No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, May 13, 2005

#43: Jarhead -- Anthony Swofford

This ranks up there with Dispatches as a book about one man's experience of military service in foreign combat. I don't care for bellicose memoirs that glorify or excuse the realities of combat. Swofford doesn't. This book worked for me on two levels: firstly, Swofford can really write (after serving in Iraq in 1990, he studied literature and creative writing), and secondly, he is unflinchingly honest.

Jarhead isn't only about the author's experiences as a scout-sniper in the Gulf. It's about his family; the father upholding a tradition of military service (and never speaking about his time in Vietnam), the sister spending extended periods in an institution for the insane, the brother's self-aggrandisement (and the sense that Swofford early evolved an unusually mature self-awareness as a kind of balance for that). It's about the friendship and cameraderie of his platoon, and what they do to those amongst them who screw up. It's about (of course) military incompetence, and boot-camp brutality. It's about the underside of war: weeping when the rockets start coming in, feeling angry at a captain for taking over an attack, wandering alone through a group of corpses and thinking he can hear them screaming. About what happens when another Marine comes in and finds Swofford with a gun in his mouth.

The moment in the book that stands out, for me, is the image of Swofford sitting on the back of a truck, surrounded by wrestling / card-playing / arguing Marines, reading the Iliad.

Of course a book like this is layered with pretence, but he doesn't apologise, or excuse, or gloss over the grim stuff. And he conveys the desperation and loneliness of a man who keeps, who can't stop, thinking about where he is and what he's doing and whether that cloud of smoke rising from an explosion consists of the last breaths of the men it killed.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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