by Anthony Swofford
Reviewed by Archie Campbell

I was a Marine. I am a Marine. I will always be a Marine. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I served from 1986 to 1990, then a bit more during Gulf War I. Among other units, I served with Marine Barracks, Ground Defense Force, at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and with Headquarters Company, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., with some side-trips to Wisconsin, northern and southern California, and Norway.

I was a cook. That was my MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty. Number 3381 in the Big Book Of Marine Corps Predestination. 3381-Food Service: Death From Within.

I was also trained as a .50 caliber machine gunner in Gitmo, and was-of course-trained as a basic rifleman. However, most of my time was spent cooking great quantities of food for unappreciative Marines. Who could blame them? While we did the best we could, the food in the Corps was hardly delectable. The complaints of unhappy Marines did serve as something of a safety valve, though, as I became convinced that if some Marines had nothing to complain about, their heads would explode in fine “Scanners” fashion. But the food would be the last line of expression for the complaintant, as Marines, especially grunts, always have many things to bitch about before chow even enters into it. So even here my importance waned.

Though I worked very hard as a cook, and was good at it, I never saw combat (the enemy not ever seeing fit to attack the chow hall. If only the blond goddesses inhabiting Bardufoss, Norway had designated themselves the enemy and attempted to overrun the mess tent while I was there on a NATO exercise. Sigh.), and so I live in the half-world of a Marine who's never seen combat. In GWI, I made it as far as MCAS El Toro, CA. Even apart from that, though, is the suspicion that I was never a killer Marine. Though I think I could have pulled the trigger in combat, and done my duty, perhaps even in an exemplary fashion, I think that there was a gap between the kind of warrior I might have been, and the kind of warrior exemplified by Swofford. An even bigger chasm exists between the kind of peacetime Marine I was and Swofford. Never sure of myself physically, nerdy, and chubby again, if still physically fit, less than a year after boot camp, I was never Swofford’s confident, strong, aggressive, and violent STA (Sniper & Target Acquisition) Marine.

I got along with all of the Marines I’d ever met from combat units, but I suspected that they wouldn’t have been as tolerant of me had I been assigned to their platoons. Too sensitive perhaps. While driving with a fellow Marine from the TOW (Tube Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire Guided Missile) platoon late one night, he responded to my criticism of something he did by shouting at me, “You’re such a fucking bitch, Campbell! You’re like a whining fucking little woman”. And I reacted in a fairly womany way. Instead of punching him in the head in a manly way and brawling with him, I became indignant and made him stop the car so I could walk home. Not very Chesty Puller of me, certainly. But the telling thing about this incident was not so much what he said, or how I reacted. I mean, I didn’t go to pieces and sob or anything, but it was just that I thought he might have been right. That was not a thought Dan Daly (Marine Corps legend) would’ve had.

Gregarious as I was, I still lacked the patience to tolerate much of the unending chorus of mindless, profanity-laden smack which informs the daily life of a Marine. I tired of it even in the milder form it took in my unit, let alone the ‘roided up version presented in “Jarhead”. In the units I was with, conversation tended to quickly devolve into one topic: orifices. Either those of women the speaker claimed to have had, those of women whom he lusted after, or those belonging to fellow jarheads standing near him as he spoke. Sodomy and fellatio are constant topics among jarheads. I actually witnessed the following exchange (between two male Marines), given without a hint of irony or sarcasm (or self-awareness, for that matter):

First Marine: Fag.
Second Marine: I am not a fag. Suck my dick.

[as an aside, while in a squadbay in Fort McCoy WI, I witnessed a Major tell one of my cohabitants to, and this is an exact quote, “wake that man up and tell him to sleep with his mouth closed” I'm sure it wasn't meant sexually, but I include it here simply because it was probably the single weirdest order I heard while in the Corps.]

Orifices are great, but I could only take so much. Such was the garbage that was talked in the units I was variously assigned to, and I was only a REMF (Rear Echelon MotherFucker). On second thought, perhaps Swofford’s cohorts would have provided some variety. They covered the orifice talk and also talked of killing.

There was in me, though, that eternal desire to test my mettle on the field of battle, even after growing up on movies like “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, “Full Metal Jacket”, and books like Phillip Caputo’s “A Rumor Of War”, and other books about Vietnam outlining how Combat Is Fucked And Brutal And Horror And Dehumanizing. This instinct to test oneself is so basic and primal in the natures of young men that I’ll leave it to better writers and evolutionary psychologists to explain it. I just know it was, and is, in me. Part of me regrets not having seen combat, even after hearing all of the complaints from my buddies who came back from Saudi Arabia, and even after having read “Jarhead”. Even knowing that I might’ve reacted badly to combat stress, and may have even died or killed my fellow Marines through my own cowardice or incompetence, it is there. But of course, that’s the point-to see what you’re made of, bad or good. Even after 12 years out of the service, 70 pounds gained, incipient middle age, reduced physical capacity, common fucking sense, and a loving wife and three beautiful daughters, it is there. This is the atavistic instinct that Swofford is trying to warn young men to deny, and it won’t work, because it never has.

Such knowledge makes me uneasy when reading “Jarhead”, and makes evaluation of it that much more difficult. He recounts the life of a Marine in sometimes painful detail. He knows the Life, has seen it as I have, but also under the stressors of war. He has captured with exactitude how Marines talk, act, and regard each other and Others. This is not to say that it represents the totality of how Marines think, feel, and act; Swofford and I are exceptions to the picture painted in the book. Still, what he does reflect is almost perfect, and though I wasn’t what the STA Marines were, there is much of me in the book, if more ghostly than he and his buddies.

The picture Swofford paints of himself is alternately flattering and sordid. He is sometimes a Warrior Poet, given to reading Camus and Homer while waiting for a briefing on the then-new .50 caliber sniper rifle. Intelligent and often reflective, he periodically escapes the booze-soaked barbarism of his cohort to read and discuss books at a coffee house far from Twentynine Palms, and other Marines. At other times he is the lead barbarian, fighting alongside his buddies against any and all, sometimes among themselves. He puts his M16-A2 in his own mouth during one passage, and doesn’t carry out the suicide only because of his discovery by a squadmate. At another time he terrorizes and threatens to kill a fellow Marine, the flash suppressor of this same weapon licking the ear of his potential victim. I don't doubt Swofford’s implication that not much more than chance kept him from pulling the trigger. He also spends what reads like weeks priapically consumed with blood-lust, and this lust leads him to want to kill one or more surrendered Iraqis.

Swofford admits that he was “fucked up” during this time, and a reasonable inference drawn from most of these anecdotes is that this is what war does to a man. Indeed, I think he implies this interpretation strongly. However, I think that it is more likely that he was, in some way, mentally ill even before joining the Corps. And not just in the normal, 17-year-old boy way. This, of course, brings up an implicit question about self-selecting populations, which would take longer than a book review to address.

I’ve read a lot about combat soldiers, and have known a few of them. Some of the impulses Swofford writes of do surface in many of the the stories I’ve heard. Some remain urges or fantasies while some result in deeds. However, some otherwise sane soldiers who entertain sick thoughts, or actually commit war crimes, do it as a consequence of the stress of war, and usually in response to an extreme event, like an atrocity commited against comrades or civilians. Others who carry out their abberant impulses are usually sociopaths or psychopaths, who use the cover of war to commit crimes which that circumstance might allow them to get away with.

Swofford’s account is different because everything except the lust to snipe a surrendered Iraqi or two happens before the war, or at least before actual ground combat. He is in Iraq for Desert Shield, but his unit has not been involved in combat. This speaks to his state of mind, at least at the time he experienced these events, if not now. It seems petty to point this out, but it must be said.

Swofford places himself in the Smedley Butler school of Marines. Butler is a legend in the Corps, a man who served in the early part of the 20th century (now deceased). It was his duty to muck about in China, Central and South America, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands, putting down rebellions, advancing American interests, and generally fighting what are now known as “low-intensity conflicts” (his WWI service is an exception). To him, war was a racket, and he felt he was a pawn of industrialists. Why he served for 34 years thinking this, I don’t know. After retiring, he even wrote a book on this subject, likening himself to a “legal” Al Capone. Swofford echoes Butler’s sentiments by insinuating that he was used by Power and Big Oil, and that the duty of the soldier is to die so that these groups can obtain wealth, or advance their ultimately petty interests.

Of course, he never gives examples or introduces evidence to support this assertion, assuming, probably rightly, that his audience already agrees with this point of view. His cynicism, bitterness, and despair are so great at some points in the book that I wondered seriously how he lived long enough to write it. And he hasn’t just lived, he has thrived, having completed college, studied further at the University Of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and taught at Lewis and Clark College and the University Of Iowa. I suspect that he may live for reasons beyond just that of warning future warriors of the horrors of war.

It is disappointing to see a man of such self-reflection and intelligence devote no resources to analyzing the bigger picture, save the one that counts him fucked by The Man. In a sense this is true, as grunts from the beginning of time have complained of being manipulated by those not on the battlefield. But international relations and war are complicated things even if combat is not. Swofford seems to have thought about the former only to the extent of reinforcing his instincts about the latter. And his instincts could be wrong. I believe they are.

These criticisms are important, even if incorrect, but the book ultimately is not an examination of American foreign policy. It is a warning which is necessary, but which will be ultimately unheeded, by those very young people who may be put in harm’s way, and might benefit from it the most. Its message is that regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the cause, doom and death permeate all fighting men, and that this is a cost of war not quantified in statistics or photographs or film. Fighting men will carry the cost with them until death, either on the battlefield or long after the war from which it was exacted is over, and they must make this cost known to those who haven’t paid it, as best they can.

This is not a new idea, nor is it as unknown to the general public as Swofford thinks it is. In fact, one could unkindly say that this book is aimed at those intellectuals who are perpetually shocked at the notion that war changes men. These same people are then stupid enough to say that if men suffer in war, then wars should never happen. Perhaps it is humanity’s curse to rediscover the obvious over and over again. However, few books making this point are as intense or funny as “Jarhead”.