It’s a good book. Swofford is very honest, both when it reflects well on him (he was an excellent, dedicated soldier) and when it doesn’t (at his wits’ end, he threatens a soldier in his command with his weapon.) The word “searing” is used too liberally on the book jacket, but I think that has more to do about the other authors who were recruited to deliver blurbs for the publisher, and their reaction on reading about some fairly standard boarding-school mayhem during boot camp.
What I really respected about Swofford’s story is that he doesn’t tie it into a neat package, or simplify his experience to make a point. Before the war, the Marines are excited to go kill some Iraqis. During the war, ditto. After the war, he has doubts. It really underscores to me that each of our motives, our drives, and our psychological makeup are to a tremendous extent molded by our surroundings, and molded by the community we’re in. The Marines are a strong, strong community, and any eighteen-year-old you put in that environment is going to become submerged, is going to become, in Swofford’s drill instructor’s words, “…part of the iron fist Uncle Sam uses to crush injustice and oppression.”
Fine. Young men are mold-able; that’s news to nobody. Here’s what stopped me in my tracks, though: another of the dust jacket quotes:
“Jarhead tells us about why boys go to war, and how they return as men…”
This is a lie. Boys go to war, and they do twisted, fucked-up things, and they come home twisted, fucked-up boys. And by “fucked-up things”, I’m not talking about dropping ten tabs of benzedrine and making a necklace of human ears: I’m talking about the normal pursuit of military objectives, the systematic destruction of life and property, the reclassification of human lives as enemy, and the elimination of that enemy.
Violence and power is cheap. It’s cheap, and easy, and there’s no honor in it. In my own experience as a karate instructor, it’s the easiest thing in the world to teach someone to be an ass-kicker. After two weeks in class, you know enough to gouge eyes, break arms, kick someone straight and hard in the crotch. You’re never going to get more dangerous than that. The next five years is spent learning how to control your power. Most of all, you learn that your physical prowess, measured against another person, is pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and that no matter how much of a badass you are, it’s really better for everybody if you just run like hell when confronted.
It’s the control of power that is hard, and in my opinion, it’s the learning of perspective and balance — that messy, complicated, unexciting formula — that makes a boy into a man. I think that Swofford’s unvarnished account of his experience demonstrates this: the hardest work he does in the book is in the ten years following his tour of duty, and it’s the questions that he raises at the end that seem to me the clearest sign of his maturity.
Taking that struggle and cramming it into the old, old, lie that weapons and conflict make a man, that struggle is inherently noble, that violence has ever embiggened anyone, anywhere, at any time ever, is a damn shame, and I wish that Jarhead‘s editors had kept that quote off the back of the book.