When the U.S. Marines or "jarheads" were sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 for the first 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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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:August 12, 1970
Place of Birth:Fairfield, California
Education:B.A. in English, University of California, Davis, 1999; M.F.A. in English, University of Iowa Writers¿ Workshop, 2001
Read an Excerpt
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
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.
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 often reflects 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?