When you have the muzzle of a high-powered rifle in your mouth, there are many things to consider other than your despair (71).

Author: Anthony Swofford
First published: 2003

Warning: some content may offend.

Anthony Swofford came from a military family, a family with a history of service and harsh discipline. He joined the Marines, trained as a sniper, and went to fight the Gulf War. He was shot at by both sides, witnessed the deaths of friends and enemies, shoved a rifle into another Marine's mouth, but never fired on the enemy himself. He and another sniper found themselves out of contact in the desert; they walked back to their unit, wondering if they’d find the others dead. They found them throwing a party; their war was over.

There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill.... But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message.... Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck....

I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers. (6-7)

Through a fragmented chronology and often with dark humor, Swofford tells us of his life before the Marines, his difficult training experiences, his life after the conflict, and the harrowing times during battle. He demonstrates an ambivalent attitude. From a young age he wants to be a Marine, but soon after joining wonders if he has made a mistake. He loves what he learns and wants to fight, but he holds no romantic illusions about war and military life. He relates the tale of a trigger-happy loudmouth who was considered bad for morale and reassigned to Support Company. This man spent the war handing out supplies, toilet paper and water jugs, but went home and told absurd tales of his heroic exploits. Swofford clearly holds the man in contempt, at least in part because he misrepresents their experiences.

The reality involves pissing his pants under fire and puking at the stench of death. It involves snipers being told to hold fire and believing this is because they might do too much damage too quickly, and commanders want "some war"(230). It involves removing from their persons pornography and letters indicating infidelity and burning them, because if they die these things may be returned to wives and families. It involves realizing that they are dispensable, that "a major and a light colonel are busy crunching the numbers, and a six-man scout team and a two-man sniper team… have been deemed worth losing"(194), and knowing that making such decisions are how wars are fought and won.

He feels genuine sympathy for the Iraqi dead and he dislikes the possibility that the U.S. military may be fighting for wealthy foreigners and American corporations. Yet when he sees live enemy soldiers, he desires "to perform some of the despicable acts" he has learned, "such as trigger-killing them from one thousand yards distant, or gouging their hearts with... sharp bayonet" (228).

He recognizes that military training and war change men, and that the thing into which it changes them, necessarily changes them if they are to fight a war, is dangerous and frightening and permanent:

The man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war, and afterward he turns the rifle in at the armoury and he believes he’s finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands—love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diaper—his hands remember the rifle and the power the rifle proffered. The cold weight, the buttstock in the shoulder, the sexy slope and the fall of the trigger guard. (123)

The book has a certain thematic ambivalence. It cannot be called an anti-war novel in the conventional sense, but it finds little glamour in battle, and little heroism. Jarhead provides a realistic, highly personal perspective on the military and a specific war as experienced by a man who believes that some wars need to be fought, but who understands what fighting a war means:

Some of you will say to me: You signed the contract, you crying bitch, and you fought in a war because of your signature, no one held a gun to your head. This is true, but because I signed the contract and fulfilled my obligation to fight one of America’s wars, I am entitled to speak, to say, I belonged to a fucked situation.

I am entitled to despair over the likelihood of further atrocities....

Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn’t erase warfare’s waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry. (254-5)

Swofford’s account of a brief war will remain with the reader for a very long time.

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