The early 1970s was a bleary, jagged era. The Vietnam War ended bloodily, an embarrassing failure for America. The sunny promise of flower power degenerated into a grimy panorama of speed freaks, primal scream therapy, and Charles Manson. And the epicenter of the hippie dream – San Francisco – was just as broken and bent as anywhere.
Hunter S. Thompson put it well in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when he said: “There was madness in any direction, at any hour.”
Dog Soldiers, written by Robert Stone in 1974, brings that time back to life vividly. Converse is a jaded journalist scraping by in Saigon at war’s end. A junkie ex-girlfriend convinces him to help her move three kilos of heroin back to the US; Converse shanghais an ex-Marine named Hicks to carry the smack back to the States aboard a cargo ship. Waiting for delivery on the other end is Converse’s wife, Marge, who works at a porn theater and is hooked on pain killers. Not surprisingly, things quickly unravel when Hicks arrives in Berkeley with the package. The rest of the novel is a classic, but twisted, love on the run tale, something of a travelogue through the wrecked landscape of post-1960s America. Pursued by crooked drug agents, Hicks and Marge flee through the decadent high society of LA to the crumbling remnants of a hippie commune.
Parts of the book remind me of the stories told to me by a Vietnam Vet Petty Officer I served with, tales of his days as a skip tracer for AWOL servicemen in the Bay area during same period. Once he found someone, he related, he would go to a nearby bar to get slightly sauced, then return to kick open the door with a pistol in one hand, beating the crap out of anyone that confronted him. He was bat shit crazy.
Hicks, the ex-Marine in Dog Soldiers, doesn’t reflect the unfortunate crazy Vietnam Vet stereotype, but he isn’t a well man, either. His flaws predate the war; he is emotionally and sexually repressed due to a rough childhood, and he tends to react with violent paranoia to stress. Hicks does have a personal code, however, – the code of the Samurai – that winds up leading him to sacrifice himself at the end: a noble, if hallucinogenic conclusion.
Converse, on the other hand, is a pathetic figure, agreeing to the ill-advised drug smuggling scheme in part to impress a woman, in part to find himself. In the end, he discovers that he is a miserable failure, as a husband, a father, and a man. Marge is a junkie shadow, and her inability to commit to either man both condemns them and stands in, in a larger symbolic sense, for America’s immoral ambivalence about war.
Dog Soldiers is a hard-boiled slice of men’s adventure, reeking of corruption and sleaze. As someone who grew up during the era, I can attest to it’s enduring value as a reminder of an ugly period in American history.
Dog Soldiers was adapted to film in 1978 as Who’ll Stop The Rain, starring Nick Nolte, Michael Moriarty, and Tuesday Weld. It’s an excellent movie and a very faithful adaptation of the book. It’s one of my personal favorite movies and Nolte’s performance is, I think, the best of his career. Very highly recommended.