"Jarhead: A Marines Chronicle of the Gulf War" and Other Battles<br> <em>By Anthony Swofford</em><br> Simon & Schuster 2003
Wars are very unpredictable in their literary yield. Some of the biggest and most popular wars have been disasters for US literature, as shown by the scarcity of good American memoirs of WW II. This was the prototypical "good war," and by far our biggest; virtually every American male under 40 took part. But just try thinking of a good American novel about it. (And please don't send me e-mails about Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five until you've read Celine's WW II trilogy, from which they were shamelessly copied.)
If anything, it's the bad wars that make the best memoirs. Vietnam was a bad war in every sense, but you could stock a bookcase with Nam vets' memoirs, and oddly enough many of them are very good.
Until the publication of Anthony Swofford's memoir, Jarhead, the 1991 Gulf War looked like a washout in the pattern of WW II: military victory and literary disaster. We came, we saw, we shot target-camera videos, but we didn't seem to have much to say. The British did a little better. They had one big bestseller about Gulf War I, Andy McNab's Bravo Two Zero (1994), the tale of a disastrous SAS raid. We had nothing. In literary terms, "Gulf War Syndrome" meant writer's block.
I've heard people try to attribute this silence to the alleged trauma of war and its searing effect on the men who fight in it. This is cant. Dr. Johnson once said that "every man thinks less of himself for not having been a soldier" -- and in this case, the pompous old fraud told the truth.
War excites most men, at least the younger and stupider ones. Their war memoirs are boasts, not confessions. If Gulf War I was short on memoirs, it was because none of the people who served there had found a literary form that could accommodate their experiences.
The Gulf War (I) was tonally difficult. The straightforward boast of valor would've been pretty silly when everyone who watched the news had seen "the enemy" crawling up to kiss the boots of the first G.I.s to approach them. In a sense, the successful British author, McNab, was lucky to have been part of an SAS squad which was so idiotically deployed that it was soon captured, after fierce running battles. McNab thus had two prefabricated war stories: heroic combat against a more numerous foe, and the sufferings of a POW.
Most of those who went to the Gulf War had army stories more typical of peacetime service: a lot of waiting around, menial jobs moving materiel, and waiting for the air war to do their job for them. The bulk of those who actually killed people were pilots, who have a tight-lipped management attitude to their jobs. The foot soldiers, more likely to spill their tales, never saw "the enemy" or "the front" until they rolled into a wasteland where the "enemy" wanted only to surrender. Of course this could make a good story -- almost anything can. But it would take someone with a bit of sophistication, because it would have to adapt the standard war story forms.
Anthony Swofford manages it, in Jarhead, in a very sensible way: by reading Celine carefully and learning from him, and by adapting the standard troubled-young-man memoir, with its flat present-tense naration, to the military life. He's learned from Celine to stress the comic rather than the heroic in his combat stories, and the horrific in his civilian life. He even compares his enlistment to the opening scene of Journey to the End of Night: "I realized that joining the Marines had been a poor decision. I had, not unlike Celine's Bardamu, stood from my seat in the cafe -- where with a friend I'd been busy smoking, drinking, and looking at the ladies -- and joined the colonel's march...."