Monday, May 25, 2009


"We are afraid, but that doesn't mean we don't want to fight."

Memorial Day is a time to remember the fallen, those who have died for "our cause." But there is a value to listening to those who lived, those who were there.

Earlier this year I read Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, by Anthony Swofford, easily one of the best books I have read about war, and the nature of the combatants. Swofford's book came out in 2003, and I remember the rash of generally positive reviews. It was inevitable that a movie would be made based on Swofford's book. That came out in 2005, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.

Swofford's book is a high-testosterone retelling of the First Gulf War, under President George H.W. Bush. It was a short war (August 1990 to February 1991). Swofford was a sniper, but he never saw any "action." The book is a profane reminisce of his time "in the desert". He recalls the boredom of a war steeped in technology. He recalls, most eloquently, of he and his fellow soldiers' anxiousness to fight and to kill. He recalls the unending heat and the unending sand.

Swofford describes his transformation into a Marine. He became a jarhead, a grunt, and the change in his psyche was thrilling to read. Swofford is the embodiment of a tough guy, but with military training and weapons. He represents American might. And at the same time he openly acknowledges what a bad decision it was for him to join the Marines. Sexual frustration abounds. The food is miserable. Being "in shape" becomes a job. Drill Instructors direct violence and profanity towards him. "You must forget who you were before the Marine Corps. You must also forget the person you might be in the future..."

War is sometimes depicted as large arrows moving upward on the map of some country. War is made abstract, a simple "conflict." War becomes part of the narrative of the country, but Swofford says this holds "no sway for the warrior."

War is ultimately waged between combatants, between warriors. Sometimes combatants die, but sometimes they live beyond the war. "The warrior celebrates the fact of having survived," he writes. Survivors of war, like Anthony Swofford, sometimes give us a chance to hear from the combatants of war. We should be listening.

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