Jarhead A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
Swofford Scribner, 257 pp., $24
FOR ALL THE NONSTOP COVERAGE of the war in Iraq, there is one place reporters cannot go: inside the minds of the combatants. That remains the realm of the participants, and we are now lucky enough to have an important new memoir that provides a mesmerizing glimpse inside the mind of a soldier who fought in the first Gulf war.
Anthony Swofford called his book "Jarhead" because that's what he was— one of the "jarheads," a slang term for Marines that derives from their "high and tight" crew cuts. Swofford was a lance corporal in a scout-sniper platoon, an elite light force that operates ahead of the main body to conduct reconnaissance missions and to eliminate targets of opportunity. His outfit was among the first units to arrive in Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and he stayed until the end of the campaign. "Jarhead" intersperses accounts of his time in the desert with flashbacks to his childhood and flash-forwards to his post-military life.
Like many service members, Swofford comes from a family of veterans: His grandfather was in the Army Air Force in World War II, his father in the Air Force in Vietnam, his uncle in the Marine Corps, and his brother in the Army. He also came from a broken home, his parents going through an acrimonious divorce. At age seventeen, he decided to enlist to "prove both my manhood and the masculinity of the line" and "to impose domestic structure upon my life, to find a home."
None of this is unusual in today's armed forces. What sets Swofford apart are his intellectual inclinations; he makes casual references to reading the "Iliad" or Camus's "The Stranger" during free moments. There used to be many such writers in uniform, back in the days of the draft, but now they are precious few. After leaving the Corps, he attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and he puts his training to good use in "Jarhead," delivering the best depiction of American enlisted men since "From Here to Eternity"— the work of another grunt who served in an all-volunteer army.
The bulk of "Jarhead" is composed of funny, sad, and profane stories of a soldier's life, the sort of stories that have been told around a campfire since the days of Homer. Few of them can be reprinted in a family magazine like THE WEEKLY STANDARD, because Swofford writes the way most ordinary soldiers speak. But here is a typical tale, about a married grunt in an NCO club in Okinawa talking with a newly arrived tanker:
The guy next to him, new to the island by about five days, began describing a woman who sounded a lot like the grunt's wife— dark brown hair, strong nose, nice chest, runner's legs, Southern twang. . . . And then the tanker mentioned that the woman was married to some dumb grunt— and that's a quote from her,
dumb-as-a-board grunt— and how the dumb grunt had bought the woman a new convertible. . . . The tanker said that all he did his last three days in the States was make conversation with this broad, this poor dumb grunt's wife, in her new sky-blue convertible, parked at the beaches at Oceanside and San Clemente and Dana Point, and God bless America and the virtuous ladies who guard her holy shores, the tanker said. And that's when the cuckolded grunt began to beat severely on the tanker, and he didn't say a word, he just beat the tanker to the ground.
Even in this, I had to change a few words. But as the anecdote suggests, Swofford and his platoon mates spent an awful lot of their time conversing about, well, nooky— how they weren't getting any, and how they were suspicious that their wives and girlfriends back home weren't similarly deprived. Talk of politics is conspicuously absent from this book, as it no doubt is from the conversations of most grunts. They're not fighting for grand abstractions, these professional warriors. They're fighting for their own survival, for their "family"— their fellow soldiers— and for the thrill of it.
It's easy to forget, in this enlightened age, that war holds a dark attraction for testosterone-fueled twenty-year-olds. Swofford does not romanticize battle. He is unsparing in his description of coming under fire ("I've pissed my pants") and of looking at enemy corpses up close: "I smell and taste their death, like a moist rotten sponge shoved into my mouth. I vomit into my mouth." But at the end of "Jarhead," his biggest regret is that he never gets an opportunity to use his Barrett .50-caliber rifle to turn some Iraqi's head into a satisfying pink mist, as per the sniper's ethos: "One hit, one kill." Desert Storm, he concludes, was a letdown, an "easy victory that just scraped the surface of a war." "When compared to what we've heard from fathers and uncles and brothers about Vietnam, our entire ground war lasted as long as a long-range jungle patrol, and we lost as many men, theater-wide, as you might need to fill two companies of grunts."
Swofford's successors in the Marine Corps are now getting a chance that he missed out on. We can only hope that all of them survive the experience— and that one of them will deliver a chronicle as memorable as Swofford's.
Contributing editor Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of