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Jarhead

Overview

In his New York Times bestselling chronicle of military life, Anthony Swofford weaves his experiences in war with vivid accounts of boot camp, reflections on the mythos of the marines, and remembrances of battles with lovers and family.

When the U.S. Marines—or "jarheads"—were sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 for the Gulf War, Anthony Swofford was there. He lived in sand for six months; he was punished by boredom and fear; he considered suicide, pulled a gun on a fellow marine, and ...

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Overview

In his New York Times bestselling chronicle of military life, Anthony Swofford weaves his experiences in war with vivid accounts of boot camp, reflections on the mythos of the marines, and remembrances of battles with lovers and family.

When the U.S. Marines—or "jarheads"—were sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 for the Gulf War, Anthony Swofford was there. He lived in sand for six months; he was punished by boredom and fear; he considered suicide, pulled a gun on a fellow marine, and was targeted by both enemy and friendly fire. As engagement with the Iraqis drew near, he was forced to consider what it means to be an American, a soldier, a son of a soldier, and a man.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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 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.
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

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.
Bn.com
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.

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781419388309
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 6/26/2003

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 Portland, Oregon, where he is at work on a novel.

Biography

Open up any newspaper or switch on any television news program and you will no doubt be confronted with the withered face of the war in Iraq that simply will not abate. Unfortunately, war continues to be a dismal reality that every living being has to cope with on a daily basis, but it is, indeed, a rare thing for anyone to have actually experienced lugging a 100-pound backpack while fighting in chaotic front-line combat in the Middle East. With his shattering memoir Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, Anthony Swofford gives the average civilian a pull-no-punches perspective of what it is really like to be a Marine during wartime.

Swofford's tale is not a happy one, but one that is necessary for gleaning a complete concept of not only what war means but what it does to those in the thick of it. Swofford is the product of a military lineage. His grandfather fought in World War II, his father in Vietnam. Anthony himself grew up on a military base, and while his peers were dreaming of what college they might attend, he determined to follow his familial path -- not that his parents encouraged a military career for their son. In fact, on one occasion, his father escorted a Marine recruiter from the Swofford household. However, Anthony, terrified of failure in a "normal" life, was focused on a destiny that was out of his father's hands. As he confesses in his book, "I needed the Marine Corps to save me from the other life I'd fail at -- the life of a college boy hoping to find a girlfriend and later a job."

The life Swofford sought out ultimately entailed nearly getting killed in an Iraqi booby trap, being shot by both Americans and Iraqis, physical abuse by a sadistic drill instructor, suicidal thoughts, and nagging murderous impulses. Trained to kill, and sent to the Middle East to do just that, Swofford found himself aching to perform his function, nearly shooting a comrade in the process. According to Swofford, such violent behavior simply went hand in hand with life on the frontlines. "It's an extremely violent place," he explained in an interview with Powells.com. "You're a young man who's trained to kill. It's in your head every day. You live in a very strict environment, and part of the reason you extend that violence beyond running around the jungle with your M16, say, you extend it out into the town because it's safe. You end up getting into a fight with some college kids or whatever."

Fortunately, Swofford made it out of the Marines alive, and has decided to use his horrifying experiences to enlighten the public about the reality of war without filtering it through the soft gauze of media spin. The Gulf War was portrayed as a brief skirmish that left few U.S. casualties, but Jarhead tells a different tale, addressing the psychological casualties of war. The resulting memoir has received much praise from Esquire, The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher's Weekly, to name a few. Jarhead has also been the subject of a major motion picture directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty; Road to Perdition) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as "Swoff."

As for the real Swoff, he remains devoted to a personal crusade of educating others about military life, that very same life from which his father tried so hard to protect him. Swofford recently taught a class at Lewis and Clark College in the school's "Inventing America" program. Asking his students such thorny questions as "What is war worth and how much does it cost?" and "Is America worth fighting for?" has likely sparked the kind of debate one rarely encounters on the evening news.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Swofford:

"My first job after leaving the Marine Corps was as a bank teller, and a few months into it I was robbed at gunpoint. Then I quit. Down with guns."

"Some people in my family believe we are related to Francis Scott Key, and thus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but this is not true."

"I prefer fish to steak."

"After a hard day of writing I love to cook. I am currently cooking regularly out of Batali, Boulud, and Pepin cookbooks. I still need recipes. I can walk to the market at four, shop, cook, and feed someone at nine o'clock. Then I've spent five hours away from the book, and this separation is good, and I've made something that is complete, perhaps, even, with lunch for the next day. And after eating I can revise the day's earlier work, while someone else washes the dishes."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Swoff
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1970
    2. Place of Birth:
      Fairfield, California
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, University of California, Davis, 1999; M.F.A. in English, University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 2001

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

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

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Introduction

This is a raw, irreverent, unforgettable memoir of military life. Swofford was not just a soldier who happened to write, but a writer who happened to be a soldier. His prose is sharp and vivid. In contrast to the real-time print and television coverage of the Gulf War, which was highly scripted by the Pentagon, Swofford's account is authentic, contrarian, and singular.

Throughout Jarhead, Swofford is a tormented consciousness, yet the tone of the memoir shows that his brief, searing war experience has provoked a yearning for reconciliation and the first hope for a new, inner peace.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why do you think Swofford joined the marines? What appealed to him, and what was he looking for?

2. How would you describe Swofford's temperament? How does it differ from the personalities of the other marines? And how does it affect his experience as a soldier?

3. What do you think of Swofford's girlfriend Kristina and their relationship?

4. Swofford shares the unfortunate story of a fellow soldier receiving videotape from his wife. Why do you think she sent that tape and what was your reaction?

5. At one point, Swofford describes placing the muzzle of his M16 in his mouth and visualizing his own death. Swofford writes of the incident, "The reasons are hard to name...It's not the suicide's job to know, only to do" (p. 70). What do you think is the nature of his despair? In this moment, how seriously does he consider suicide?

6. Discuss Swofford's relationship with Troy. How does his friendship and his death affect Swofford? What types of friendships does he build?

7. Although the book is largely populated by men, Swofford oftenreflects on his relationships with women, from his mother and sister to his various romantic entanglements. What role do you think women play in this book? What do you think Swofford's opinion of women is in general?

8. Discuss Swofford's portrayal of his relationship with his father, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War.

9. Swofford explains the Scout/Sniper shooting procedures in great detail (i.e.: the precise positions of the spotter relative to the shooter and the order in which the various steps are carried out), and he refers to ongoing arguments among spotters and shooters about who has the more difficult job. What is the significance of this near-obsessive procedural detail? How do you think it affects the soldiers' attitude toward the possibility of killing people?

10. "The sad truth is that when you're a jarhead, you're incapable of not being a jarhead, you are a symbol..."(page 119). What do you think about this statement? Would Troy, Fergus, and Swofford's fellow marines agree with this assessment?

11. When Swofford and his platoon arrive home in California, they encounter a disheveled Vietnam veteran. What do you think the veteran means when he says, "Thank you, thank you, Jarheads, for making them see we are not bad animals," (pg. 251)?

12. Discuss the significance of the dog tags Swofford takes from the bodies of three dead Iraqi soldiers. What do they mean to him? Why does he take them and wear them around his neck? How does he feel about Crocket desecrating the dead body of an Iraqi soldier? What do these violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice reveal?

13. Discuss the book's final paragraph: "What did I hope to gain? More bombs are coming. Dig your holes with the hands God gave you." How do you think the war changed Swofford?

14. Discuss Swofford's attitude toward war. How does it develop and change throughout the course of the book?

15. How do the experiences Swofford describes compare to media portrayals of soldier life in the present conflict in Iraq? How does the current war inform your reading of Jarhead? Has this changed your view of war?

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Reading Group Guide

This is a raw, irreverent, unforgettable memoir of military life. Swofford was not just a soldier who happened to write, but a writer who happened to be a soldier. His prose is sharp and vivid. In contrast to the real-time print and television coverage of the Gulf War, which was highly scripted by the Pentagon, Swofford's account is authentic, contrarian, and singular.

Throughout Jarhead, Swofford is a tormented consciousness, yet the tone of the memoir shows that his brief, searing war experience has provoked a yearning for reconciliation and the first hope for a new, inner peace.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why do you think Swofford joined the marines? What appealed to him, and what was he looking for?

2. How would you describe Swofford's temperament? How does it differ from the personalities of the other marines? And how does it affect his experience as a soldier?

3. What do you think of Swofford's girlfriend Kristina and their relationship?

4. Swofford shares the unfortunate story of a fellow soldier receiving videotape from his wife. Why do you think she sent that tape and what was your reaction?

5. At one point, Swofford describes placing the muzzle of his M16 in his mouth and visualizing his own death. Swofford writes of the incident, "The reasons are hard to name...It's not the suicide's job to know, only to do" (p. 70). What do you think is the nature of his despair? In this moment, how seriously does he consider suicide?

6. Discuss Swofford's relationship with Troy. How does his friendship and his death affect Swofford? What types of friendships does he build?

7. Although the book is largely populated by men, Swofford oftenreflects on his relationships with women, from his mother and sister to his various romantic entanglements. What role do you think women play in this book? What do you think Swofford's opinion of women is in general?

8. Discuss Swofford's portrayal of his relationship with his father, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War.

9. Swofford explains the Scout/Sniper shooting procedures in great detail (i.e.: the precise positions of the spotter relative to the shooter and the order in which the various steps are carried out), and he refers to ongoing arguments among spotters and shooters about who has the more difficult job. What is the significance of this near-obsessive procedural detail? How do you think it affects the soldiers' attitude toward the possibility of killing people?

10. "The sad truth is that when you're a jarhead, you're incapable of not being a jarhead, you are a symbol..."(page 119). What do you think about this statement? Would Troy, Fergus, and Swofford's fellow marines agree with this assessment?

11. When Swofford and his platoon arrive home in California, they encounter a disheveled Vietnam veteran. What do you think the veteran means when he says, "Thank you, thank you, Jarheads, for making them see we are not bad animals," (pg. 251)?

12. Discuss the significance of the dog tags Swofford takes from the bodies of three dead Iraqi soldiers. What do they mean to him? Why does he take them and wear them around his neck? How does he feel about Crocket desecrating the dead body of an Iraqi soldier? What do these violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice reveal?

13. Discuss the book's final paragraph: "What did I hope to gain? More bombs are coming. Dig your holes with the hands God gave you." How do you think the war changed Swofford?

14. Discuss Swofford's attitude toward war. How does it develop and change throughout the course of the book?

15. How do the experiences Swofford describes compare to media portrayals of soldier life in the present conflict in Iraq? How does the current war inform your reading of Jarhead? Has this changed your view of war?

Read More Show Less

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