(Spoiler Warning: This review contains plot details of the book Jarhead. Seriously though, this should not keep you from reading this post.)
When we last left Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, we were discussing the book's promotion of rape and it's degradation of women. Today, I want to discuss what the book does right and, more commonly, what it does wrong. Hopefully by the end, you’ll know whether or not you should read it. (Spoiler Alert: you shouldn’t.)
Jarhead is a "non-fiction" memoir of Swofford’s experience in the first Persian Gulf war. Trained as a bad-ass Marine sniper--thankfully he doesn't dwell on the training sequences--Swofford and his platoon nervously await battle in Kuwait. They spend many boring months in Saudi Arabia until the war finally lurches to a start. When they finally get to the frontlines, the platoon sees little real combat, and in the end a senior officer takes away Swofford’s only chance at a kill.
In between this somewhat limited plot are flashbacks to Swofford’s childhood spent dreaming of becoming a Marine, growing up in Japan, and wandering around aimlessly post-gulf war. Some of these passages--particularly the one with the girlfriend in Japan--are quite good. Others--like Swofford’s petty family dispute between him, his father and his brother--are quite bad.
Ultimately, the book sins twice, by being both inaccurate and biased. This is why it fails.
Martin Amis, in his blurb for the book, praises Jarhead's "reportage." Put bluntly, this book's reportage sucks. A lot of events never could have happened, and his descriptions often seem totally innaccurate.
Many scenes just don't pass the sniff test. Like the story about a wife sending a soldier a sextape; it feels like an urban myth appropriated for the novel. [Update: It was.] When the platoon fake rapes a soldier in front of a reporter, it is unbelievable that an officer would let it happen and that a reporter wouldn't report on it, especially if he has a camera. When Swofford threatens another soldier with a gun, that's court martial material. And when Swofford gets stranded out in the desert, well, I'm not the only one who doesn't think it could happen.
One example is particularly egregious. Specifically when artillery shells start raining down on Swofford and his platoon. “The first few rounds land within fifteen feet of the fighting hole Johnny Rotten and I are digging.” (pg. 189.) Wait. Artillery rounds landed within fifteen feet of you and you didn't get blown to kingdom come? When I first read this, I had to call Michael, it sounded so unbelievable.
Maybe Swofford was grossly exaggerating, maybe he just made it up for excitement. The point is, it isn’t true, like too many scenes in this book.
The title could sum up the entire book: written for civilians (particularly anti-war liberals) about what they think a "jarhead" is. It is a memoir about appearances, about seeming to be one thing without actually being that thing. Swofford seems determined to portray Marines, the military and Soldiers in general as blood thirsty, horny sex addicts/perverts; a portrayal of the world that is cynical, ugly and brutish, in which war and Soldiers are both our salvation and our sin.
But that's just it, it is all an appearance, or a mirage. As one Marine pointed out, "'jarhead' isn't even a term most Marines use." The book wasn't written for Marines; it was written for critics.
Published in 2003, during the lead-up to Iraq, I think the book was written because of the war. It definitely was published for that reason. The book jacket reads like a who’s who of progressive literary reviewers, with glowing reviews from the SF Chronicle to the NY Review of Books. But Newsweek tips its hand as to why they enjoyed the book, “If you want a clear-eyed sense of what might be going on today in the staging areas surrounding Iraq...read Jarhead.”
Swofford wants to shock you. That's why he writes about rape so much. That's why certain passages are so nihilistic. That's why Swofford would rather focus on the obscene--my favorite example is when he describes sand getting into his “ass crack and piss hole” Really? Piss hole?--than write about war as it actually is.
This second sin of the novel is more unforgivable. It makes the book no better than propaganda (as I’ve written before) and we need to dismiss it.