Jarhead, Anthony Swofford

Scribner, 2003, 260 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-4491-5

Even at this politically-charged time where “support our troops!” has become a hollow synonym for “shut up!”, the first requirement for supporting our troops would be to understand them. And we won’t do that by listening to journalists, bloggers or self-important pundits: the troops themselves remain their own best advocates. Fortunately, every generation produces its share of able witnesses, and one of the latest ones is Anthony Swofford with his blisteringly honest autobiography Jarhead.

Swofford, we quickly learn, was an odd Marine. Equally prone to spending his time reading classics or drinking to excess, Swofford was an insider and an outsider at the same time, completely part of the Marines Corps and yet (especially with hindsight) capable of stepping out and describing the Corps as an observer. This dual perspective, as a participant and an bystander, is invaluable in describing his experience to us.

Jarhead is structured in an non-linear fashion, alternating between Swofford’s experience in the Marines with flashbacks to his personal history. Training, initial postings, difficulties with his family are all covered here, up to and including Swofford’s posting in the Gulf. As a Marine Sniper, Swofford could reliably be called one of America’s elite soldier. But the reality he reports is nothing like the spit-polish image of the army that some people would like you to believe. We all suspect that boys together will do some pretty stupid things, and this book confirms whose suspicions. We all know that war is hell, and being paid to go to war doesn’t leave much room for mellowness, even in horsing around. But what Jarhead does better than any other military book is portray the absolute boredom of being a soldier most of the time.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s in Gen-X genes to consider boredom to be a pervasive yet intolerable state of mind. Maybe it’s a modern affliction to say “but I was bored!” as if it was worthy of compassion. But maybe it’s what happens when you take thousand of soldiers and put them in a desert, waiting, waiting, waiting for what they were trained to do.

Suffice to say that in time, Swofford gets what he wants: He gets to shoot and be shot at, even though his active participation in the Gulf War may be more underwhelming than you’d expect. Fortunately, Swofford writes with an eye for the killer detail and an excellent sense of place. Jarhead pulls no punches and presents the military life with all of its problems and whatever glory it offers.

Clearly-written, this is a book that demands to be read almost all at once, page after page, chapter after chapter. Swofford knows how to write a story, and he’s got plenty of them to tell. Funny, direct, profane, sometimes infuriating in kind of a “what-are-you-doing-you-moron?” fashion, this autobiography can’t be confused with another era or another generation.

I will let others debate the accuracy of Swofford’s depiction of Marines service. From my perspective as a civilian (and a Canadian one at that), Jarhead rings true, maybe a bit truer than I’d like to believe in an effort to keep some of that “support our troops!” feeling. It certainly made me re-evaluate BUFFALO SOLDIERS as a mite more plausible than I initially thought, what with Swofford’s tales of pervasive drug usage and self-destructive peacetime behaviour.

It’s impossible to read Jarhead today without at least a passing thought about the current American-led occupation of Iraq, and the hardships endured by the military personnel stationed over there. Even if the Gulf War was a lightning romp compared to the lengthy nightmare of Iraq, even if tactics and equipment have changed, it’s hard to avoid linking the two. Swofford doesn’t exactly encourage us to think otherwise with his cynical view of oil as being the honest reason behind Desert Storm. Swofford had plenty of time to think about the reasons why he was stuck in the Arabian desert, and some of his conclusions can be jarring when juxtaposed against the mundaneness of wartime experience. Old men sending young men to die so they can profit…

But even as candid as it becomes, Jarhead doesn’t do much to diminish a civilian’s awe for professional soldiers. At a time where one hears about war in clinical terms, as if it was yet another corporate challenge to be managed, it’s good and just to be reminded that war is a deadly matter, fought between men who curse, and bleed, and cry, and suffer. Support our troops; try to understand what they’re really going through.

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