Last week I mentioned to a friend over dinner that encore was expanding its readership to Jacksonville (debuting August 31st). Immediately, I was asked three questions in rapid succession: Am I going to review books like, “Jarhead” by Anthony Swoffard over and over? Have I already read it, what were my thoughts and why is it banned on marine bases? To my right, my husband rolled his eyes. He hates the very idea of Swoffard’s work in our house, let alone me reading it or discussing it.
“Imagine President Obama letting a fat, stinky one rip through a crowd filled with prominent leaders. How would you feel?” he asked me.
After visions of such an event dispersed in my mind—and my laughing fit ceased—I responded, “I’d think he was human.” That was the beginning of our table debate concerning Swoffard’s work.
According to my husband, marines are not supposed to be viewed like everyone else, much like the president. Marines are supposed to be held to a higher standard and a higher regard as they are tasked to do the extraordinary. They are asked to make some of the greatest sacrifices. Thanks to Swafford’s work, the “shit bags” have been given a highlighted, almost justifiable platform. This is a belief that is literally split down the middle within the military community. It’s a belief I’m torn over. Sure, Swoffard’s story contradicts what we love about our marines, but it’s just as dangerous to be naïve about the variations of men enlisting today.
In case one doesn’t already know here’s the plot: “Jarhead” is a miserable unglamorous journey into the trials of war on the physical and mental level. In other words, it’s pretty factual. The premise of the piece is not so much about LCpl. Swoffard’s brief stint in the Gulf War as a scout sniper anxious for a kill; rather, it’s about a war within the man and the culture he signed a contract to belong in.
As tacky as this may sound, I read the book while my husband and I were dating years ago, because I wanted to get a little taste of the world in which he lives, even if based around a different kind of war during a different time. I received more than what I bargained for and more than what I was prepared to handle. “Jarhead” delivered the truth about a different archetype of marine. Swoffard narrates “Jarhead” in such a way it becomes impossible to view the Marine Corps in the same graceful, chivalric light that the government aims for it to be—that marines like my husband work for it to be. And there is the fuel behind fiery rumors Swoffard’s memoir is banned from marine bases nationwide.
If this ban is true (I can’t prove it is and I can’t prove it’s false, but I did call the Camp Lejuene book store and they did not have it), I must admit I understand the reasoning behind it. “Jarhead” is not in any way, shape or form a read that contains glorious victories, outstandingly motivated battles and patriotic mantras to share with a veteran grandfather so he can reminisce about his buddies during WWII. In no way does it leave anyone with an overzealous feeling of pride as an American. Instead, “Jarhead” removes the veil of illusion that all enlisted men are perfect, moralistic impeccable specimens fit for the highest billboard. It’s loaded with raging vulgarity, whores and hookers, a concentration and enjoyment on films that emphasize a marine’s vicious appetite to fight, perverted motivational tactics, unfaithful wives, hazing, homosexual penchants, “field fucks” and an infamous “wall of shame.” In fact, in his work, Swoffard, in so many words, confesses that while serving he was a thief, womanizer, sadistic, selfish and dangerously reactive. Worse yet, with his honest use of language and brilliant description, he shows there were many like him. This candor and unshielded glimpse makes Swoffard’s memoir a real success. All this counteracts the expectations many have for the Marine Corps, including those like my husband who are aiming to make his service with the marines a career.
In short, “Jarhead” kills any illusions of grandeur—and the truth hurts. Maybe this is why a lot of readers shy away from Swoffard’s work. Then again, maybe this is why a lot of marines prefer his memoir, too. So, to answer the questions thrust at me during dinner, I would recommend reading “Jarhead,” but not to a civilian. I wouldn’t want it to hurt them as it hurt me. No, I won’t make a habit of reviewing only books similar to Swoffard’s just because encore is expanding into a military town. I feel one of the best antidotes to a stressful day (be it as a dependent, marine or area native) is escapism. And in, “Jarhead” there’s no escaping Swoffard’s reality. His hardcore truth about a culture that likes to keep their business and the methods they use unquestioned, unchallenged and unmentioned is painfully and disgustingly too close to portions of today’s truth. I prefer to wear my rose colored glasses.