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Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
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Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles

3.8 99
by Anthony Swofford

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Anthony Swofford's Jarhead is the first Gulf War memoir by a frontline infantry marine, and it is a searing, unforgettable narrative.

When the marines -- or "jarheads," as they call themselves -- were sent in 1990 to Saudi Arabia to fight the Iraqis, Swofford was there, with a hundred-pound pack on his shoulders and a sniper's rifle in his hands. It was


Anthony Swofford's Jarhead is the first Gulf War memoir by a frontline infantry marine, and it is a searing, unforgettable narrative.

When the marines -- or "jarheads," as they call themselves -- were sent in 1990 to Saudi Arabia to fight the Iraqis, Swofford was there, with a hundred-pound pack on his shoulders and a sniper's rifle in his hands. It was one misery upon another. He lived in sand for six months, his girlfriend back home betrayed him for a scrawny hotel clerk, he was punished by boredom and fear, he considered suicide, he pulled a gun on one of his fellow marines, and he was shot at by both Iraqis and Americans. At the end of the war, Swofford hiked for miles through a landscape of incinerated Iraqi soldiers and later was nearly killed in a booby-trapped Iraqi bunker.

Swofford weaves this experience of war with vivid accounts of boot camp (which included physical abuse by his drill instructor), reflections on the mythos of the marines, and remembrances of battles with lovers and family. As engagement with the Iraqis draws closer, he is forced to consider what it is to be an American, a soldier, a son of a soldier, and a man.

Unlike the real-time print and television coverage of the Gulf War, which was highly scripted by the Pentagon, Swofford's account subverts the conventional wisdom that U.S. military interventions are now merely surgical insertions of superior forces that result in few American casualties. Jarhead insists we remember the Americans who are in fact wounded or killed, the fields of smoking enemy corpses left behind, and the continuing difficulty that American soldiers have reentering civilian life.

A harrowing yet inspiring portrait of a tormented consciousness struggling for inner peace, Jarhead will elbow for room on that short shelf of American war classics that includes Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and be admired not only for the raw beauty of its prose but also for the depth of its pained heart.

Editorial Reviews

On the surface, Anthony Swofford seemed to be the quintessential "jarhead"; a front-line combat Marine who shouldered 100-pound packs and waded into battle-torn Iraq with little or no hesitation. But, as this harrowing memoir shows, Desert Storm veteran Swofford carried mental baggage far heavier than duffel bags with bed rolls and rifles. Jarhead brandishes the intensity of military life in all its maddening contradictions. By turns, Swofford is presented as terrified, bored, and remorseful; a victim of his own memories and the captain of his own renewal. From boot camp to post-battle doldrums, he struggles through mental minefields and wartime doubts. Unflinching and revelatory (there are frank descriptions of American military behavior during the Kuwaiti campaign that the Pentagon had suppressed), this memoir has become an instant classic.
The Washington Post
Swofford's war ends in a strangely appropriate fashion, as he and a colleague are sent out on a mission far from their battalion. The Iraqi army quits, the fighting stops. And no one remembers the men who have been left out in the desert.

That's a story Philip Caputo and James Webb would have understood well. — Chris Bray

The Los Angeles Times
Swofford's book is about the man who feels cheated because the Gulf War was over so quickly, and he was, perhaps, both relieved and horrified. "I am not well," he writes, "but I am not mad." He describes what it was like getting ready for the war, and his book, he wants us to know, "is neither true nor false but what I know." He knows an immense amount as a member of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. In short, he was a scout-sniper and a good one. Although it might be said snipers are often very peculiar people. — Gloria Emerson
The New Yorker
In 1990, Swofford, a young Marine sniper, went to Saudi Arabia with dreams of vaporizing Iraqi skulls into clouds of "pink mist." As he recounts in this aggressively uninspiring Gulf War memoir, his youthful bloodlust was never satisfied. After spending months cleaning sand out of his rifle -- so feverish with murderous anticipation that he almost blows a buddy's head off after an argument -- Swofford ends up merely a spectator of a lopsided battle waged with bombs, not bullets. The rage the soldiers feel, their hopes of combat frustrated, is "nearly unendurable." Swofford's attempts at brutal honesty sometimes seem cartoonish: "Rape them all, kill them all" is how he sums up his military ethic. He is better at comic descriptions -- gas masks malfunctioning in the desert heat, camels picked off during target practice -- that capture the stupid side of a smart-bomb war.
Publishers Weekly
A witty, profane, down-in-the-sand account of the war many only know from CNN, this former sniper's debut is a worthy addition to the battlefield memoir genre. There isn't a bit of heroic posturing as Swofford describes the sheer terror of being fired upon by Iraqi troops; the elite special forces warrior freely admits wetting himself once rockets start exploding around his unit's encampment. But the adrenaline of battle is fleeting, and Swofford shows how it's in the waiting that soldiers are really made. With blunt language and bittersweet humor, he vividly recounts the worrying, drinking, joking, lusting and just plain sitting around that his troop endured while wondering if they would ever put their deadly skills to use. As Operation Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm, one of Swofford's fellow snipers-the most macho of the bunch-solicits a hug from each man. "We are about to die in combat, so why not get one last hug, one last bit of physical contact," Swofford writes. "And through the hugs [he] helps make us human again." When they do finally fight, Swofford questions whether the men are as prepared as their commanders, the American public and the men themselves think they are. Swofford deftly uses flashbacks to chart his journey from a wide-eyed adolescent with a family military legacy to a hardened fighter who becomes consumed with doubt about his chosen role. As young soldiers might just find themselves deployed to the deserts of Iraq, this book offers them, as well as the casual reader, an unflinching portrayal of the loneliness and brutality of modern warfare and sophisticated analyses of-and visceral reactions to-its politics. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In his memoir on life as a U.S. Marine, Swofford starts out by admitting that what he describes "is neither true nor false, but what I know." This is in no sense a chronicle of the Gulf War but instead an interior monolog reflecting Swofford's inner journey from despised childhood to coming of age as an enlisted marine and finally coming somewhat to terms with the man he has become. For Swofford, warfare was the culmination of everything he had experienced, so that his existential narrative hangs on his pivotal nine-month tour of duty. The boredom, frustration, fear, physical exertion, and relentless training all contributed to his sense of self, but in the end he felt capable of backing away from the total absorption of combat to live in the real world. Unfortunately, reconnection with civilian life turned out to be no easier than living in the combat zone. Many libraries may be put off by the book's pervasive sex and profanity, but it is an eloquent depiction of the martial enthusiasm of young men. Recommended for comprehensive military collections.-Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
The New York Times
The descriptions of the 1991 gulf war in Anthony Swofford's harrowing new memoir feel like something out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting of hell, combined with something out of "Blade Runner": spectral oil well fires burning day and night, as a petrol rain falls on the blasted desert and psy-ops helicopters fly overhead, blasting tapes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones — music from another war — in an effort to unnerve enemy soldiers. Wearing jungle camouflage gear that makes them "look like mulberry bushes marching through the desert" — because their sand-colored suits haven't arrived — small battalions of American soldiers trek across a wasteland, dotted with the smoking ruins of Iraqi tanks and the rotting corpses of dead Iraqis, blown away by American air power.

At night the marines dig shallow sleep pits in the sand as protection against small arms and artillery, but there is the constant fear of a gas attack. "In my dark fantasies," Mr. Swofford writes, "the chemicals are gassy and green or yellow and floating around the warhead, the warhead on its way to me, my personal warhead, whistling its way to the earth, into my little hole."

By turns profane and lyrical, swaggering and ruminative, "Jarhead" — referring to the marines' "high-and-tight" haircuts, which make their heads look like jars — is not only the most powerful memoir to emerge thus far from the last gulf war, but also a searing contribution to the literature of combat, a book that combines the black humor of "Catch-22" with the savagery of "Full Metal Jacket" and the visceral detail of "The Things They Carried."

Mr. Swofford, who served in a United States Marine Corps Surveillance and Target Acquisition/Scout-Sniper platoon during the operation known as Desert Storm, drinks, carries on and trash-talks with the rowdiest of his comrades. But he is also the one who reads the "Iliad," "The Stranger" and "Hamlet" in his spare time, and he has found in his own book a narrative voice that accommodates both parts of his temperament: an irreverent but meditative voice that captures both the juiced-up machismo of jarhead culture and the existential loneliness of combat. He can be unsparingly candid about the ugly emotions released by war — one of his platoon mates brutally desecrates Iraqi corpses — and Mr. Swofford admits to feeling blood lust, afraid he won't get a kill before war ends. But he is also eloquent about the terrible physical and psychological costs of combat and the emotional bonds shared by soldiers.

He makes us understand the exacting and deadly art practiced by a sniper, going after the "pink mist" of a kill or making a "dime group at a grand," that is, three shots that can be covered by a dime, on a target 1,000 yards away. He makes us feel the rhythm of boredom and terror of preparing for an enemy attack and the sheer physical ordeal of humping 100 pounds of gear 20 miles in the desert heat. He tells us how he contemplated committing suicide in the days before the war and how his roommate Troy talked him out of pulling the trigger, and he tells us how he survived the actual war only to come close to dying when he casually walked into an empty but booby-trapped Iraqi bunker.

Like so many war memoirs and novels, "Jarhead" takes the form of a bildungsroman: it traces the familiar real-life sequence of initiation, from boot camp to shipping out to combat, while chronicling the author's passage from innocence to disillusion. Instead of writing a strictly chronological account, however, Mr. Swofford uses flashbacks and flashforwards to tell his story, an effective strategy in this case, as it juxtaposes his youthful idealism with adult cynicism and despair, gung-ho bravado with doubts and fears and crumbling religious faith.

We learn that Mr. Swofford's father served in Vietnam, his grandfather in World War II, and that despite the postwar trauma sustained by his father, the author understood from a very early age "that manhood had to do with war, and war with manhood, and to no longer be just a son, I needed someday to fight."

Though his parents refused to give him permission to join the Marines at 17 — by way of encouragement, the recruiter told them that their son would "be a great killer" — he joined several months later, when he was able to sign the contract on his own. In part, he says in retrospect, he joined the corps to compete with his brother, Jeff, who had joined the Army; in part "to impose domestic structure upon my life, to find a home" in the wake of his parents' collapsing marriage.

Mr. Swofford's account of boot camp and the long wait in Saudi Arabia for the war to begin is rich in the absurdities of military bureaucracy: one colonel, seeing that reporters are on hand, insists that the platoon play football for an hour, wearing gas masks and protective suits (which raise the body temperature to 130 degrees). Not surprisingly the author and many of his fellow recruits quickly develop a cynical humor. Their loyalty is to one another and to privately held ideals of honor and valor, not to the mission to which they've been assigned.

"We joke about having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion," he writes, "and while we laugh at our jokes and we all think we're damn funny jarheads, we know we might soon die, and this is not funny, the possibility of death, but like many combatants before us we laugh to obscure the tragedy of our cheap, squandered lives."

In the course of "Jarhead" Mr. Swofford conveys a chilling sense of what it is like to be under enemy fire, and he also communicates a palpable sense of the fog of war: the chaos of fighting in a desert landscape offering little cover, where the hazards of friendly fire are nearly as great as the danger of being hit by the enemy, where months of training and discipline can be undone in a second by malfunctioning equipment or a fellow soldier's momentary inattention.

Although the reader wishes that the portraits of some of the author's comrades in arms had been more fully fleshed out, that some of the asides about unfaithful girlfriends and obnoxious acquaintances had been trimmed back, Mr. Swofford writes with such ardor and precision that these lapses are quickly forgotten.

With "Jarhead," he has written the literary equivalent of a dime group at a grand.

Kirkus Reviews
War is hell. And maybe just a little fun, once some of the shock has worn off. So this literate and nuanced if sometimes self-conscious coming-of-age tale instructs. Swofford's debut covers all the bases: a stint in basic training with a brutal drill instructor, drunken episodes with prostitutes, fights with sailors, explosions and their attendant airborne body parts, postwar trauma and depression. Yet there's not a clichéd moment in this rueful account of a Marine's life, in which the hazards are many and the rewards few. Swofford, for instance, recounts a bout with one of those hazards, dysentery, earned by consuming a stolen vat of salad greens while awaiting orders to attack the opposing Iraqi line along the Saudi border: "The lettuce came from Jordanian fields where they use human feces as fertilizer. So here we are, defending a country none of us gives a shit about, eating its neighbors' shit, and burying ours in the sand." Another hazard, we learn, is the presence of battle-deranged fellow squad members, one of whom takes to systematically disfiguring a fallen Iraqi fighter: "He says the look on the dead man's face, his mocking gesture, is insulting, and that the man deserved to die, and now that he's dead the man's corpse deserves to be fucked with." Still another hazard, quite apart from dangerous food and dangerous psychopaths, is the endless politicking of the brass, one of whom keeps Swofford, a sniper, from assassinating an Iraqi officer and perhaps inducing that officer's charges to surrender rather than fight on. And so on. For all the dangers, the author allows, a certain exhilaration attends the facing of a deadly enemy and living to tell the tale, a joy that no civiliancan possibly understand-though Swofford does his best to explain. Extraordinary: full of insight into the minds and rucksacks of our latter-day warriors.
From the Publisher
Mark Bowden Author of Black Hawk Down Jarhead will go down with the best books ever written about military life.

The Sacramento Bee A bayonet in the eye...brutal and unforgettable.

Michiko Kakutani The New York Times A searing contribution to the literature of combat, a book that combines the black humor of Catch-22 with the savagery of Full Metal Jacket and the visceral detail of The Things They Carried....An irreverent but meditative voice that captures the juiced-up machismo of jarhead culture and the existential loneliness of combat...Mr. Swofford conveys a chilling sense of what it is like to be under enemy fire, and he also communicates a palpable sense of the fog of war.

Entertainment Weekly A brutally honest memoir...gut-wrenching frontline reportage.

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Pocket Books
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4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.30(d)

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On August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops drive east to Kuwait City and start killing soldiers and civilians and capturing gold-heavy palaces and expensive German sedans — though it is likely that the Iraqi atrocities are being exaggerated by Kuwaitis and Saudis and certain elements of the U.S. government, so as to gather more coalition support from the UN, the American people, and the international community generally.

Also on August 2, my platoon — STA (pronounced stay), the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, scout/snipers, of the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines — is put on standby. We're currently stationed at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, in California's Mojave Desert.

After hearing the news of imminent war in the Middle East, we march in a platoon formation to the base barber and get fresh high-and-tight haircuts. And no wonder we call ourselves jarheads — our heads look just like jars.

Then we send a few guys downtown to rent all of the war movies they can get their hands on. They also buy a hell of a lot of beer. For three days we sit in our rec room and drink all of the beer and watch all of those damn movies, and we yell Semper fi and we head-butt and beat the crap out of each other and we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it's the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. We rewind and review famous scenes, such as Robert Duvall and his helicopter gunships during Apocalypse Now, and in the same film Martin Sheen floating up the fake Vietnamese Congo; we watch Willem Dafoe get shot by a friendly and left on the battlefield in Platoon; and we listen closely as Matthew Modine talks trash to a streetwalker in Full Metal Jacket. We watch again the ragged, tired, burnt-out fighters walking through the villes and the pretty native women smiling because if they don't smile, the fighters might kill their pigs or burn their cache of rice. We rewind the rape scenes when American soldiers return from the bush after killing many VC to sip cool beers in a thatch bar while whores sit on their laps for a song or two (a song from the fifties when America was still sweet) before they retire to rooms and fuck the whores sweetly. The American boys, brutal, young farm boys or tough city boys, sweetly fuck the whores. Yes, somehow the films convince us that these boys are sweet, even though we know we are much like these boys and that we are no longer sweet.

There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim. But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck. It doesn't matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar — the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.

We watch our films and drink our beer and occasionally someone begins weeping and exits the room to stand on the catwalk and stare at the Bullion Mountains, the treacherous, craggy range that borders our barracks. Once, this person is me. It's nearly midnight, the temperature still in the upper nineties, and the sky is wracked with stars. Moonlight spreads across the desert like a white fire. The door behind me remains open, and on the TV screen an ambush erupts on one of the famous murderous hills of Vietnam.

I reenter the room and look at the faces of my fellows. We are all afraid, but show this in various ways — violent indifference, fake ease, standard-issue bravura. We are afraid, but that doesn't mean we don't want to fight. It occurs to me that we will never be young again. I take my seat and return to the raging battle. The supposedly antiwar films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.

Copyright © 2003 by Anthony Swofford

Meet the Author

Anthony Swofford served in a U.S. Marine Corps Surveillance and Target Acquisition/Scout-Sniper platoon during the Gulf War. After the war, he was educated at American River College; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has taught at the University of Iowa and Lewis and Clark College. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, Men's Journal, The Iowa Review, and other publications. A Michener-Copernicus Fellowship recipient, he lives in New York.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
August 12, 1970
Place of Birth:
Fairfield, California
B.A. in English, University of California, Davis, 1999; M.F.A. in English, University of Iowa Writers¿ Workshop, 2001

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Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 98 reviews.
JohnnyG71 More than 1 year ago
The most unnerving war book I ever read was E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed, about World War II assaults on Plelieu and Okinawa. I thought no auithor to that point had yet told a tale so vibrantly, so bluntly, so openly. Then I read Jarhead. Different time, different war, for sure, but the author proves that the hellish things that warriors see in combat areas never change. Swofford's narrative also reminds one of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. His temporally disjointed memories hop from childhood to civilian life to active duty and back again, showing that the experiences that form a man's life are amazingly interrelated. Swofford is no recruiting poster Marine, and according to his story, that man may not exist anyway. If he did, he would probably never be able to handle what is to be found on the battlefields U.S. Marines are called upon to visit.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anthony Swofford¿s war was much different than what many picture when the word war comes to mind. There was no combat, and no killing, only a platoon of soldiers stuck in the desert preventing death from boredom. Swofford¿s platoon witnessed some of the most troublesome parts of war, the war at home. At one particular point, he illustrates that its all coming to an end and that he wishes it would but his band of brothers prevents this from happening. What this book is really about is the unity between men in service. Its really a great read and is not hard to understand. The one part that the reader may not understand is that this is really what war is like. The media only shows what parts of war is, the bad parts, the killing and sacrifice. Finally a book written from a soldiers point of view to show what war really is. It grips you within the first few pages and never lets go throughout the story. Swofford does a great job of illustrating every detail throughout the story, even his fantasies of what he wishes would happen. Certain times he describes events which are funny, and others that make you depressed. All in all I have to say this is one of the best novels I have read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I recently read another marine book set in the Vietnam era, Semper-Fi-do-or-die and there are too many similarities in these two books. I have a love/hate relationship with both books, so much so its eery. Many readers I'm sure question the validity as do i of both books but, iregardless, they are both books that you can't seem to put down once you've start reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dear nicole Sorry i havent been on for a while. I have been busy. How are you? A lot of stuff has gone on over here since we last talked. The taliban has gradually downsized since we have been here. A buddy of mine has passed while in a firefight on 3-14-13. That was probably the worst one ive been in. I heard that there was a terrorist attack in boston yesterday. I hope all of the people that got hurt are OK. I hate terrorists. Thats part if the reason i came here. I sure could use some starbucks! I will try and check back everyday. The jarhead, Allen
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