Anthony Swofford


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Jarhead Summary

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Anthony Swofford’s Jardhead is one of a growing number of memoirs centered around the events of the Gulf War.  The author expertly describes the often horrifying, sometimes hilarious and disgusting lives of the marines he encountered.  While the majority of the reviews of the book have been positive, not everyone feels that way. Several pundits have criticized the author’s tendency toward self-pity and self-flagellation.  Other critics said the book was little more than a collection of clichés.  Yet, despite the occasional negative press, Swofford’s book was made into a movie in 2005 starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper.

The book begins in 2003, with the narrator sifting through his mementos from the Gulf War.  The items he has collected include spare bullets, documents, photos, as well as his old uniform which, to the narrator’s surprise, no longer fits.  For a brief moment, the narrator considers what he must look like to passersby, followed by a quip that adds a light-hearted air to an otherwise somber subject. Here is the first instance of a characteristic concern with images that permeates the book. The author moves from this examination of his memorabilia to reveal surprising insights into the Marine state of mind.  For example, in 1990, just before going overseas to serve as part of Desert Shield, which was the operation undertaken to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi troops and to enforce economic sanctions against the Iraqi regime, the narrator’s unit treated themselves to a series of movies about the Vietnam War. The narrator explains that these films, although fundamentally antiwar, expose the public fascination with war, even as they condemn it. The expertly filmed and staged images of death are “pornography for the military men”.

Even the structure of the memoir is suggestive of a fascination with war vignettes, as indicated by so many of the snapshots of the narrator’s life throughout the book. Over the course of a single chapter, the action shifts from an intense football game played in Saudi Arabia by marines who don gear designed to protect them against chemical warfare for the benefit of reporters, to a scene in Japan, when the narrator, as a little boy, wandered into a neighborhood tattoo parlor. In addition to these vignettes, the author also incorporates a number of visceral images into the narrative, including those with psychological overtones designed to impress certain ideals on the minds of the reporters covering the war. One such image is a mushroom cloud tattooed on a Japanese man’s body. Most of the images, however, are more disturbing. One example is given shortly after the author’s description of the football game and the tattoo parlor and depicts Marine Corp brutality at its most heinous.  The narrator describes how he is verbally and physically abused by a drill instructor named Burke, and the fundamental impact this had, even following the events of the golf war.

The crux of the memoir is that the narrator is half in love with the very thing he despises. The book reveals that Marines, in preparing for and engaging in close combat situations, are bombarded by a wide variety of emotions: excitement, hatred, terror, panic, comradery, and at times, waves of compassion for the enemy.  Swofford even portrays the random and often perpetual boredom that is part of normal life on a marine base.  Accompanying this love/hate relationship with war is a shrewd literary sensibility that shapes much of the narrative. This sensibility is evident in more than just the narrator’s depictions of life in Iowa; it is also present in the vigilant narrator who, as a 20-year old soldier, curses and whores with his fellow marines, while managing to be somewhere else entirely in his own head. At one point in the desert, the narrator’s fellow soldiers catch him reading The Illiad and make an off-handed comment about how the book is “some heavy dope”.  Bu the author’s despair also permeates the book, which conveys a unique insight about the narrator as anything but your typical soldier. At one point, the narrator believes his girlfriend back home is cheating on him with a hotel clerk she mentions in a letter to him.  The suspicion becomes such a palpable part of his thoughts that the narrator puts the barrel of his M16 in his mouth and plays with the trigger.

Despite the emotional turbulence he experiences, the narrator plays his role as a soldier with impressive precision.  Much of his and his fellow marines’ attitude is adopted from the old war movies they watch. Films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket inform their expectations of the combat zone.

As the book concludes in the aftermath of the war, it is revealed that the narrator never saw much combat. “Sometimes you wish you’d killed an Iraqi”, he explains.  His experiences in the war leave him with a cacophony of unresolved emotions, hollowness, and a sense of unfinished business that even his own government seems to share.