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Wednesday, February 26th, 2003


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

by Anthony Swofford

A Grunt's Life

A review by Adrienne Miller

Yes, there have been many, many books about combat in the Gulf War, but none as beautifully written or as ferocious as Jarhead. Anthony Swofford's account of his life on the front lines is so honest and uncompromising as to be brutal. In his decision to become a marine, he follows a kind of familial destiny — his father served in Vietnam and his grandfather in WWII. When Swofford was a high school student, a marine recruiter told his Dad, "'He will be a great killer.'" That seems to have been one of the first, and last, times someone said something encouraging (which is one way to look at that proclamation) to young Anthony, whose life had already become difficult (a sister with a history of severe emotional problems, a brother who later dies from cancer). And life will only get tougher. He enlists as a marine, a "jarhead," and very quickly comes to feel expendable, desperate and hopeless. This book is, among other things, an unblinking study in class politics: "The sad truth is that when you're a jarhead, you're incapable of not being a jarhead, you are a symbol, so that in a city like San Diego, where there are more jarheads than windows, and the jarheads are embarrassing...." The actual war doesn't begin until about two-thirds of the way through the book, giving Swofford and his fellows ample time to create, oh, for instance, elaborate paranoid fantasies (some of which turn out to be more true than others) about their girlfriends back home. Once the war starts, though, do they ever miss the brain-shrinking pre-war numbness. Jarhead is a vital book to read right now, because it reminds us that war isn't merely a theoretical construct. As Swofford's "crazy friend from Texas" says at the beginning of the war, "I didn't think it would happen. All those deadlines, all that talk. It's a real motherfucking war. Bombs and shit. Chemical weapons." Later, when rockets explode close to Swofford's troop, a fellow soldier shouts into the sky, "I didn't do it." That seems about as true and profound a statement as any in this wrenching book. "I didn't do it."

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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