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HALL OF FAMEon 30 November 2005
'Jarhead' by Anthony Swofford is bound to make some people angry. A Marine sniper (STA) during Desert Storm I in the early 1990s, he recounts his experiences there with vivid emotion, weaving in his experiences of boot camp, adolescence, and civilian life after the Corps in the process. This is now a major motion picture.
Swofford has a chip on his shoulder - something he'll most likely readily admit. He has a 'bad attitude', and in fact revels in it. One wonders if this is a product of his war experiences, his Marine Corps training, or his upbringing. At one point his mother, who never really liked the idea of her son being in the Marines, but who wouldn't stand in her son's way, said 'I lost my baby boy when you went to war.' She described Swofford as being sweet and gentle prior to that, and angry and unhappy afterwards. One wonders how much of a change is there - if one can take the stories at face value, this is the same boy who had a fist-fight with his father over going in the Corps at the age of 17, and who had Marine Corps decals put on his shirts as a child. One of his drill instructors even gave Swofford what he considered a great compliment - 'you'll be a great killer someday.'
I make the caveat that one might not be able to take all of this at face value, because like many men in this kind of situation, Swofford is likely to exaggerate - making some pieces more dramatic and other pieces less so. Swofford recounts many tales of men in his sniper platoon who had adjustment problems after the war; one can but wonder if that is true for Swofford, too. Also, Swofford admits to being willing and able to lie if the cause is, in some internal sense, justified - his dealings with brother, in the Army in Germany who later died of cancer, is a case in point.
Regardless of the details which may or may not be completely true (and, as with many autobiographical pennings, some of the details are necessarily changed), the emotion certainly is. Perhaps the strongest point that comes across is a sense of disappointment and cynicism - that Swofford has ideals and goals is not at issue, although he does downplay these (he doth protest too much sometimes); but his experiences in the Corps and in the war were not what he dreamed. He mentions at various time the recruiting posters and campaigns - while it is true that Marine Corps never promises an easy life (quite the opposite), rarely does one learn prior to entry that one might end up being on the stirring end of the latrine clean-up detail; of human-refuse dump ablaze and blowing all over the place.
One gets a sense of some of the problems that the 'average' grunt faces in combat situations. This war was very different from Vietnam, of course, but some of the issues are the same - interminable waiting, equipment malfunctions (if it isn't just plain missing), fear and bravado in a strange mix, questioning and ambiguity as to the value of the war, the cause, and even their own lives. The Desert Shield/Desert Storm situation is reflected in the page numbers of Swofford's book - fully four-fifths of the book deals with the Desert Shield portion, the hurry-up-and-wait aspect; only a few sections deal with Desert Storm, as it was on and over so quickly, relatively speaking.
Again, while there is undoubtedly exaggeration here, and one must take some of Swofford's tales with a grain of salt (or, perhaps sand), there is realism and truth in the feelings these situations engendered. I can understand the anger of Marines and other military who read this and feel a sense of betrayal, but I can also understand those who feel that Swofford is saying what others can't or won't say. This is a tough book. While I would never want the Marine Corps or military to be judged by this one volume, it is a perspective worth including in the overall mix. Snipers have a reputation for being a bit on the fringes anyway, and Swofford in that regard is very true to form.
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