning when Eddie Peace shows up accompanied by a proper-looking young couple named Gerald and Jody. Gerald wants to write a candid and gritty piece on the booming heroin scene, and he feels that he must experience the drug before attempting to write about it. After injecting everyone else with heroin, Hicks purposefully shoots the drug into Gerald’s vein, knowing it will cause him to overdose. Too drugged to help her husband, Jody watches the scene with bewilderment. Hicks and Marge speed away, leaving Jody and Eddie to deal with Gerald. Overwhelmed by what has just happened, Marge asks Hicks why he would do something so terrible. Hicks responds that he was an American soldier who watched his fellow patriots die, while Gerald and Jody were simply yuppie “Martians.” Hicks thus feels justified in killing Gerald.

Hicks takes Marge into the mountains of New Mexico to the home and former commune of his Buddhist master, or rshi, Dieter. Although Dieter’s mountain home is a fortress rigged with lights and speakers to scare off intruders, Dieter maintains that he no longer deals in any type of drug other than psychedelic mushrooms, which he uses for “spiritual” purposes.

Meanwhile, Antheil’s men, Danskin and Smitty, have forcefully enlisted Converse to help them reclaim their drugs. Antheil and his men eventually track Hicks, Marge, and the heroin to Dieter’s commune, and a face-off on the mountain ensues. Antheil makes Converse tell Marge that they have Janey and will hurt her if she and Hicks do not cooperate. Realizing that Marge is going to relinquish the heroin, Hicks removes it from her bag and replaces it with sand. As Marge makes her way to Converse and Danskin with what she thinks is the heroin, Hicks hides real drugs in a cave. Hicks is shot in the chest, but he reaches Converse and Marge and tells them to take his truck and meet him on the other side of the mountain so he can return and get the heroin. As he makes his way to the appointed meeting place, he begins to philosophize and hallucinate as a result of his blood loss. Converse and Marge find Hicks dead on the tracks and leave both him and the heroin for Antheil to find.

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