Anthony’s Swofford’s “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles” is about the process of becoming and the practice of living as a Marine. The cover image of a lone Marine watching burning oil wells is telling: Here, the gulf war mainly acts as the background for a story about the Marines, both as individuals and as a group. Swofford offers a poignant, honest and sometimes disconcerting depiction of the Marine Corps, commenting on the fraternal order of soldiers who became part of a tradition that itself became an indelible part of who they are and who they wanted to be.
Swofford pulls no punches, recalling not only the daily humiliations and frustrations of being a Marine but also the related lows of his personal life, thus revealing a vulnerable side with which readers can readily empathize.
“Jarhead” is very readable, because Swofford writes with a candor and honesty that makes his own character quite likeable. Indeed, sometimes one wishes he had held something back, perhaps keeping some of the sadder incidents to himself. To read how Swofford, motivated by fear of an unknown war and despair over an unfaithful woman, placed an M-16 in his mouth, seconds away from a suicide but was saved by a fellow Marine and miles of “lap therapy” in the Saudi Arabian desert is to receive a small window into life in the Corps. It is a pleasure to read such an honest account, and yet sometimes it feels like an almost guilty one.
Swofford makes the admittedly cliche observation that a combat unit is like a family, but then adds the important insight that “the best unit works like a dysfunctional family, and the ways and means of dysfunction are also the ways and means of survival.” Preparing for war means suppressing one instinct for another, replacing fear, doubt and youth with machismo, over-confidence and fraternity. However, this change is not without costs; after the war there is a sense of no longer belonging to a group and rejection by society.
These themes underlie many of the civilian experiences of Swofford’s Marine Corps friends and help to explain why so many of the post-war reunions with his old unit, most notably the funeral of a comrade killed in a car accident, begin with drunkenness and frequently end in violence. The bond between the Marines is self-fulfilling and circular: Brotherhood is not just about what is shared between fellow Marines; it is also about how this bond pushes them away from everyone else.
To the outsider most familiar with the Marine Corps from sanitized images of almost-too-young Marines walking down Iraqi streets, “Jarhead” gives the reader some sense for that part of military life that will likely never make it into the news cycle. And yet it is the most lasting part of the experience for the soldiers actually involved. The effect of the experience never fully wears off; in an April Slate magazine article, Swofford wrote of the experience of seeing his old training ground in San Diego after more than a decade: “I cried for the boy I once was and for the Marines who died in the last few days, and their families, and their brother Marines who might at this moment be fighting close quarters. The Marine Corps breaks my fucking heart. I still love it and hate it.”
At its essence, Swofford’s book is about both the physical experience of being a Marine and the emotional burden of remaining part of the corps, and “Jarhead” gives us some sense for the depth and nature of this defining bond.