Anthony Swofford was sent to the Saudi desert in 1990 with the U.S. Marines. He waited for six months in the sand and heat, battled boredom and fear, came close to suicide and almost murdered a fellow soldier. During four days of war, he survived enemy mortar attacks and friendly tank fire, and trekked into Iraq through a wasteland—left by U.S. warplanes—of bombed out vehicles and dead bodies. More than ten years after returning home and leaving the Marines, Swofford published Jarhead, a raw account of his time training and fighting with the Marines Corps. The memoir was released as the second Bush administration was preparing to return U.S. soldiers to Iraq, and became a national bestseller.
Jarhead is now a major motion picture. Like the book, the film delves deeply into the violence and brutality of life in the military and the psychological toll war takes on the soldier. Though the movie itself is not a protest against the current war in Iraq, it does add another voice, a soldier’s voice, to the discussion about how war ultimately affects those fighting.
Swofford now lives in New York, where he is working on a novel. Mother Jones recently spoke with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. Jarhead is out in theaters on November 4th.
Mother Jones: Tell me what you thought about the translation of the story from your book to the movie. What were your expectations?
Anthony Swofford: I had rather high expectations because of who was working on it. I was very careful about who I let touch the book. From very early on there was a lot of agreement me and Bill Broyles, the writer, and Sam Mendes, the producers, on how the book needed to be treated. And so, when I first saw the film, I thought it was great. I thought it was a real smart, artful adaptation, and it vividly portrayed the real emotional, philosophical, metaphysical heart of the book.
MJ: Did the way the movie depict war resonate with your own experience?
AS: I was testing the film on many levels the first time I saw it. I was testing it as the person whose life was being portrayed—this version of my life. But even more importantly for me, I was looking at it through my work, through my book. Because there’s so much distance between who I am now, and how I live my life, and who I was then, the filter of my work was more important than the filter of my personal history. I felt like the adaptation lived up to what I attempted to create, and that the war we see on screen is realistic. It’s also filmic, and it’s poetic, but war is also poeticized in my book, as it is by the Marine Corps. What Jarhead the film succeeds at, in a way that Jarhead the book did, is in spending a lot more time than many war films do in the psychological landscapes, the emotional landscapes, of warfare and of the fighter. We’ve seen the guy lose his leg, we’ve seen the guy with the sucking chest wound, we’ve seen the guy blinded by mortar fire. Do we need to see that again? I’m not sure we do.
MJ: What does war do to someone psychologically, and what did it do to you?
AS: It caused me not to trust people. I only trusted the guys I served with. I didn’t trust anyone else for many years. I was still in the Marine Corps for roughly 17 or 18 months after returning from war. So I still had that family I’d created, that we see created on screen. Once I was a civilian I had difficulty trusting people. I’d shared this thing with these guys, who I knew better than I felt like I’d ever know anybody in my life, and that was sort of troubling. I had trouble in relationships, in work relationships sometimes, in love relationships. It took me a while to normalize, and really realize those things that the Marine Corps had given me were important while I was a Marine, but not so important now that I was not. I had to debrief, and kind of had to do it on my own— and try to regain a part of me, the humanist me that had been lost.
MJ: In your book you were reading a lot. In the movie we see you reading Camus’ The Stranger. What did literature mean for you while you were in the military?
AS: Literature was for me the same thing it was in high school. I was a loner, and books were my escape. I found more interesting people in books, and I would have rather spent time with books than with people. And I was still a loner in the Marine Corps. My reading, and the kind of reading I was doing, sort of set me apart. Everybody is sort of weird for one thing or another, and that was the thing that made me weird. Chiefly it was this escape, again, this world that I could step into, this place where I had freedom. My mind was alive when I was reading. [There were] ways that my mind was alive like when I was on patrol, like when I was behind a sniper rifle—but those are anti-humanist ways of being alive. And my reading countered that.
MJ: What were you reading?
AS: I read Camus, I was rereading the Iliad, I was rereading The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth. I had Celine. I had The Myth of Sisyphus, which I finally cracked over there. I had tried to read it a few times before. I checked it out from the Marine Corps library in Okinawa. And it hadn’t been checked out since 1968 or something like that, so I was happy to pull it out of the stacks.
I would say, that most acts of warfare, most combat missions are Sisyphean. What is success? How do you complete the mission? And when do you complete the mission? And warriors who come home, they are never done with war; that boulder is always there, and they are always pushing it.
MJ: In Jarhead, you wrote about how you and the other marines used war movies as preparation—to get yourselves psyched up—just before you were deployed in the Saudi desert. “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man…,” you wrote, and some of that porn was Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket? Do you imagine soldiers going over to Iraq now and watching Jarhead might have a similar response this movie?
AS: You know, I think, they could, the same way Marines read Jarhead before going over to war. I met a Marine last night at the University of Washington, who said, ‘Yeah, we had copies sent over from Amazon. We had it in the desert with us. We were reading it in Kuwait before we went over. And some guys still had it when we were there.’ My hope with the film Jarhead, is that it slows down that kind of violent action. There’s no “Lets Torch the Whole Fucking Village” moment, and there’s no, “I Love the Smell of Napalm in the Morning” moment. That’s something that makes Jarhead a different film from those other films.
MJ: I read in a past interview that you didn’t really watch much TV coverage of the most recent Iraq war, that you felt print was the best medium for delivering the experience of war.
AS: Feature film allows [for] narrative arc. It allows the development of character, conflict, tension, psychological tension, and that’s something that for the most part television news coverage doesn’t allow. Long form print allows more of that. I think the film does offer a vivid, authentic representation of the interior and the exterior of warfare and the young men doing the fighting.
MJ: Do you know anyone in the military who has seen the film?
AS: There are a few people who were with my unit in the Marine Corps who will be seeing the film shortly. Most of them have read the book.
MJ: And they see things the same way you do?
AS: Yes, for the most part. It’s a very personal experience. I tracked a few guys down before the book came out, because I wanted to confirm some events and they knew all of the stories just as I did, but I’m the one who chose to write them down. They told these stories in bars or to their buddies. And I’m the one who put them down on the page, that turned them into this, you know, something beyond just an oral story or a memory. Most of the guys respected that, and recognized their story, what was our story, the story of this platoon at war.
MJ: Do you know anyone serving in the current war?
AS: Well, I occasionally hear over email from Marines who are over there, some Army guys. I have a friend who is a Marine captain over in Iraq for the second time, who was supposed to get out of the Marine Corps and was going to start a journalism graduate program in September. In fact his resignation was stamped approved and he chose to stay in for another tour, because these young Marines that he trained—he’s a combat engineer—were about to deploy and go back to war and he felt like he had a duty to them and to the Marine Corps.
MJ: What are some of the stories he’s been telling you? Are they similar to experiences you had when you were there?
AS: This war is different in many ways. They’ve been there longer. The threats are different. You know, my friend came home, and he called me driving down the 405 in San Diego, and he’s driving in his Audi looking for roadside bombs. So, I think the combatant is always burdened with returning and making his way through his past. And that we as citizens have a responsibility to those guys upon return. We have to make some kind of an attempt to understand what their life is like.