“Welcome to the Suck.” That was the tagline of Anthony Swofford’s best-selling Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, but it also neatly summed up my opinion of the book. I bought the audio version after two combat tours as a Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq and settled in to listen on a cross-country drive from California to Virginia. By the time I hit Nevada, I was ready to throw the CDs from my car window. Swofford struck me as an ax-grinder who blamed the Corps for his own failures. He hadn’t seen enough combat to justify his angst, and conduct like his—at one point, he points a gun at another Marine and threatens to kill him—would have landed my Marines in jail. His story felt all the more insidious since his venom was cloaked in fine writing. It seemed fitting that “jarhead” isn’t even a term most Marines use.
I never see movies made from books I like. But, I thought, why not try Hollywood’s spin on Jarhead, a book I (and nearly every Marine I know) despised? It could only be better.
And it was. To be sure, those who know the Corps will doubt many of the movie’s details: Could a Marine really be shot and killed in training without any fallout whatsoever? Would dozens of Marines celebrate the end of the war by dancing around a bonfire, gleefully firing their rifles into the night sky? Could Swofford’s sniper team actually get abandoned on the battlefield, alone and forgotten? Not in my Marine Corps.
Jarhead also presents wild scenes that probably could happen in combat units, but strips them of the context that might explain how they’re more than sheer lunacy. In Swofford’s platoon, the ultimate sign of respect is to be held down and branded with “USMC.” The film presents this ritual as a brutal and commonplace form of hazing, but in truth, such conduct is rare. In another scene, the men give vent to frustration in the desert by faking sexual antics in front of dazed reporters. Insubordinate and ill-advised? Yes. Deviant and perverse? No. Some Marines will view these scenes as betrayal, an airing of dirty laundry that reflects poorly on the Corps. Already, an official memo from Marine Corps Public Affairs warns that “the movie’s script is an inaccurate portrayal of Marines in general and does not provide a reasonable interpretation of military life.” This is a bit much. The American Bar Association, the CIA, and police departments across the country don’t protest when Hollywood takes license with their professions, and neither should the Marines.
Besides, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13, Cast Away) get much of the big stuff right. “Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal) isn’t the tormented incompetent I remember from the book. When he graduates from sniper school, he speaks for many of us when he says, “I was hooked.” His leader in Saudi Arabia, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), has a simple reason for turning down a $100,000-a-year gig hanging drywall with his brother: “I love this job.”
One of the great secrets about the Marine Corps is that, beneath its veneer of cynicism, it’s deeply idealistic. Swofford’s misfit band of brothers may seem artfully contrived—a brash Texan, a bespectacled nerd, an immigrant family man. But taking such grab-bags of Americans and molding them into a team is exactly what the Marines do. These guys aren’t black, white, or Latino; they’re Marines. And Marines, thanks to their intrinsic brotherhood, can deal more bluntly with race than most of society, without negative undertones. Antics frequently mask this camaraderie, as when the platoon gathers around two scorpions—white Marines around an anemic-looking white one, and black Marines around a hulking black monster named “Chango”—to cheer as they battle to the death. Such is the boredom of waiting for war.
Waiting is what Jarhead is all about. When the colonel warns that “the bureaucrats have a lot of jawboning to do,” I was transported back to my own vigil in the Kuwaiti desert in the early months of 2003. We passed time with the same silly formations, reckless football games, and endless conversations about girls left behind. When discussion in the movie turns to whether the war is just a bid for oil, a Marine says to his buddies, “Fuck politics. We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.” This rings true. Marines don’t pick their battles. Swofford and the others care only about the guys to their left and right and their chances of “getting some.”
When that day finally comes, and Iraqi artillery blossoms into dust clouds around the Marines’ position, Swofford stands transfixed while others dive for the bottom of their holes. “My combat action,” he muses, “has commenced.” It seems staged, melodramatic, too perfect to be true. And yet, I saw similar reactions in Iraq. After my platoon’s first firefight, we basked in the validation of all our training and waiting and sacrifice. We finally felt like real Marines.
Near the end of his book, Swofford writes, “To be a Marine, a true Marine, you must kill.” This confirmation eludes him in his war, snatched away by an officer who calls in an air strike rather than allowing the snipers to fire. In this sense, the movie, indeed Swofford’s entire Marine career, is like an unfired slingshot. The stone is loaded and the elastic pulled back. It’s aimed, and pulled, and pulled, and aimed. But no target appears. Soon, the elastic goes slack and leaves us standing there, holding a rock. Swofford’s war—boredom, loneliness, doubt, terror, rage, and numbness—is mostly inside his own head.
Jarhead strives for timeliness with a resonant last line (absent from the book): “We’re still in the desert.” This will surely evoke wry laughs when bootleg DVDs arrive at American camps in Iraq. But when the lights come up, those audiences will go out on patrol without another thought for Swoff and his war. Today’s Marines fight more than their fears.