A rumination on war: Life as seen by a Gulf War I vet

There is something to be said for sending artists to war, especially when they come back alive. They can use their talents in ways that many journalists and generals cannot.

Anthony Swofford, a young Marine Corps sniper turned author, calls Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War “an amazing book on warfare and war.” The same is true of Swofford’s new memoir, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles. Swofford now can be mentioned in the same breath with Caputo in having written a moving, honest and shocking memoir on how war changes young men.

A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
By Anthony Swofford
272 pages; $35
Scribner, 2003

The topic is hardly new, nor are the truths that are revealed.

Swofford told The Hill that his favorite line from Rumor — “You’ll discover that one of the most brutal things in the world is an 18-year-old American boy” — was the sentiment he was trying to capture in Jarhead.

Swofford was not a typical Gulf War I Marine — he read George Orwell and Albert Camus while lying under a tank. He recommends a reading list used in his book research, too: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

In his own way, Swofford has written an antiwar screed by showing how much young men look forward to war. It’s quite logical: If one is trained to kill, one will want to kill.

Swofford, who lives in Portland, Ore., writes, “I needed the Marine Corps to save me from the other life I’d fail at — the life of the college boy hoping to find a girlfriend and later a job.”

Often, soldiers don’t succeed in escaping problems in the “other life.” That’s true for Swofford, too. His anger, bitterness and insecurity engulf him in the Saudi desert. His only outlets are fighting, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and, eventually, combat.

But everything he ran away from caught up with him in the desert: the memories of his absent and abusive father; his institutionalized sister; his mother’s remarriage to a “bald, fat” guy; and his oldest brother, an Army officer in Germany, whose pleas to take his place in the desert are false fantasies of greatness.

Each incident fueled Swofford’s spiral into depression, which he said was the “toughest part” to retell in the book.

At one point in Operation Desert Shield, he found himself sucking an M-16 with his finger on the trigger. A fellow Marine walked into his tent and caught him.

As Swofford hawks his book across the country, he said, readers have been offering him mental-health pamphlets or counseling from professionals who work with veterans.

He said his depression evaporated as the war ended and he left the corps in 1992. “In a kind of absurd way, we were involved in group therapy while we were still there,” Swofford said.

He added: “I never had any formal therapy or medication, although maybe I should have.”

As much as they wanted their war, Swofford writes, his fellow Marines and he became desperate to escape power-tripping officers and the desert sand.

Their appetite for war sated — Swofford experienced as much combat as anyone — they wanted only to leave.

Another theme hinted at in Jarhead and expounded upon in Swofford’s recent New York Times Magazine piece is that soldiers are not angels. With embedded reporters in Iraq, Swofford argued, “the mystique of the military and the military man overpowered … [journalists’] natural cynicism and skepticism.”

“If you’re with USMC grunts, don’t try to force yourself into their circle,” Swofford said. “You’ll never be a Marine. They’ll protect you. You’ll be fascinating to them. They can throw out their ‘hi moms’ and you can record what they are doing.”

“It might be impossible” to get over that mystique, he said.

As for coverage of the war, Swofford appreciates print more than television. “For my dollar, the print coverage gets closer to the reality of what’s happening because it slows it down.”

In the end, Jarhead is a worthy read, especially for its honesty in writing about mental illness and dysfunctional families.

If Swofford has Caputo in mind, his memoir also summons Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army and This Boy’s Life.

Swofford’s story about a boy running away from life’s chaos to the Marine Corps’s close-knit family is not a new formula. But the realization that he is an expendable Marine sniper who can barely stomach the battlefield’s fear and carnage is refreshing and timely.

As the American public is relearning now, war is a blunt instrument and often does not pave a clear road to achieving lofty political goals, such as “regime change.”

The road to political achievement is brutalized by and with the bodies, and minds, of young Philip Caputos, Tim O’Briens and, now, Tony Swoffords.