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Anthony Swofford: Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle Of The Gulf War And Other Battles


Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle Of The Gulf War And Other Battles

Author: Anthony Swofford
Publisher: Scribner

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The title of Anthony Swofford's urgent, harrowing, and wickedly funny memoir Jarhead refers to the "high-and-tight" haircuts worn by Marines during Gulf War I, but the term gets recycled into many other unflattering incarnations: dope, grunt, thug, outcast, sucker. Many potent emotions are kicked up by Swofford's experiences in the Marine Corps—the fear of death and the unknown, the intense bonds and dysfunction of a platoon, the horrors of combat—but he keeps circling back to abandonment, and the feeling that he and his comrades were left twisting in the wind. Brushing aside the war's dubious purpose, which never really registers in their kill-or-be-killed mentality, the men suffer unrelenting indignities before, during, and after the conflict that brings them together because no one else will have them. During the endless downtime in Saudi Arabia, Swofford has his head smashed through a chalkboard by a drill instructor, suffers incredible heat in full gear during a football game staged for the press corps, and tacks his girlfriend's picture onto the "Wall Of Shame," a space that bitterly commemorates infidelity. Once the war starts, he walks in burning oil fields under petroleum rain, gets a firsthand look at the devastation of airstrikes on his Iraqi counterparts, and witnesses corpses being desecrated, all the while fearing for his own fragile mortality and sanity. And then there's the sour aftermath of returning home, where vital years have slipped away, families have moved on with their lives, and the disconnect between Gulf War veterans and the rest of society magnifies the vets' sense of loneliness and alienation. In essence, Jarhead paints Marine life as the rawest of raw deals, a huge mistake cruelly compounded over the length of a contract and beyond. Its unsparing honesty and candor flies in the face of recruitment propaganda, which trumpets a sort of heroism that quickly becomes hollow and irrelevant. In spite of his predilection for Albert Camus, Homer, and Céline, Swofford's temperament and family history gave him a similar profile to the other men in Surveillance Target/Acquisition (STA), an elite group of "one-shot/one-kill" scout-snipers destined for the riskiest missions. The bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, when Swofford was 14, left an indelible impression that stayed with him until he was old enough to join the military, following in the footsteps of his hard-bitten father and grandfather. Moving freely and elegantly through time, Swofford intersperses his gripping Gulf War narrative with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and rich anecdotes that spring forth from his memories of training and combat: the frathouse rituals of bored grunts burning off machismo, the Vietnam anti-war movies used to psych them up, and the faulty equipment that constantly betrays them, from the wrong camouflage to glitchy radio sets to poor guard against gas attacks. Swofford's view of the killing fields is unforgettable, but just as sobering is his portrayal of hard-living young veterans after the war, when many buckle under a new set of perils that they were never prepared to handle. By fearlessly bucking the party line, Jarhead could do for the Marines what Jim Bouton's classic Ball Four did for baseball: cause a commotion simply by telling the truth.