One Soldier’s View

Jarhead: A Marine’ s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles<br> By Anthony Swofford | Scribner. $24.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, could hardly be more timely. But the author, who served as a Marine sniper in Desert Storm, has wisely avoided virtually every nod toward direct commentary on current politics and every cliché of battlefield memoir. Instead, much of the story alternates between descriptions of Swofford’s training — his rise through the ranks and eventual deployment to Iraq — and descriptions of his personal degradation by that process. In the end, Jarhead emerges as a scary, detailed, well-written indictment of life in the military.

Swofford also offers some essential reporting. A military recruiter doesn’t offer the then-17-year-old enlistment-brochure promises — that he’ll get to see the world and defend the Constitution. More perniciously, he entices the teenager with the truth: that he’ ll spend his time getting drunk, starting fights, killing people with interesting weapons, and buying lost weekends with port-of-call prostitutes.

Swofford’s concise writing and liberal use of unquotably coarse military lingo underscore both the intensity, and ambivalence, of his experience. As he rises to a coveted spot in a prestigious sniper unit, he sucks on a bullet as a kind of pacifier and talks about wanting to kill people he meets: Bedouins encountered on a desert patrol, distant soldiers seen through a telescope.

In the end, Jarhead captures the blackest of black comedy. His Marine troop, spoiling for a fight, starts shooting at camels and firing captured weapons at burned-out Iraqi tanks. Swofford himself teeters on the edge of sanity, contemplating suicide, torturing a cohort at gunpoint, and watching his fellow soldiers desecrate Iraqi corpses. The similarity between the recruiter’s promises of a soldier’s life and the reality of Swofford’s account is instructive.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate