Lost in the fear and joy of combat

Times Staff Writer

Watching TV coverage of the war in Iraq, Anthony Swofford says, he can identify with "the fatigue, the fear" and above all the boredom of the young combatants. He remembers himself as a rah-rah, blood-lusting 20-year-old Marine recruit for whom the nastiest bits of "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" were "like pornography" -- sexy and addictive. He remembers what it was like trying to hunt down Saddam Hussein's troops in the open desert and kill them before they killed him. He recalls the queasy sensation of catching a lift on one of Uncle Sam's helicopters, which usually dripped hydraulic fluid "all over the place." "I was scared to death every time I got on one of those things," he says.

What the baby-faced Gulf War veteran wasn't prepared for this time around was cable TV news, with its razzle-dazzle visuals and ravening correspondents, especially CNN's Walter Rodgers, whom Swofford has dubbed "the wild man." "He's like, 'This is the 7th Cavalry, it's a great wave of steel, a great, immense wave of steel that's growing, growing on its way to Baghdad! And they will seek the enemy, they will search out the enemy, and if the enemy does not surrender they will kill them!' "

Swofford chuckles, shaking his head. "The coverage has been amusing so far, I think," he says. "The actual combat is not amusing. The last I heard, maybe two Marines had died?"

It is Saturday morning, two days since U.S. forces stormed into Iraq and barely three hours since Swofford got off a plane from Portland, Ore., where he lives and teaches at Lewis and Clark College. He's whirled into this pleasure-loving seaside city with just enough time to do a lunch interview and read for 40 minutes from his brutally candid, at times eerily beautiful new memoir, "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" (Scribner), at a Barnes & Noble in a strip mall. Then he's off on a red-eye flight to London for more interviews with the BBC. So excuse Swofford if he's not quite up to speed on the current body count for Desert Storm Redux.

"The video graphics are just amazing," he says, still marveling at the phenomenon of all-war, all-the-time television. "And I heard one of the anchors the other night say, 'These graphics are just great because they really give us a view of the battlefield!' No, they don't give you a view of the battlefield. It's nothing close to a view of the battlefield."

If battlefield close-ups are what you crave, Swofford knows, few opportunities can match a U.S. Marine Corps overseas tour of duty in wartime -- even a modern high-speed, high-tech encounter that collapses a lifetime of trauma into a few weeks or even days. He spent roughly nine months as a sniper-scout with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, between August 1990 and April 1991, when allied forces drove Hussein's battered army out of Kuwait and back into Iraq.

Taking its title from the name given to the Marines' traditional "high-and-tight" haircuts, "Jarhead" has been getting the kind of notices for which some first-time authors might consider squaring off with the Republican Guard. "By turns profane and lyrical, swaggering and ruminative, '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," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Other reviewers have compared Swofford's sardonic, surreal narrative with such Vietnam War classics as Philip Caputo's "A Rumor of War" and Michael Herr's "Dispatches."

Both terror and exhilaration course through the book, creating a vivid and gritty texture -- blood laced with sand. Describing an enemy mortar attack, he writes: "The rounds explode beautifully, and the desert opens like a flower, a flower of sand.... I've [wet] my pants, but only a bit, a small, dark marker the shape of a third world country on my trousers."

At this point, Swofford acknowledges, the Gulf War reminiscence genre is still pretty much an open field. He's grateful to one of his former instructors at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop for suggesting the subject, which he admits he'd been trying to dodge ever since he started writing fiction in community college several years ago, after flailing around unsuccessfully trying to become a banker. "It was tough emotionally" to write, Swofford says. "I mean, I was as desperate and as full of despair as I say I was in the end of the book."

"Jarhead" also has managed to stay below the radar of partisan politics. Although his book makes several scathing, even bitter references to the "old white [expletives]" who run the oil companies and Kuwait's pampered, Mercedes-driving classes, Swofford -- in true sniper fashion -- keeps his narrative cross-hairs firmly trained on the timeless experience of the ordinary fighting man.

Which doesn't mean he lacks a viewpoint on the current conflict. Yes, he says, the U.S. needed to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. But he's unconvinced of any link between Hussein and Al Qaeda, and he wishes the U.N. weapons inspectors had been given 30 more days.

In '91, the war "was solely to keep Saddam Hussein from coming down into Saudi Arabia," he says. "This time I think there's some kind of grand, romantic visions of what American power and influence can accomplish."

Growing up in Sacramento, Swofford harbored some pretty grand, romantic notions of his own about war. The son of a Vietnam War veteran, he was raised in a strict household steeped in proud family folklore. He signed a contract with the Marines at age 17 1/2, not long after bonding with a recruiter who talked gleefully about buying sex in the Philippines, Italy, Sweden and Panama. "The recruiter guaranteed me I could book a threesome for forty American dollars in Olongapo," Swofford writes. "I was sold."

From there it was on to basic training in San Diego, then service in the Gulf War, where he saw combat, came under friendly fire and was nearly killed in a booby-trapped bunker -- he stepped back from the tripwire after feeling it brush his leg. There followed a dreary year and a half serving out his contract in Twentynine Palms at the edge of the Mojave Desert. "Horrible, horrible place!" he says, laughing. When he finally left the Marines, he "sped out of the gate at 95 miles an hour" and didn't look back until three years ago, at age 30, when he sat down to write "Jarhead."

To this day, Swofford says, he feels less prideful than ashamed of having gone into the Marines. For him, joining the corps was a way of avoiding the challenges of adulthood: going to college, getting a job, developing relationships -- the normal life that he was sure he would fail at.

What seems to have redeemed his military experience wasn't booting Hussein out of Kuwait or serving his country, but something much more elemental: the curious bonhomie that attaches to a group of young men (and women) forced to spend month upon month together, drinking beer, wearing filthy clothes, griping about unfaithful spouses and lovers, being cussed at by sadistic drill instructors, sitting around anxiously waiting for the next battle to start, and wondering if they'll ever make it back to Sacramento or Seattle or Michigan in one piece. It was "a real tenderness," Swofford says, played out in a hundred different ways, most of them "juvenile, infantile even, but still genuine," a depth of feeling for which the only word that he says truly fits is "love."

"The Corps always waits up for you," Swofford writes. "The Corps forgives your drunkenness and stupidity. The Corps encourages your brutality." When he finally mustered out of the Marines, Swofford says, he was "lost, really" in a world that suddenly demanded more of him than eating, sleeping, firing a rifle and cleaning latrines.

That laugh again -- a friendly, bemused, can-you-believe-this-crazy-stuff-but-let's-all-stick-together-anyway type of laugh. It's one of several attributes that make it hard to picture this thoughtful, easygoing Central Valley native ever volunteering to fire an M16 at enemy phantasms drifting through desert dust storms. There's also his disclosure in "Jarhead" that he spent much of his downtime during the Gulf War flipping between "The Iliad" and "The Stranger" -- the former, Homer's epic poem about manly Greeks and Trojans nobly sacrificing themselves for personal glory, the latter, Albert Camus' existentialist novel about a guy who shoots and kills an Arab for no earthly reason, simply because he concludes that one action is as good as any other action. "Yeah, those are the two extremes that I kind of vacillated between, in terms of this warrior I was going to be, the heroic or the meaningless," Swofford says.

But above all, there are Swofford's "pretty blue eyes," as a military colleague once derisively referred to them. His body has grown older and bulkier since his Marine days, but Swofford's eyes still have a trusting shimmer. Even some of his friends, he says, still have trouble reconciling their image of a Marine as a lean, mean killing machine with blue-eyed Tony, whose mother asked him upon his return from the gulf, "What happened to my little boy?"

At last, Swofford says, he has made his own separate peace with that combat-infatuated, hormonally hyperactive boy-man who marched off to battle in that now-distant war. "I'm OK with it," he says, "I'm OK with that 20-year-old kid. Like flying into San Diego today and seeing the Marine Corps recruit depot, I really kind of like teared up. And it was partly because I'm sleep-deprived, but also I was thinking of those poor kids who just died over the last few days, and the guys who were there, and the 18-year-old kid that I was, climbing that obstacle course."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World