Sunday, November 06, 2005

Book Review: Jarhead

In an effort to keep this humble site relevant, I reserve the right to occasionally wander off-topic. Thus, the following book review, the first in an ongoing series...

Anthony Swofford waited ten years to write about his Gulf War experiences and the result was a best selling memoir. This weekend the book, the author and Operation:Desert Storm are getting a lot of press thanks to the premiere of the Sam Mendes-directed film of the same name. I haven't seen the film, but the reviews confirmed my suspicions. 'Jarhead' is a languid, internal story of a Marine's struggle with his place in the War and the world. The very lack of action drives the narrative, but not in a way that easily translates to cinema. That moviegoers would come away feeling empty is ironic, since that's the exact same sentiment Swofford so aptly writes about.

But I didn't log in to pick apart a movie I haven't seen, but rather to praise a book I really enjoyed reading back when it first came out. In print, 'Jarhead' is a bleak tour through the sand-choked landscape of modern day warfare training. Swofford pulls no punches, revealing ugly truths about his fellow soldiers and himself that imbue the text with an undeniable realism. That it refuses to adhere to the novel-like mainframe of climax and resolution makes it all the more bruising and life-like. Simply put, 'real' trumps 'heroic' - a concept this crack sniper turned gifted writer never lets wander from his sights. Starkly apolitical, 'Jarhead' speaks from a troubled grunt's point of view and uncovers the minefield he must cross while waiting for a war to define him. If you dig unvarnished, thoughtful non-fiction, you can do no better than this debut work. You may even want to see the movie...

P.S.) I cannot tell you how inspiring this book was when I first read it. Along with such works as 'Chickenhawk' and 'The Things They Carried', 'Jarhead's warts-and-all account of military life makes me want to recount my own peace-time coming-of-age experience in the U.S. Navy - something I fully intend to do, as soon as I work up the courage. Dismissed!

1 comment:

B. Miniter said...


'Welcome to the Suck'
Disillusioned warriors bomb at the box office. Will they play better at the ballot box?

Wall Street Jounrla, Tuesday, November 8, 2005

With Iraqi mortar shells exploding around him, the main character in the new film "Jarhead" is ordered to leave his foxhole, run down a sandy berm, and retrieve a fresh battery for a radio. "Anthony Swofford" (Jake Gyllenhaal) manages to make it down and back alive, only to find that he has grabbed a dead battery. Another Marine realizes what happened and says "Welcome to the suck."

It's hard to think of a better way to sum up the antiwar films that have been exploding out of Hollywood for decades now. "Jarhead" is yet another movie about the depravity and uselessness of war. It's based on a memoir by the real-life Anthony Swofford about his experience in the Marines during the first Gulf War. But producer Sam Mendes could have just as easily have been inspired by Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" or even Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 "Apocalypse Now"--which makes a brief appearance in "Jarhead" as a film shown to the Marines in preparation for going off to war.

It may surprise a few Hollywood execs that this isn't an easy sell in a post 9/11 America. In the Brooklyn, N.Y., theater where I saw "Jarhead," viewers were streaming out of the theater even before the film was over. What the viewers were hoping for was a rousing film portraying U.S. forces as the good guys sacrificing for a worthwhile mission, or at least, a sense of joy in the victory. But it never came. So on her way out, one woman protested for all to hear: "They sold us [the movie] with prompted-up music, but then they gave us this."

What "this" turned out to be was a succession of deflating experiences leading up to the conclusion that war is a waste of time and it destroys all those who engage in it. Swofford turns out to be a cynic who had no opportunities outside of joining the Marines and who is dismayed because his service has left him unable to settle back into society. In Saudi Arabia, he and his fellow Marines find the tedium of waiting for war unbearable. But then liberating Kuwait turns out to be anticlimactic. Swofford never gets to fire his weapon in battle, though he does confront another Marine who is dragging around the charred remains of an Iraqi killed in an air raid. One Marine complains by asking who sold Iraq its weapons. (The U.S., of course.) After the war is won someone remarks that U.S. soldiers will never have to be back in Iraq again.

And this for a war many on the left held up last year as a model of legitimate, multilateral military action with the clear moral aim of expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. A war that might even, if you will, have passed the "global test." Welcome to the suck, indeed.

What Hollywood is tossing up on the silver screen is a political strategy the left hopes to employ: using disillusioned warriors to discredit the war. That's a role Janis Karpinski is happy to play with her new book, "One Woman's Army." She's the former brigadier general who was in charge of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq when a handful of guards abused prisoners in 2003--abuse captured on camera and later shown to the world. She had little to do with the actual abuse and was demoted for not spotting it earlier. Seven soldiers have been convicted in courts-martial and sent off to prison, and Ms. Karpinski is getting her revenge by claiming she was a scapegoat and that the real perpetrators were contract employees under orders from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Another disillusioned warrior is Paul Hackett, a former Marine and a veteran of the Iraq war who ran a spirited campaign earlier in a special election for an Ohio House seat. He played up his Iraq war opposition for the national press, but back home stressed his status as a veteran and aired commercials implying that he supported President Bush. He won lots of ink but narrowly lost to Republican Jean Schmidt. Now he has set his sights higher, hoping to unseat Sen. Mike DeWine. How far he makes it this time will likely depend more on voter fatigue with a scandal ridden state Republican Party than with his own disillusionment over the liberation of Iraq.

Finally there is Coleen Rowley, who gained national fame as an FBI whistleblower after the 9/11 attacks. She's running for Congress in Minnesota against Rep. John Kline, a former Marine. She's popular with the antiwar left for rattling off fiery lines: "This is a lied-into war that is a quagmire now. It could be worse than Vietnam. The truth is we can't win, and there is ongoing deception." But she isn't popular enough for the check-writing left. She's failing to raise the money Democrats hoped--bringing in just $80,000 last quarter, about a third of what Mr. Kline raised in the same period--and isn't likely to become the face of a successful Democratic insurgency. Maybe she ought to be in pictures.

Mr. Miniter is assistant editor of His column appears Tuesdays