LIKE MANY VETERANS of past wars, Anthony Swofford, author of the recently published "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles," knows that military victory does not mark the end of a war. Not for the civilians who are bombed. Not for the soldiers who fight on the battleground.
"Jarhead" -- which refers to the Marine Corps haircut -- is Swofford's unflinching memoir of his experience as a 20-year-old Marine scout and sniper in the Persian Gulf War. Through vivid writing and gritty detail, he offers a powerful antidote to the gloating triumphalism that has saturated our culture since America's quick military victory in Iraq.
His was a short war. Most of Swofford's memoir, therefore, recounts months spent waiting in the Saudi Arabian desert, swept by sand and scorched by heat. The men in his platoon, moreover, are not the polite soldiers who appear in television interviews. They are real people -- brawling, rowdy, randy, profane,
confused, enraged and terrified.
It is in the desert that Swofford and his mates pump themselves up for war. They even watch "anti-war" Vietnam videos because all war movies, in their view, are already pro-war. "We head-butt and beat the crap out of each other, we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence . . .."
But, in the end, war turned them against war. Even in 1991, Swofford and his platoon mates harbor serious doubts about why they are fighting in the Persian Gulf. "We joke about having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion . . . We laugh to obscure the tragedy of our cheap, squandered lives with the comedy of combat and being deployed to protect oil reserves and the rights and profits of certain American companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House and oblique financial entanglements with the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, and the commander in chief, George Bush, and the commander's progeny."
Once the war begins, Swofford is shot at by Iraqi soldiers and nearly killed by "friendly fire." But it is what he sees after the military victory that still haunts him today.
American television war news was so sanitized in 1991 that most Americans never realized how much aerial bombardment of Iraqi troops -- in the middle of the desert -- contributed to the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf War.
Swofford, however, cannot forget what he witnessed. "I've never seen such destruction," he writes. "Every 50 to 100 feet a burnt-out and bombed-out enemy vehicle lies disabled . . . bodies dead in the vehicles or blown from them. Dozens, hundreds, of vehicles, with bodies inside or out . . .. Perhaps those two burnt men, one missing both arms, perhaps they were thinking they might make it back to Baghdad and their families for a picnic. This is war . . . the epic results of American bombing."
As they slowly hike back to their base, Swofford already feels the despair that permeates this memoir. "The sky is a dead gray from the oil fires billowing to the north. We hump and hump and look at one another with blank, amazed faces. Is this what we've done? What will I tell my mother?"
His cynicism deepens. With uncanny prescience, he says to himself, "If colonialism weren't out of style, I'm sure we'd take over the entire Middle East . . .. We are here to announce that you no longer own your country, thank you for your cooperation, more details to follow."
Now 34 years old, Swofford writes, "I have gone to war, and now I can issue my complaint. I am entitled to despair over the likelihood of further atrocities. Indolence and cowardice do not drive me -- despair drives me . . . the same despair that impelled me to write this book, a quiet scream from within a buried coffin."
Compared to "Old Europe," which cannot forget the blood-soaked reality of war, the American celebratory mood often seems adolescent. Swofford's plea is that we never forget that war is hell, even when we win, and that we should always worry about the soul of a nation that regards war with childlike delight.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle