One of a growing number of Gulf War memoirs, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead earned considerable critical attention when it was first published. Reviews of the book have been generally positive, with most reviewers praising Swofford’s ability to construct a gripping and powerful narrative without bogging down in too much detail. Indeed, Swofford skillfully describes the sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, often disgusting lives of the marines he knew. Not all reviewers have been so positive. Several have criticized Swofford’s apparent tendency toward self-pity and self-flagellation. Other reviewers have complained that Jarhead offers the reader little more than clichés.
One explanation for the extensive critical attention is the timeliness of the book. Its publication coincided with the United States’ military preparations for a second conflict with Iraq, and the memoir’s subtitle, A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, surely attracted readers who wanted to know what combat in the desert was like. Those who read Jarhead for this purpose, however, may be disappointed because the narrator experiences combat only briefly, describing his experience as a target for Iraqi artillery and rockets and friendly fire from Marine Corps tank gunners. In fact, the narrator never actually discharges his weapon in combat.
As a chronicle of war, Jarhead is unexceptional. Even if read as an account of how combat feels to the average “jarhead” (the marine “high-and-tight” haircut makes the head look like a jar), Swofford’s work is inadequate because it is based solely on point of view of a presumably atypical marine: a very perceptive, bookish marine nicknamed “Swoffie.”
The personality of this marine, however, and the vignettes he narrates are what make this work significant. Moment by moment, image by image, the reader is given an intimate view of Swoffie’s coming-of-age in the Marine Corps and his madness in the Middle East.
The memoir begins in 2003, with the narrator rooting through his mementos of the Gulf War, which he keeps in his Marine Corps rucksack in his basement. Sorting through the spare bullets, documents, and pictures, Swoffie even tries on his old uniform and is not surprised to find that it no longer fits. He humorously considers what he might look like to a passerby: a “mad old warrior going through his memorabilia, juicing up before he runs off and kills a few with precision fire.”
This moment reveals a characteristic concern with images, which permeates the book. At times, the examination of various images reveals surprising insights into the military mind-set. For instance, just before going overseas in 1990 to serve as part of Desert Shield, the operation undertaken to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi troops and to lend muscle to the economic sanctions then in place against Iraq, the marines in Jarhead treat themselves to a succession of films about Vietnam, including Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). As the reader learns, these films, although purportedly antiwar, exploit public fascination with war even as they condemn it. The beautifully filmed, expensively staged images of “death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”
Even the structure of the memoir suggests a fascination with suggestive vignettes, like so many snapshots from the narrator’s life. In the space of one chapter, for instance, the action shifts from a maniacal football game played in Saudi Arabia by marines wearing full chemical warfare protective gear for the benefit of two visiting reporters, to a scene in Tachikawa, Japan, when Swoffie was a little boy wandering into a neighborhood tattoo parlor. This chapter is concerned with a variety of images, including the psychological images the marine colonel is trying to impress on the reporters and the artistic representation of the mushroom cloud tattooed on a Japanese man’s body.
Most of the vignettes are more disturbing than these. For instance, shortly after describing the football game and tattoo parlor, the narrator describes his introduction to Marine Corps brutality, when he is verbally and physically abused by drill instructor Burke. Appointed as the platoon scribe,...
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Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War
by Anthony Swofford
Scribner £14.99, pp260
Anthony Swofford joined the US Marine Corps at the age of 17. Two months after his twentieth birthday, he was stationed near Riyadh awaiting the onset of Desert Storm, in what we now call the first Gulf War. A decade after that, he enlisted in that alternative American boot camp, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, whose battle-hardened alumni include Raymond Carver and T Coraghessan Boyle.
Seduced by the idea that 'the warrior always fights for a sorry cause. And if he lives, he tells stories', Swofford then got out his old desert maps and, armed with his newly drilled prose, set about recounting the tale of his war.
His book begins in almost conscious homage to the Vietnam stories of Tim O'Brien, and in particular his epic inventory of The Things They Carried. Swofford sifts through his old kit in his cellar, the combat clothes 'bleached by sand and sun and blemished with the petroleum rain that fell from the oil-well fires in Kuwait'. Though clearly written well before the current conflict became reality, the parallels in these recollections - directives that come from Bush and Cheney, the peace marchers proclaiming no war for oil - are no less uncanny for being familiar.
Swofford was born to the military. His father and grandfather were both servicemen, and he was conceived on a 24-hour R&R break from Vietnam when his parents met in Honolulu. He had looked to the Marines as a surrogate family, and as a way of growing up, but the vicious reality of the life of a 'grunt' still comes as a great shock to him.
The first casualty of Swofford's war is not truth but a personal voice; the most significant battle he wages in this memoir is to find a way to reappropriate it. 'The language we own is not ours,' he writes of life in the desert. 'It is not a private language, but derived from Marine Corps history and lore and tactics.' Though understanding how he is brutalised by this vernacular, he takes some pleasure in rehearsing its niceties, punctuating his narrative with the occasional primer: 'Hands were dickskinners, the mouth was a cum receptacle, running shoes were go-fasters, a flash light was a moonbeam' and so on.
Partly because of this fascination with the authentic lexicon of modern warfare, the publishers of Jarhead - the title refers to the 'high and tight' crewcut favoured by Marines - would like you to believe that Swofford is part of a literary lineage that runs through Michael Herr and Norman Mailer and - highly fanciful this one - Wilfred Owen.
What undermines these comparisons is not so much Swofford's testosterone-injected writing, even though it lacks the free-spirited precision of, say, Herr's Dispatches, but rather his distance from the conflict. Though trained as part of his unit's elite sniper squad, Swofford never really gets to release a shot in anger, and the most serious threats to his safety come from friendly fire.
In the absence of this proximity - as one four hundred thousandth part of an American show of strength - Swofford directs much of his frustration at the dehumanising privations of life in the sand. Grim as the Saudi desert may be, it is not the Somme, nor the jungles of Vietnam, and the range of the sniper's emotions tends to run from self-aggrandisement to self-despair.
For much of his six-month tour of duty the person he seems most likely to shoot is himself. With too much time on his hands, Swofford comes to believe his girlfriend back home is enjoying the afternoon attentions of a hotel clerk she mentions in her letters. This suspicion becomes so strong he puts the barrel of his M16 in his mouth and toys with the trigger.
In this episode, and much of the remainder of the book, it feels like Swofford is playing the part of the soldier, at one remove from his emotions. He and his fellow grunts borrow much of their attitude from war movies. Raised on Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, which the recruits watch over and over before they leave for the combat zone, Swofford mouths the values of the Jarhead, as if reading the script: 'I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.'
As a result, for all its show of honesty about the realities of battle, the anger at loss of life is never quite heartfelt, and the labyrinthine self-pity at the soldier's lot never quite earned. What this book brings home is that the modern soldier or, at least the modern American soldier, buttressed by overwhelming aerial firepower, is essentially a marginal figure.
In the aftermath of a war he never really never got to fight, Swofford suggests that 'sometimes you wish you'd killed an Iraqi'. His experience leaves him with a sense of anticlimax, of unfinished business, a hollowness that his government seems to have shared.