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A Skewed View of Life in the Marines:

A Review of Anthony Swofford's Jarhead


Friday, Apr. 18, 2003

Anthony Swofford, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (Scribner 2003)

The reviews for Anthony Swofford's book Jarhead, a memoir about his service in the Marine Corps in the first Gulf War, have been almost universally positive; in fact, I haven't read a single negative one. As a result, I was looking forward to reading it. But the book, contrary to expectations, left me largely disappointed.

Perhaps in order to deal with his own emotional baggage, Swofford plays to his readers' negative stereotypes about Marines, barely mentioning the many exemplary aspects of Marines and the Marine Corps. He's plainly done so in order to create a more outrageous book. But the end result is not entirely accurate - and is far from balanced or fair.

A Highly Negative Portrait of STA Platoon

The title itself gives away where Swofford is going. "Jarhead" is the other services' pejorative term for Marines. It refers both to the short "high and tight" haircut that many Marines wear, and to the fact that many other services think of Marines as exceptionally hard-headed or obstinate.

While many Marines use this term with affection, no Marine appreciates being called a jarhead by a soldier, sailor or air-person. Although Swofford unquestionably has the right to use the term, it signals that he will concentrate on a certain side of the Marine Corps, and it's not a positive one.

Of course, I come to Jarhead with my own baggage. Like Swofford, I served in the Marine Corps infantry for about four years - and thus my experience contained many of the same threads. Unlike Swofford, however, I was an officer, and except for a brief, approximately month-long period during which my battalion thought we were going to Somalia to provide security for the United Nations' withdrawal, I never saw, or even got very close to, a combat situation.

Swofford was a member of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Platoon. The STA platoon that is largely made up of snipers and, within an infantry battalion, generally contains some of the better Marines in the battalion: there is usually some sort of physical and mental test before a Marine from one of the other companies in the battalion is admitted to the STA Platoon.

A Portrayal that May Be Correct, But Fails to Be Balanced

In Jarhead, Swofford discusses his experience in the Gulf War in the fall of 1990 and early 1991. As he does, he intersperses stories about his childhood, and his time in the Marine Corps - particularly those events that played a role in landing him in the desert waiting for battle.

Swofford spends a great deal of time describing the relationship between the Marines in STA Platoon, and the various ways that they spend time while waiting for the war to start. The picture Swofford paints of the Marines is far from a positive one: Swofford tells stories of "field-fucks," where the rest of the platoon simulates gang raping one of its members, and physical abuse in boot camp. In general, he portrays the training Marines receive as aimed at producing mindless killers.

It's impossible to pinpoint any one aspect of Swofford's portrayal of life in the Marine Corps and say that it's incorrect. Yet, as a former Marine, I simply didn't feel like Swofford's portrayal of life in the Marine Corps rang true.

The Marine Corps is not a perfect organization - far from it. But by so relentlessly showing one side of the Marine Corps, the side consistent with the public's worst fears about what organizations like the Marines do to young men, Swofford paints a false portrait through his omissions.

Exaggerations Throw the Account Into Doubt

Some of this is due to some obvious exaggerations that Swofford worked into his stories, all of which seemed unnecessary. For example, at one point Swofford says that he's "been in the Marine Corps less than two years, and I've probably performed this one act, assembling the M16, more than ten thousand times." But that can't be true; it would mean that he assembled his M16 over 15 times every single day of those two years. Even averaging breaking down a weapon one time a day would seem high; though there would doubtless be days where a Marine broke down his weapon multiple times, there would also be many days where the weapons sat in the armory unused.

Similarly, at another point Swofford says that he's "been on thousands of patrols," but that too seems unlikely, since it would mean that he'd been on more than one per day during his relatively short stint as a Marine. While patrolling is an important part of training, and would certainly have been a focus for STA platoon, it's only one of many skills a Marine needs to muster, and there's no way that Swofford went on "thousands of patrols."

These are small exaggerations, but they lead the reader to wonder why Swofford needed to employ them, when he could have been entirely accurate without any more effort. Because the rest of the story seemed so overblown, I couldn't help wondering if Swofford wasn't overstating the way the Marines interacted in just the same way that he overstates how many patrols he went on, or how many times he broke down and reassembled his M16.

For example, Swofford's discussions of women and Marines (infantry Marines are all male) would lead the reader to conclude that every Marine was sleeping with prostitutes at every opportunity, and that the battalion had no sooner left for the Gulf than every wife was in bed with the local filling station attendant.

Now, there's no question that when you take a group of twenty-something year old boys/men, there are going to be some legendary failures in their relationships with women. Every officer and NCO spends far too much of his time providing marital counseling to troubled twenty-year olds. These problems even led a former Commandant to propose that the Marine Corps cease accepting married recruits.

But that said, I also saw young marriages that were incredibly strong, and left me in awe of the commitment that existed between people so young. These relationships rate less than a paragraph in Jarhead. Yet, in contrast, there are pages and pages describing the failures that existed between women and the Marines of STA platoon.

Swofford's tales of how the Marines interact among themselves is similarly unbalanced - a partial truth. Take a large number of young, aggressive and incredibly energetic young men; add in rigorous training and advanced firepower; and you'll have a recipe for hijinks that will leave even the most aggressive football locker room in the shade. Some of those episodes are hilarious, and some are a little disturbing. Swofford does a good job describing those.

But there are also moments where those testosterone-laden boys learn to act like men - both with each other, and also with women. And that's what makes the Marine Corps an amazing organization. It takes young people and shows them how to fight and lead, even if their backgrounds give no indication that they have any capacity for either.

Swofford expends no meaningful energy at all describing this side of the Marine Corps, or the legendary discipline and commitment that have made the Marines so successful.

The funny thing is that in spite of the constantly negative spin that Swofford gives life in the Marine Corps, he clearly wants to show that he was as good a Marine as any: able to run fast, bench press heavy weights, and put three shots from 1000 yards in a group so tight that it could be covered by a dime. Swofford's need to denigrate the Marine Corps while referring to his own abilities reminded me of a girl I knew in high school who constantly made fun of debutante societies and social registers while reminding everyone that her family was prominently placed in both.

Over-Selling Largely Pedestrian Experiences

The other problem with Jarhead is that Swofford's story is not that interesting, and because this is a memoir, it ultimately succeeds or fails on the strength of the author's experience.

For example, after eating a pear in the desert, Swofford writes, "I throw the pear, and when it lands, sand attaches to the moist fruit, like memory to the soft parts of the brain." In another instance, he writes, "I throw my rifle to the deck, and the sound of the hard plastic hand guards and the rifle metal bouncing against the concrete is not unlike the mad clatter of a New Orleans funeral march returning to the city from the grave." These are images so overblown, they actually minimize the events they are meant to magnify.

There are times when Swofford perfectly captures a young man's approach to life, as when he describes his interactions with a Marine recruiter: "The recruiter guaranteed me I could book a threesome for forty American dollars in Olongapo, PI. I'd just turned seventeen. I'd had sex three times and been the recipient of five blow jobs and fourteen hand jobs. I was sold."

But those moments are sparsely placed among seemingly endless introspection and stories of over-the-top behavior among the Marines of STA Platoon. By the end of the memoir, it seems as if these stories have been told to fulfill Swofford's readers' most salacious fantasies about how Marines behave among themselves.

Swofford Fails to Depict Marines' Skill, Discipline, and Professionalism

At the end of the book, Swofford describes a scene after the war, in which a Vietnam vet tells the Marines, "Thank you, thank you jarheads, for making them see we are not bad animals." That vet was right; in both gulf wars, the U.S. military has performed with incredible skill and discipline, and America has learned that the My Lais of Vietnam were the exception, not the rule.

Unfortunately, Swofford concentrates on the animalistic side of the military, barely mentioning the traits that made the military's performance in both Gulf Wars so impressive. As a result, his account in Jarhead can only help revive the false public perception that Marines need to be kept behind glass that is broken only in time of war.

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York. He frequently reviews legal thrillers for this site. Prior to attending law school, Williamson spent nearly four years as a Marine infantry officer, eventually reaching the rank of Captain and serving as a company commander.

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