The Useless Servants draws on Rolando Hinojosa’s experiences during his military service in the Korean War, which also provided much of the substance for Korean Love Songs from Klail City Death Trip, one of his most celebrated works to date. His protagonist, Rafe Buenrostro, whom readers will know from Dear Rafe and other earlier works, reveals the brutality and inhumanity of war through the fragmented journal entries that constitute much of this novel. Rafe not only faces the normal dangers associated with serving in the military in combat zones but also is forced daily to cope with being part of a racially segregated unit and with the reality that, to many of those who are making decisions that will have a drastic impact on the lives of those serving under them, these segregated soldiers are mere “cannon fodder,” troops whose lives are not as valuable as the lives of those in units comprising largely white Americans.
As the war continues, however, Rafe and his segregated buddies eventually are fighting beside their white counterparts. Rafe witnesses the senseless slaying of thousands of Korean civilians, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which on the battlefield appear to be ignored at will. He writes of Marines who die needlessly because they are issued outdated survey maps and, following them, walk into ambushes. His comments on the use of napalm and fragmentation bombs give stark forebodings of what lies ahead in the war with Vietnam.
Hinojosa drew the title of this novel from Luke 17:10 in the Bible: “Well, will we then be like the useless servants who did nothing more than that which was commanded of us?” The irony of this choice is inescapable. Hinojosa considers the reasons that larger percentages of members of minority groups volunteer for the military than their white counterparts and the reasons that they do what is commanded of them: a desire to escape from racial discrimination where they live, lack of opportunity, inadequate education, unemployment, a sense if hopelessness about the future. These young African Americans and Hispanics become the useless servants to which Hinojosa refers because their voices are drowned out by the voices of the reigning social hierarchy.