The first Gulf War, from the inside
'Jarhead' Anthony Swofford has boots, ear to the ground
By Adam Dunn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In war memoirs, there is usually a recurring image or symbol that encapsulates the storyteller's otherwise ineffable experience of living through the insanity of war: smoke, fire, the stench of death or perhaps the stillness of a corpse-strewn field after the battle is over.
In Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" (Scribner), that symbol is human waste.
Swofford's book, a searing grunt's-eye view of life in the U.S. Marine Corps -- aka, "the Suck" -- during what is now being referred to as Gulf War I, is piled high with the stuff.
Swofford, a military-trained sniper, rails at it, burns it, stirs it (literally) and finally deals with it. He's a boy who goes in seeing the Corps as the gateway to manhood, and now, years afterward, surveys the toll taken. He's a jarhead (Marine slang for their own, named for their distinctive brush cut) with the lid off.
In a phone interview, the author seems to be profoundly different from the hyped-up narrator of "Jarhead." He's soft-spoken, reticent and polite, while Swofford the jarhead, less than 20 pages into the book, bluntly says, "I enjoy sh---ing in the desert."
But, at bottom, both Swoffords are Marines. And Swofford the writer is still making sense of that.
"The Marine Corps is a society of its own, different than any other thing on Earth," he says. "After four intense years, it's hard to pull oneself out of it.
"I think guys spend a lot of time in search of ... lifelong bonds of friendship that aren't as easy to find in the civilian world and often don't mean as much because your life isn't on the line," he adds. "The Marine Corps offers an easy life in a way. ... The Marine Corps asks you to know how to fire a rifle, eat your chow, go for a run, keep your gear clean ... and it forgives your stupidity and ignorance and drunkenness. The world outside the Marine Corps doesn't always forgive."
Gritty details with a larger point
"Jarhead" indicates perhaps how much Swofford wanted to find his own place. The book careens around the world, jumping back and forth between Swofford's fractious family life, losing his brother to cancer, watching his sister's mental breakdowns and the disintegration of his parents' marriage; to his enlistment, where he takes his place in a line of Swofford military men, and his experiences in the Persian Gulf.
He doesn't shy away from any of the pain, emotional or otherwise.
His Marine indoctrination -- a type not common to many recruits -- was particularly brutal: "When the hangers pulsed red-hot, the branding marine shoved the four-letter contraption against the other marine's outer calf," he writes. "The marine bit his fist until he broke skin and began to bleed. Tears streamed from his eyes and the room filled with the dank stink of his flesh. I vomited into the sh--can and the room erupted in cheers."
These gritty details have a larger point. In his roundabout narrative style, Swofford the author shows the reader exactly how he became Swofford the jarhead. He also describes how that dehumanizing life affects its civilian analog following discharge.
In the book, Swofford candidly describes the post-military state of himself and some of his former platoon mates, including one man who still dresses in fatigues years after being discharged and another decrepit individual whose life is summed up in a dance with a "rather degenerate-looking stripper."
Their behavior is foreshadowed in the latter part of the book when the men visibly fray, screaming without warning, mutilating Iraqi corpses and killing camels with their high-powered sniper rifles.
Swofford is more circumspect in the interview, but he says many of his Gulf War colleagues suffered psychologically from the war. "I think it's fairly high," he says of the psychosocial attrition.
It's something that gives him pause, especially when it comes to passing on a military responsibility to his own children. "I would probably ask them to read my book," he says. "I wouldn't forbid a child of mine to join the military, but I wouldn't encourage it."
Nonconformist in a sea of conformity
Of course, Swofford is perhaps an atypical Marine, although he insists otherwise in the book: "Like most good and great marines, I hated the Corps," he writes.
He still has criticism for the Marine contract, which he describes in terms of a deal with the devil -- albeit one he acknowledges he made willingly.
"It's part of the indoctrination. The word at boot camp is, if you don't fulfill your contract, you'll go home, you'll be back on the block, you'll have a shaved head, and everyone will know that you failed. It's psychological pressure," he says.
But Swofford was a nonconformist even in the midst of his conformity. At one point in the book, he wants to talk to a combat reporter but holds back -- despite himself.
"I've been ordered to give him [empty talk]," he writes. "I wish to speak with him honestly and say: I am a grunt, dressed up in fancy scout/sniper clothes; I am a grunt with limited vision. I don't care about a New World Order. I don't care about the Flag and God and Country and the Corps. ... I'm twenty years old and I was dumb enough to sign a contract and here I sit ... in the hairy armpit, swinging in the ball sack, slopping through the straddle trench of the world, and I can hear their bombs already, Mr. Times, and I am afraid."
And that's not even in the middle of combat. When the explosions get close, his body fails him. "[I'm] forgetting, absolutely forgetting, everything I've been taught about evasive action ... only knowing the word rockets. I stand in place and piss in my pants, this time not just a trickle but piss all over and running into my boots."
Swofford, who is at work on a novel, has made the most of his new notoriety. He's written a column for The New York Times Magazine, done interviews with media outlets worldwide and traversed the country on a book tour. The timing of "Jarhead," released last month as Gulf War II approached, hasn't hurt any.
But one entity has been distinctly silent as Swofford has made his way: the U.S. Marine Corps.
Swofford claims no contact with the Marine Corps before or after publication. He does note, however, that its official magazine passed on reviewing the book.
"They said it contained too much profanity," he says.