(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

One of a growing number of Gulf War memoirs, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead earned considerable critical attention when it was first published. Reviews of the book have been generally positive, with most reviewers praising Swofford’s ability to construct a gripping and powerful narrative without bogging down in too much detail. Indeed, Swofford skillfully describes the sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, often disgusting lives of the marines he knew. Not all reviewers have been so positive. Several have criticized Swofford’s apparent tendency toward self-pity and self-flagellation. Other reviewers have complained that Jarhead offers the reader little more than clichés.

One explanation for the extensive critical attention is the timeliness of the book. Its publication coincided with the United States’ military preparations for a second conflict with Iraq, and the memoir’s subtitle, A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, surely attracted readers who wanted to know what combat in the desert was like. Those who read Jarhead for this purpose, however, may be disappointed because the narrator experiences combat only briefly, describing his experience as a target for Iraqi artillery and rockets and friendly fire from Marine Corps tank gunners. In fact, the narrator never actually discharges his weapon in combat.

As a chronicle of war, Jarhead is unexceptional. Even if read as an account of how combat feels to the average “jarhead” (the marine “high-and-tight” haircut makes the head look like a jar), Swofford’s work is inadequate because it is based solely on point of view of a presumably atypical marine: a very perceptive, bookish marine nicknamed “Swoffie.”

The personality of this marine, however, and the vignettes he narrates are what make this work significant. Moment by moment, image by image, the reader is given an intimate view of Swoffie’s coming-of-age in the Marine Corps and his madness in the Middle East.

The memoir begins in 2003, with the narrator rooting through his mementos of the Gulf War, which he keeps in his Marine Corps rucksack in his basement. Sorting through the spare bullets, documents, and pictures, Swoffie even tries on his old uniform and is not surprised to find that it no longer fits. He humorously considers what he might look like to a passerby: a “mad old warrior going through his memorabilia, juicing up before he runs off and kills a few with precision fire.”

This moment reveals a characteristic concern with images, which permeates the book. At times, the examination of various images reveals surprising insights into the military mind-set. For instance, just before going overseas in 1990 to serve as part of Desert Shield, the operation undertaken to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi troops and to lend muscle to the economic sanctions then in place against Iraq, the marines in Jarhead treat themselves to a succession of films about Vietnam, including Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). As the reader learns, these films, although purportedly antiwar, exploit public fascination with war even as they condemn it. The beautifully filmed, expensively staged images of “death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”

Even the structure of the memoir suggests a fascination with suggestive vignettes, like so many snapshots from the narrator’s life. In the space of one chapter, for instance, the action shifts from a maniacal football game played in Saudi Arabia by marines wearing full chemical warfare protective gear for the benefit of two visiting reporters, to a scene in Tachikawa, Japan, when Swoffie was a little boy wandering into a neighborhood tattoo parlor. This chapter is concerned with a variety of images, including the psychological images the marine colonel is trying to impress on the reporters and the artistic representation of the mushroom cloud tattooed on a Japanese man’s body.

Most of the vignettes are more disturbing than these. For instance, shortly after describing the football game and tattoo parlor, the narrator describes his introduction to Marine Corps brutality, when he is verbally and physically abused by drill instructor Burke. Appointed as the platoon scribe,...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)