On February 19th, Michiko Kakutani reviewed Anthony Swofford's debut in the New York Times. "By turns profane and lyrical, swaggering and ruminative," she announced, Jarhead "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."
We read passages of Kakutani's review aloud here at Powell's, trying to get our heads around the implications of such unabashed praise from America's foremost—and, some would say, most feared—book critic. We'd met Swofford only weeks before; in late January, the Portland-based author had stopped by our office to drop off advance copies of his book and introduce himself.
Seven days later, Esquire's review followed. Literary editor Adrienne Miller raved, "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." The buzz was palpable now, and growing louder by the day.
Excruciatingly direct and exceedingly well written, Jarhead will soon explode into the nation's consciousness—bet on it. As Washington forges ahead with its attempt to win multilateral support from the UN and the battle to control public opinion continues amid expanding anti-war protests at home and abroad, into the fray comes one of the most articulate, unflinching portrayals of military service the civilian public has ever seen.
"The individual soldier has not really been considered and is not being given a voice," the author explained upon his return to Powells.com. "My book offers a soldier's voice at a time when one needs to be heard."
Dave: In the book's opening pages, Iraqi troops enter Kuwait City and your unit at Twentynine Palms, California, is put on standby. A few guys in your platoon go downtown to rent all the war movies they can find. You write:
|Vietnam films are all pro war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended?because the magic brutality of the films celebrate the terrible and despicable beauty of [our] fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.|
With some of the swaggering detail you provide, the "dime group at a grand" and so forth, do you think the same can be said of your book?
Anthony Swofford: Is it possible that my book is pro-war in the same way that I say the Vietnam films, for the fighter, for the potential combatant, are pro-war? I suppose that's a possibility. It could be in the hands of a young marine about to go to war, and he may be reading it and indeed becoming excited by the carnage and fascinated by the mythos. I write about all that, the dime group at a grand?though I undermine it in other ways, much like I think some of the Vietnam flicks do.
Dave: Describing your state of mind as a teenager, prior to enlisting, you write: "I needed the Marine corps now, 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."
You come from a family with a long military background, so it's no great surprise that you would wind up in the Marines. But now you've written an articulate, thought-provoking, incisive book, and it's probably safe to assume that you didn't gain all of this intelligence in the last ten years. Why were you so confident of your failure in a life outside the military?
Swofford: I think I'm always fairly confident that I'm going to fail at things. That's part of what helped me to keep at this book: the fear of failing at it, not pulling the thing together. Fear of failure is always on my back, no matter what the challenge is, and it has been since boyhood. Maybe I should talk to my father about that.
I was certain that I would fail at that other life, and it was even possible that I would fail at the Marine Corps. That's part of what caused me to excel somewhat as a Marine, despite myself.
Dave: You grew up on military bases and your older brother enlisted in the army, but other than ordering away for that Marine Corps iron-on, you hid your aspirations from your parents.
Swofford: My father never encouraged me to join. In fact, when I first tried to join the Marine Corps he escorted the recruiter out of the house, essentially. He'd been in Vietnam. He was looking at his seventeen-year-old son and, in his own narrative for me, I think, by letting me enlist he'd have been throwing me in a jungle somewhere.
I suppose I'm a quiet, meditative person. I keep things to myself. And there was some bit of shame in wanting to be in the Marine Corps, wanting that kind of lifestyle. It's something that most of my friends weren't curious about at all. It really wasn't that cool to be a high school kid saying you want to be in the Marine Corps when your friends are taking SATs.
Dave: People who opposed the Gulf War tried especially hard to voice their support for the troops—oppose the policies, in other words, but support the men and women in the Gulf. There doesn't seem to be as much of that this time around. Maybe it's too early.
Swofford: There will always be core groups of pro-war and anti-war no matter what country we're going to invade. The gray group in the middle is where most of the smartest thinking and talking goes on, debating the situation and thinking it through. Also, that might be the place where, once war begins, the rhetoric changes; it might in fact again change into a "support the troops" thing, which was expertly worked last time by the Pentagon. And that's fine, but there's a way in which the troops don't care that you support them. You're putting your yellow flag out or your U.S. flag, but you're in Fargo or you're in New York City; the guy on the ground doesn't care, really. It's a banner. It makes someone else feel like they're doing something, but it's looked at somewhat bemusedly by the guys on the ground—at least it was by me and the men I served with.
That "support the troops" rhetoric really kicked in once the bombing began last time, and it killed the anti-war movement. I know from some people who were in the anti-war movement in Northern California: it dissolved when that took over.
Dave: You believe you were fighting for oil and not much else besides the fortunes of various interested parties. There's the scene after the war has ended when you're paraded through Kuwait City and you feel like the whole thing is a public relations stunt....
Swofford: And it was.
Dave: Right now, a lot of people feel disenfranchised from the government. The troops, one might argue, are part of that. It's not about fighting for what you believe in, in the way that it may once have been.
Swofford: It's fighting for what you're told to fight for. The soldier, or the Marine, falls outside of that rhetoric. I think I would agree with you. And my book offers a soldier's voice at a time when one needs to be heard.
I don't really watch television. I get my news from newspapers, a little bit of radio, and the Internet, but I would agree that the individual soldier has not been adequately considered and is not being given a voice. That's why I wrote the piece in October that was published on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Madeleine Albright was on the Op-Ed page along with many other geopolitical movers and shakers; they were throwing in their fifty dollars worth, but there wasn't a soldier's voice. I think that's what made my piece attractive to the editors there.
Dave: Are critics reacting to particular parts of the book?
Swofford: The Vietnam War film scene has popped up in a few reviews. And the scene where I come across the encampment of dead Iraqis. In some ways these are high moments of the book.
Adrienne Miller, in her review for Esquire, called the book "a study in class politics." She's the first one I've seen approach it from that perspective. I've thought all along that what the book says about class structures and the type of people who make up our fighting force is central, and my editor thought the same, but it's the first time someone else has mentioned it. The people going off to fight, by and large, aren't potential Harvard students or private college candidates.
Dave: What about the reaction from readers?
Swofford: I had a few great moments after my reading in Seattle. It was the first time I've signed books across the table from someone who was going to go buy it and who'd come to hear me read. There was a mix of women from thirty to sixty-five. That was satisfying: it's indeed not being read just as a war book, because it's not; it's a literary memoir that happens to take war as its main narrative thrust.
Two former Marines were there as well. One was an old-timer. As I was reading I thought, I think that guy's a jarhead. I had no idea what his response was going to be. He was the first guy to raise his hand with a question. I thought, Oh, I'm killed. He's just going to nail me. And he says, "When I was a jarhead, if someone called you a jarhead, you'd beat him up. When did the term change?" I chatted about that for a little while: "Your buddy can call you a jarhead, but when a guy who's not your buddy—say he's a Navy guy —calls you a jarhead, there might be trouble." Afterwards, he came up and he thanked me for writing the book. He said, "I was in Korea and Vietnam, and you really nailed the Marine Corps."
I also met an employee of the bookstore, a guy who'd just finished his degree in Philosophy up there; he had a life somewhat like mine. He'd gotten out of the Marine Corps a few years prior. A quiet guy who'd done a lot of reading and even checked books out of the same library I did in Okinawa, in a little barracks with probably three thousand volumes.
Those were moments where the circle finally closed on the book. It had been closing-closing-closing, and that exchange with readers was like a closure. It's really complete now. The book is its own thing.
Dave: You read The Iliad and The Stranger while you were over there. That's a powerful context in which to meet those books, particularly Homer, reaching back how many years since he wrote it, and you weren't even so far away geographically. Had you read it before? Have you read it since?
Swofford: I read it in high school. I still have the copy that I carried around in my rucksack.
I think of The Iliad as floating above me. It was a history of warfare and a link to some of the first men whose battles were recorded. Certainly, I had a sense that Here is history and I am part of a history here that will be recorded. I didn't think I would be one of the recorders of it then, just a participant.
Dave: Early in Jarhead, you mention your "sparse journal entries." So you weren't writing at length while you were training and waiting for battle?
Swofford: No. It's a little Steno book. I still have it. It really is maybe twenty entries at the most. Got a letter from the girlfriend. I think she's screwing the hotel clerk?.Keane got a bottle of whiskey from his dad last night?.We're at such and such coordinates on this map. This is fucked. That's about as extensive as the entries get.
Dave: There's a lot in the book about letter writing. Also about fidelity and the lack thereof. But there's also a lot about whores and barroom brawls —all the traditional components of a contemporary war story, basically. But I wondered: culture evolves, people change... Is there any way to exist in that environment and not be?
Swofford: Whoring and brawling?
Swofford: It's very difficult not to, especially in the Marine Corps infantry. It's definitely part of the culture, and it's how you bond with men who may very well save your life some day. You fear isolation more than anything.
No one at eighteen is really prepared to be in bars in the Philippines drinking quarter beers with girls who will go back to a room with you for five bucks. It's not really what someone needs to experience, but you're there. You get off the ship. If you're me, you're hanging out with three guys and you all decide, Okay, we'll have some beer, but we're never going to mess around with bar girls. Then it's about an hour later and you've had six beers and there's a bar girl sitting on your lap asking you to buy her a drink. You kind of fall into it.
I take full responsibility for having sat in a few bars with a few different bar girls on my lap, but it's hard to step out of it. You can step out of it for brief periods of time, the lifestyle in general, but the perpetual violence... It's an extremely violent place. 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.
Dave: In the book you write quite a bit about life after the war, in the U.S. Obviously, you can't live the same way. And yet you're not going to suddenly turn 180 degrees. It's been ten or eleven years since you got out?
Swofford: Eleven years in December.
Dave: It sounds like the first years were very difficult.
Swofford: They weren't smooth. As much trouble as I had being a Marine, I still was one. It was in my blood. It was strange to be in a place without having someone telling me to throw my gear in a truck and go somewhere. It's almost as though there was a gun at the back of my head, and I was always waiting for it to go off. I was waiting to be told to pack my shit and get on the road. That made it difficult for me to slow down and live?more saintly, shall we say.
Dave: When did you decide to pursue writing?
Swofford: I was twenty-four when I first started writing and thinking about becoming a writer. I'd always been a reader. I first started writing some poems, then just moved into fiction. I was at a community college and I had a fabulous professor who saw something of value in a few lines of one my poems. He pulled me aside and said, "Stop writing for a while. Here's a list of a hundred books. If you haven't read them, read them now." He really instilled in me what I think is the best lesson that a writing teacher can give someone: Read and read and read and continue reading. That's how you learn to write, by knowing what the best of our literature sounds and tastes like and how it moves on the page. Then you write and you fail and you fail and you keep failing. Some day you find something that works. You'll keep failing miserably every day, but you'll also succeed each day in different ways, and some day you'll have enough to make a book.
That was my hope at twenty-four or twenty-five. I was putting myself through college, working in a warehouse, writing as much as I could, which wasn't a lot, but I put together some stories. Then I had the opportunity to be a graduate student and to study writing at Iowa, where the only pressure on me was to write. It was the first time in my life that all I had to do was write; I didn't have to work in a warehouse or do anything else. I'd sit down every day for four or six or eight hours, whatever it was going to take, and write. It had been about a six-year movement from complete novice to someone who was working at it every day as a writer.
Dave: At Lewis and Clark College, you lead a course in the school's Inventing America program, which asks some pretty tough questions: Is America worth fighting for? Is the combat zone the proper battleground for a democracy? What is war worth and how much does it cost? I found these questions on the web site, by the way.
Swofford: Those come from my course description. The Inventing America program is a large core curriculum. We get to those questions through discussion, though I never ask them directly in class. But for instance, yesterday we talked about a Jane Kenyon poem, "Gettysburg, July 1, 1863," and we were in some ways investigating those questions. It opens with a young man, just recently a boy, taking aim and shooting another man who staggers from the pasture into the grove, then falls and dies there. So we were getting at those questions indirectly.
Dave: What material gets the students talking?
For about two class periods I said very little. I just sat back while they had a pretty intense discussion about Emerson and solitude and truth through solitude. Also we were kind of troubled by—this was their own riff off Emerson, in an attempt to comtemporize it—whether or not today in the world you can be a unique, self-reliant individual or if uniqueness is now void because you're too full of mass media and mass culture. Unless you go off the grid and stop using paper money, you're stuck. That's where I want much of the discussion of the course to continue, and our readings will help us with that.
The book we're reading at the end is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and I think they'll continue to make those links in O'Brien and in some of the Vietnam anti-war poetry: Ginsberg, Corso, and others. And we won't have answers at the end of the semester....
Dave: If you do, email me.
Swofford: Some students want answers. I'm teaching freshmen for the first time, and I'll forget that their mothers were cooking their dinner a short while back. They were living somewhere where answers were probably somewhat consistently provided. So it's shaky material. It's a shaky world for them to move in, intellectually and emotionally.
Dave: The best course I took in high school was a senior year biology class. On the first day the teacher said, "You're not going to be able to do all the work for this course." We were like, What are you talking about? We're good at science.
But of course her point was that when we went off to college and later into the real world there would always be too much information to digest. The real challenge would be learning how to gather what was pertinent and take what we needed from that to reach meaningful—if temporary—answers.
Swofford: And recognize that these things we call answers are temporary and totally contingent.
Dave: Not that I understood at the time, and not that I didn't bitch about all the reading.
Swofford: I had an experience like that at American River College in Sacramento. The British Lit professor was named Jane DeLeon, and that's what she said the first day of class: "You're always going to be behind on your reading, and you're going to write the best essay you can, but it's not going to be acceptable to me. You're probably not going to get anything better than a ninety percent on an essay you hand in, sorry to say." Literally, the class went from about thirty-two students to nine. It was intense reading, and she was a very intense, intellectual woman who didn't let up. I had both of those experiences at about the same time, her class and the writing class I spoke of earlier with a man named Harold Schneider. It was a real exchange that's constant now in my life between intense reading and creating at the same time.
Dave: What books have you enjoyed lately?
Dave: What about seminal stuff?
Swofford: A lot of William Gass: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Omensetter's Luck, the book-length essay On Being Blue—I always return to those. Willie Faulkner, also: Absalom, Absalom! is always one. And If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem is, I think, a great book that a lot of people overlook. It has a contemporary feel to it, and it was written in '39.
Cortazar's Hopscotch was a big book for me—when I learned that in fact you can do anything with narrative. It's up to you. Then the pressure is on you to make it work. That book was really important for me when I was just starting to write prose.
I like Richard Hugo's poetry a lot. I read a lot of it at that same time, when I was just starting to write.
Dave: The poetic influence is evident in Jarhead. In counterpoint to the raw brutality and violence, there's a much softer, more contemplative side. Some of the violent passages—the bits about killing and whoring and drinking—call a lot of attention to themselves and those will likely be the scenes most often excerpted, but really what makes the book work so well is that other side of the narrative voice. I read one of my favorite passages to Georgie this morning:
|In late December I receive a note from Yumiko announcing her marriage to a man I haven't heard of before. The announcement arrives in a black lacquer box, and also inside the box she's packed a Japanese pear, wrapped in foam. I ask Troy to go for a walk with me, and as we pass through the perimeter, I share the pear with him, and the news of Yumiko's marriage. I'm not saddened as much as stunned, and Troy understands this, as he always understands me. After we each take a few bites, I throw the pear, and when it lands, sand attaches to the moist fruit, like memory to the soft parts of the brain.|
It's a gorgeous image. And it's that much more effective wrapped in all this military brutality and machismo.
Swofford: How I narrate those brutal, savage moments, and how I write about that pear hitting the sand, and what connections I make are what makes the book more than a book about war. And I guess the exchange between the brutality and that soft pear is really the space wherein the book exists; there's an exchange between the tank and the pear that I'm constantly working in terms of scene and pacing and prose style.
Dave: In Kuwait, you were ordered to take pyridostigmine bromide pills to protect against the potential effect of chemical weapons, which might or might not be used by the enemy. It wasn't until after the war, through your own research, that you discovered the PB pills had only been approved under the condition that troops would be fully informed about side effects and risks —you weren't informed at all—and that taking them would be entirely optional.
Swofford: There's not a lot that's optional in the Marine Corps!
Dave: You write:
|We swallow these PB pills not because we need to, but because the intelligence is incorrect—the people at the Pentagon received bad dope concerning the number of Iraqi chemical warheads in Kuwait, and they didn't know about the bad dope but they knew that when soldiers and marines, good old rough American boys, started dropping dead on the battlefield from nerve gas (the dropped-dead fighter the only flawless indicator of a chemical attack), the public perception of the war being a good war and worth fighting would change....With chemically dead fighters on their hands, the political soldiers at the Pentagon would look bad for not doing all they could to protect the fighting soldiers and marines, and the public relations war that the Pentagon had been winning would sway toward the side of peace and diplomacy because after Vietnam no one wants to see great numbers of the boys coming home dead, no matter the proposed importance of the battle, be it a fight against Communism or for the stability of 40 percent of the world's oil fields. So the political soldiers had to find something that would promote the public sham of a Pentagon dedicated to the safety and welfare of its troops: enter PB pills. None of this has anything to do with the individual lives that might be lost to nerve gas—the immediate casualties— and everything to do with the public relations battle, the real battle occurring in America.|
At some point this country will go to war again, whether it's tomorrow or ten years from now. Is it going to be any different, or is the government simply getting better at playing this PR game and controlling the sources of information?
Swofford: They're experts in controlling information and spin. But look, war is revolting, so obviously that spin is necessary.
Actually, this comes back around to the discussion my students were having about Emerson: What are a person's opinions worth today? Can there be such a thing as "public opinion" when the information we receive is so slanted? Is it even possible to develop unique opinions of our own? And presuming that we can, are those opinions being accurately reported or are we fed propaganda about what Americans want and what Americans believe?
Dave: At the end of the book, after the war, you're driving through the Mojave Desert on the way back to base when someone pulls a vet onto the bus from the crowd alongside the road cheering your return. And the vet thanks you.
Swofford: Later, we would often talk about that moment, and we would say, "Whatever this was, whatever this war was about, remember that vet that we pulled out of the crowd?" He was crying and he'd obviously seen some crazy shit in Vietnam, way crazier than we ever had. Something happened for him when we fought our war.
Just the other day I was getting miked for an interview, and the guy shook my hand and said, "Semper Fi." He was in Vietnam for twenty-five months. He spoke about the "support the troops" thing that happened during the Gulf War, and he said that he and some of his friends felt it was finally okay to talk about his war. He and men that he had served with felt some sort of healing occurred.
That's a totally residual effect of support for the troops or certainly the Gulf War. And hell, if some Vietnam vets came to peace, that's good.
Anthony Swofford visited Powells.com on February 27, 2003.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State