I read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead

I read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead last week; it’s a memoir of his time in the First Marine Expeditionary Force during the Gulf War, and also a more general account of how he became a soldier.

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.

6 responses to “I read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead”

  1. Hello, John
    At the risk of losing credibility, I’m not using my name. The book you review has kept me up all last night, and I’m wondering if I’ll sleep tonight; it’s strange how something so small can get under my skin, but I feel the need to distance myself from the ideas of good ol’ Swoff… I hope that makes sense.
    Having felt compelled to look into how successful *Jarhead* has been, an impulse that feels as necessary as it is self-destructive, I find myself, in this case, wondering about you. I’ve only read this one page, and my girlfriend’s about to hit me over the head so she can drag me off to sleep, so I apologize for not having read further even as I wonder whether what I write will make any sense at all.
    Have you been a grunt, gone to war? It is true that a good deal of what Tony writes is accurate. It is untrue, however, that my old buddy is honest. I was there, beside him and present at many of the actual events he describes. Unfortunately, what he describes in a great many cases are amped-up, fake-blood-splattered versions of what actually happened. While he’s faked names to avoid libel suits, unmistakable references linking his narrative to events in the real world beg a comparison which leave this man – someone I once respected – guilty of the sin that is committed when a writer portrays his work as non-fiction when, in the most real sense of the word, what he has produced is blatant fantasy. Swofford actually accuses one of his ex-platoon mates of shooting someone… I know the individual Tony describes, I’m still in contact with him, and – with any luck you’ll trust me on this – what actually happened did not involve the discharge of a weapon, much less the terminal ballistics impacting an unarmed person. It’s unclear to me how the esteemed author and professor could truly confuse such a thing, and here’s where the man who was once my team leader crosses a line between negligence and criminal fabrication.
    I find myself wondering if I should be writing in j-speak, for the sake of showing evidence that mild-mannered Clark Kent really was, long ago, one of the rape-kill-pillage-and-burn bastards who wrote “Welcome, ragheads” in the sand in front of his hooch and sharpened his bayonet with a file, laying bets on whether the tarantula or the scorpions would win in the makeshift gladiatorial contest and watching one of what we initially called “rock-pushers” rolling a ball of dung to whatever nasty place it called home.
    I hope this isn’t boring you. My point? Anthony H. Swofford, Sac-stud and quasi-intellectual, paints jarhead attitudes in our unit accurately. But I might be heading his way soon, just to vent by calling him out. Nobody likes someone who screws his buddy, be that buddy a current one or not. Grunts hate two-faced freaks almost as much as they hate officers.
    Thanks for reading.


  2. Billy, thanks for your comment. Seriously, that’s not a preamble to “…you jerk”, or anything — I find myself, every day, thinking about the fact that we as a nation are at war, that people are being asked — and agreeing — to give their lives and take others’ lives in the service of this country, and about what the hell I can and should be doing in this environment, given my convictions.
    You know, it may very well be the case that I confused “unflattering” with “honest” in the book, and I don’t want you to think that my opinions about war start and end with this book, or that Swofford has succeeded in souring somebody on the Corps. I haven’t been a grunt, haven’t gone to war. In fact, I’m a member of the Religious Society of Friends — a Quaker — and a conscientous objector. Does that mean that I think our soldiers are wrongheaded, evil bastards? Fuck, no. Our soldiers are making extraordinary sacrifices and are showing some of the finest virtues a human can display. And they’re doing what they have to do to survive there — and that means developing a soldier’s attitude every bit as much as piling sandbags. My beef is with the situation and the organization that calls for the development of this attitude, not with the people that are just trying to get through it and do a good job and get home again. (I mean, I’m sure there are psychotic bastards in the service, but you get psychotic bastards in every walk of life.)
    The thing I struggle with is THIS war. No matter what your thoughts are on war in general (you might think being a conscientous objector is a luxury paid for by the sacrifices of others, you might think it’s foolish and unrealistic, and I can’t tell you that I’m 100% convinced you’d be wrong), I can tell you that THIS war is the embodiment of a foreign policy that is wrong, wrong, WRONG, and that this administration is putting good people in harm’s way for bad reasons. I feel like it’s my duty as a citizen to support our troops by finishing the job and getting the hell out of there, and I don’t think that that can be done just by giving this foolish administration everything it’s asking for. Remember how the Corps felt about Truman.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Swofford was a war-whooping, balls-to-the-wall bastard when deployed, then changed his tone to thoughtful and pained when writing. And I’m not surprised to hear that many of the events and scenes have been “punched up” in the book. I am surprised to hear that he’s crossed the line about whether a weapon was or was not discharged, and I certainly have no reason to disbelieve you (any more than I’d have a reason to believe him.)
    You can go back all the way to Heroditus to find examples of a military commander punching up his exploits in a book (“then, because of the example set by their young and — did I mention? — handsome commander, the troops marched a hundred miles in a day…”. Erwin Rommel’s book “Attacks” is full of suspect events (armed only with a bayonet, he charges three French soldiers and takes a bullet in the leg. Either he really is as much of a badass as he claims, which is possible, or…)
    I guess my own reaction to the book came down to this: here’s a guy that came home from war and seems to be a bit of a fuckup. He has mixed feelings about what happened there, especially since he got so caught up in the whole thing. Then, the jacket sold the book as some kind of “boy becomes man” story, which it clearly isn’t: it’s a “boy becomes soldier” story, which is a different thing altogether. It may also be a “man reviews mixed thoughts about being a soldier” story, though if the book is as tweaked os you say, it’s probably more of a “newbie writer succumbs to editor’s demands” story.
    Try to go easy on Swofford when you call him out — while I’ve never been to basic (the closest thing was a trip to Small Arms Firing School, where I had a blast learing to shoot the Garand: some conscientous objector, huh?) some of the editors out there can make the worst drill instructor in the movies look like your aunt Fanny.


  3. Piece of crap… this guy is gunning for a hollywood deal with his vulgar language and blatant misconduct that is unbecoming of a marine. marines are trained to be professional killers, not comedians. Though some is true, he has disreguarded what was supposed to have been instilled in him from day one. respect. I am glad he lived to joke about it, many of them didn’t leave in such high spirits. they say it is a marines right to bitch…he obviously jumped his chain of command, punishable by death at wartime.


  4. I was Swoffs roomate after the war, we were in the same platoon. During the war I was with G Co 2/7.Since then I have been to Iraq 2 times and seen enough war to last me life time. Our war in the desert the 1st time was a boring exercise with a battalion thrown together with a lot of boots straight out of boot camp. Discipline sucked and our leadership took a long time to get it straightened out. When I came to STA plt the discipline was not that great but units like STA have a different way of doing buissness. The snipers with me this last go round in Iraq wore their hair longer than most, had a swagger to go with it. But these guys were going out night after night locking horns with the enemy and keeping us alive by killing guys planting bombs and setting up ambushes. Look I have a lot of affection for Swoff, I miss playing rugby with him and just talking. I also miss Troy, I wish the Corp had kept him around but he popped on a piss test and the Corp did what they needed to do. Swoff has an agenda with the book. It is a very long bitch session. Those that were with him know that he wanted to do his time and get out of the Suck. We also know that he was into getting laid and having a good time. The book is his view of his time in the Corp and going to war. I was not with the platoon at that time but I was there in Saudi and Kuwait with the battalion. It was not perfect but it was not what what Tony wrote about in his book. The War in 1990-91 in the Gulf was not even a good saturday night in Fort Collins CO. The snipers that are in Iraq now go out night after night pulling the trigger on our enemies risking it all. Freedom is a lot like eating a hot dog, tastes great fills you up makes baseball games fun, but if you want to enjoy it dont look at what goes into making it. Our enemies are cruel sadistic bastards, Swoff has nothing on them neither does the Corp, we are all held accountable by law and each other, ultimatley god. The agenda Swoff is pushing is the anti-war woe is me , look what they made me into crowd. He went to war with his own immature view of what it would be like, he never spent enough time in the Corp nor fully committed himself to proffessional development to get a better insight into what our proffession is all about. The book is his rant and he has a right to it, I disagree with the premise behind it and the politics pushing it. It would be nice if he would donate the profits to the war widows and families of those who who did not come back. For you guys that were in the platoon I miss you and think of you often. I am a Gunny now for Fox 2/23 if any of you want to hook up again let me know I would love to have you in my outfit.


  5. I recently read and watched “Jarhead”. I was in the Marines during the same period of time as Anthony Swofford and was also in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, in Task Force Papa Bear.
    I can not express how disappointed I was in both the book and movie. Instead of Swofford putting his memoir out there and claiming it to be his recollection of what occurred he should have admitted to it being pure fantasy and instead have it placed in the fiction section.


  6. I read the book and am planning on watching the movie. Not because I approve though.
    It actually mad me sick.
    I mean he really put the Marine Corps to shame. He made it seem as if everyone that went off to war comes back as some crack pot that is ready to be institutionalized.
    I have a friend in the Marines and he goes by “Once A Marine, Always A Marine.” In Swofford’s case I am sure the Marines will be proud to have him gone and outta the way.
    But just to be honest, I think he was messed up before he went in.
    I also think he should take his riches from the movie and the book and donate it to buy better equipment for the troops.


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