The agony and the ecstasy of the trained killer
In “Dispatches,” the Vietnam memoir praised as one of the best books ever written about war, Michael Herr writes of the Marines under siege at Khe Sanh: “And they were killers. Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be? It absorbed them, inhabited them, made them strong in the way that victims are strong, filled them with the twin obsessions of Death and Peace, fixed them so that they would never, never again speak lightly about the Worst Thing in the World.”
Now a remarkable new young writer appears with his own war memoir, “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles,” following in Herr’s footsteps. He is a younger literary cousin to the author of “Dispatches”: Both men write in the mad, poetic, sometimes spooky voice, descriptive, mocking and often tender. That Anthony Swofford wrote a book about the Gulf War astonished me: It lasted only 100 days; there were no fierce firefights for him and he never had the chance to shoot an Iraqi, which he was primed to do. Marines are supposed to want to kill all the time, really long for it, and it shows.
Swofford’s book is about the man who feels cheated because the Gulf War was over so quickly, and he was, perhaps, both relieved and horrified. “I am not well,” he writes, “but I am not mad.” He describes what it was like getting ready for the war, and his book, he wants us to know, “is neither true nor false but what I know.” He knows an immense amount as a member of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. In short, he was a scout-sniper and a good one. Although it might be said snipers are often very peculiar people.
Because so much has been written, or seen in films, about the suffering of a Marine in basic training, the furies of drill instructors, how the Corps inspires love both in the very bright and the dim-witted, it didn’t occur to me that Swofford would have much to tell us. But he does. He writes like an angel, and the old material has a deep new sting and occasionally an unexpected sweetness. And he is fearless, holding nothing back, however nasty and shocking. Consider this little story of gang rape when he and his pals wanted to have a good time.
They practiced “an act wherein marines violate one member of the unit, typically someone who has recently been a jerk, or abused rank or acted antisocial, ignoring the unspoken contracts of brotherhood and camaraderie and esprit de corps and the combat family.” They are in their gas masks and full MOPP -- that stands for Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear -- as they take turns and whoop it up. Civilians now call it the chem-bio suit.
“We continue to scream in joy and revelry, and we look like wild, hungry, bug-eyed animals around disabled prey, and we sound thousands of miles away from ourselves,” he writes. The victim “takes it all, like the thick, rough Texan he is, our emissary to the gallows, to the chambers, to death do us part.”
Inside their MOPP suits, the heat rises to 125, 130, 140 degrees and the snipers hate them. “I think of fighting with this gear on and I hope, more than anything, that if we are going to war, and they are going to [defeat us], that they’ll do it with an A-bomb, scatter us dead with the flames and fierce winds of a Little Boy or a Fat Man. And soon.” So they keep waiting to go to war, as U.S. troops in Kuwait have been doing.
At the same time he is terribly afraid of dying, the romantic boy who reads the “Iliad” in the sands of Saudi Arabia. In training to be a scout-sniper, he longs for heroism, as do so many adolescents in the military.
“I wanted a thankless mission; I wanted poor odds and likely death; I wanted to give myself over to beliefs that were more complex than the base beliefs of the infantry grunt. The grunt dies for nothing, for fifteen thousand poorly placed rounds; the sniper does for the one perfect shot.”
Herr writes that in Vietnam the Marines were often unlucky and tells how the Corps came to be called by many “the finest instrument ever devised for the killing of young Americans.” But their deaths are no less shocking and last Monday came the awful news that the Marines had 10 killed in action during the fierce battle for Nasiriya. The casualties will surely rise so we are reminded yet again of their stunning bravery. Swofford sees the Corps in a different light because he has never seen the corpses of his friends or other Americans. The child of a tattered family, raised in Japan on an Air Force base, Swofford enlisted in the Corps “to find a home.” He did.
“The simple domesticity of the Marine Corps is seductive and dangerous. Some men claim to love the Corps more than they love their own mother or wife or children -- this is because loving the Corps is uncomplicated. The Corps always waits up for you. The Corps forgives you drunkenness and stupidity. The Corps encourages your brutality.” To a woman this sounds pitiful.
When the end of the Gulf War came, it robbed him of something crucial. The letdown was so huge it knocked him over. It was almost unendurable. “When compared to what we’ve heard from our fathers and uncles and brothers about Vietnam our entire ground war lasted as long as a long-range jungle patrol,” the man-in-mourning writes.
He may be ashamed, he may be bitter at the waste of his own training and the suffering it provoked. In this rich and jolting book, both ugly and beautiful, Swofford teaches us almost everything about what lonely and despondent children seek to do and what a crime it is that our exhausted and silly culture offers them so little. But now a new war is upon us, and you can be sure that among the hundreds of thousands of men there is someone who hears his own secret, bright music, is happy to be there, wants a perfect kill and the acclaim of his sergeant. “More bombs are coming,” Swofford writes on the last page. He sees only doom. “Dig your holes with the hands God gave you.”
The rounds explode beautifully, and the desert opens like a flower, a flower of sand. As the rounds impact, they make a sound of exhalation, as though air is being forced out of the earth. Sand from the explosion rains into our hole. Because we’d been deep in the labor of digging our fighting hole, and the chance of an enemy attack seemed remote and even impossible, our flak jackets, helmets, weapons, and gas masks are stacked in an orderly fashion a few feet behind our position. More rounds land nearby, and someone yells Gas! Gas! Gas! ....