I watched Jarhead tonight. Eh, nothing better to do. Some comments:
First, factual stuff.
1) Are Marines really as insane as Swofford portrays them? It was like Lord of the Flies in cammies. I know a lot of Marines. Many are a little batshit. But I never knew any Marines who were that insane. Generally, the better the troop, the sounder they are mentally, that goes for any armed service. Sure, some are flat out nuts. But you normally don’t find whole units filled with lunatics. The military is a game for people who are a little crazy, not a lot crazy. You need to have too much on the ball to do all the cerebral things a professional military requires, and this precludes indulging in insanity.
2) I don’t remember anybody in the First Gulf War (GWI) / Desert Shield/Desert Storm having that football game mentality. Maybe it’s only an Army infantry division thing, but nervousness, resolve, quiet confidence, professionalism (i.e. you couldn’t tell what people were thinking) and an awful lot of joking around are all I can remember. A few people were shit scared and it showed… but there was no rah-rah football type bullshit or pep talks. Did I miss something? Was it just the unit I served with?
3) You pull a gun on a fellow unit member, you would be lucky to not be beaten down severely by your colleagues. That stuff just doesn’t happen, not in the rear areas anyhow. What happens when shots are actually flying, that’s a bit different. All sorts of strange shit happens up there and few violent things are uncharacteristic.
4) The Highway of Death scene wasn’t anywhere close to the real Highway of Death. That sumbitch had maybe 30 lanes of traffic, 4 on the actual highway, the remainder running parallel to the highway in the desert over hill and dale, 5 or 8 miles long, all destroyed. We’re talking thousands and thousands of vehicles, and God alone knows how many souls, many turned more or less inside out, probably with fuel-air explosives if I had to guess. The Fourth Horseman drew overtime that week. It was profoundly disturbing. The Highway of Death in the movie is 2-3 lanes wide, and there are a couple crispy critters. C’mon guys, CGI is cheap. Use some. I know you had it – the phony M-1 tank had six road wheels…
5) Jerking off. Funny, there were two approaches here that I recall – the sleeping bag shuffle, or wandering off for a late night visit to the desert/portajohns. It’s a natural thing so I’m not disturbed by it, but anybody who hasn’t caught a combat zone nut is probably appalled by Swofford’s casual treatment of the subject. Hey, you’re young, fit, you think you may die, and there’s no available women for 50 miles. You do the math. I didn’t know anybody who was a chronic masturbator as these fictional characters – or at least Swofford – were. On the other hand, more than once I took 15 or 20 in the desert, warned the tank or track on the perimeter that I’d be in a little draw over yonder with my rifle, you might want to turn off the thermal sights, and that I’d be coming back in a little bit. I did know of a couple female REMF NCO’s who turned into big time prostitutes, raised a hella lot of money and send it home in foot lockers (only to get caught later by CID) but chronic chicken choking… no.
6) The oil fires. It was hazy like a real bad day looking at Los Angeles, and right after they started there was heavy grayish fog. It wasn’t that freakin’ black. It wasn’t that black at night most of the time, for that matter. It was a friggin’ desert. There were usually stars, except on overcast nights. Oh, and while we’re on oil fires, you don’t get blackface from burning shit, unless you are stupid enough to stand in the foul smoke. Most people with a brain stood upwind from the honeypots. The arrogant-ass Major was realistic enough; on more than one occasion I found myself picking up cigarette butts or arranging rocks around a headquarters tent. Yeah, stupid shit doesn’t stop when you leave garrison.
8) Where were the prisoners? An infantry unit couldn’t whip out its johnson for some self abuse without hitting some shellshocked Iraqi trying to surrender. If the A-10’s didn’t make that happen, the MLRS and 155 batteries, M-1s and Bradleys and some well-aimed infantry fire did.
9) There is no rain in the movie. In real life, it rained like shit and flooded out fighting positions in the weeks before the ground offensive. The first couple days of the ground offensive were pretty heavily overcast and cool, coming on the heels of a big rainstorm a few days earlier. And it was cold as the dickens at night, none of this sleeping in your BDU’s on the ground like they show in the movie. There was no sleeping if you tried that (I did) and in fact a poncho liner and a chemical suit was barely enough to keep you shivering and semi-able to sleep.
10) Oh, so much drama. War generally ain’t that dramatic, folks.
11) The Marine getting a breakup porno video from his wife – rings true. That happened to a guy in my company – not exactly the same way it happened in the movie, but similar, he got a video from home with his kids and neighborhood stuff, then it cut to the wife’s impromptu porno, and a little “I hate you because you left me” naked speech followed by a demand for a divorce. I heard similar things happened to a number of other guys in other units, most notably to the Cav unit that was located in the next row of barracks buildings over. I don’t know how the evil bitches thought of it, but the idea seemed viral. Maybe evil bitches have a form of collective consciousness and they can share bad ideas like the Borg do…
As for the dramatic theme…
12) The opening and final narrative statement – that was pretty good.
A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war. And afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory, and he believes he’s finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands, love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diaper; his hands remember the rifle.
As a veteran of several years in the “professional” Army, a full time “regular,” I know it marked me in a lot of ways. There is a lot of truth in Swofford’s brief comment. It’s not that experiences left me scarred, though I saw a few things I’d rather have not seen. It is instead that living at the sharp end of the stick for a long time gives you a different attitude about life and death. You always feel like a man apart, forever afterward. You can only truly relate to those who’ve served as professionals (and to the tougher breed of old school cops, FWIW), and to a lesser extent the draftees from earlier generations. But your attitude is strikingly different from most civilians, and you are always aware of it. I remember when I looked at the carnage on the Highway of Death before the press-ganged troops came along in burial detail, to stuff bodies under the sand before the press got there. I remember thinking I’d never drive recklessly or drunk again – that I might die in a war, but I’d be damned if I went out doing something stupid or trivial. Weird thought, huh? This separateness comes up at odd times. For example a bunch of my liberal attorney colleagues were discussing the Gitmo and interrogation questions a couple days ago. I’ve never hidden the fact of my military services, so naturally these gentlemen with soft hands asked what I thought. “Well, if you can’t ask ’em any questions and even sweating them a little for for answers is prohibited as ‘torture,’ and you can’t really jail them either… might as well just cap the fuckers and not bother taking any prisoners. Seems like the only practical solution in the long run. It’s what I’d do, anyhow.” I got my coffee and left the now quiet break room. I guess they won’t ask that question again, it’s like I erected a steel wall between us, and I’m cool with that. In an earlier age a draftee soldier would have been more reluctant to answer such a question, they had a real sense of decency I guess, but you live with the military for close to a decade, you quit giving a shit about what the protected think about you. Inevitably, the sheep are as scared of the sheep dog as they are of the wolf. I don’t mind being a man apart, and Swofford’s comment really gets to the truth of the matter, even if it is a trifle self-pitying.
Swofford interprets this apartness differently from me. He seems much less at home with it than I, or most vets I know. I cite the factual stuff above because the way he relays “facts” strikes me as a bit over the top, his experience as relayed on the screen is so much larger than my life, and I’m trying to figure out why he wrote it that way. I simply didn’t get that much drama out of most of my service time, even the really hairy stuff. Dealing with evil girlfriends was emotionally more traumatic than most playing soldier was. Part of being a professional is you just deal with it. I suppose a guy needing a root canal faces an experience akin to D-Day if his fears have mastered him; but a dentist getting a root canal knows that it’s more like getting a new timing belt than hitting the beach, and it’s not fatal or even wounding under most circumstances. [I’ve updated this post slightly and realize that this outlook probably comes from my intuition that war is a natural state for mankind, one of several natural states. Hence it wasn’t very shocking to me; not so for others who haven’t thought hard about the nature of man.] Swofford has a bit of a “shocked and disoriented VietNam vet” thing going on, like a slightly less archetypal version of an Oliver Stone character. His apartness seems traumatic to him and every little thing seems epic to him, and the viewer. Eh, maybe that’s how it is for some vets, or maybe that’s part of a media dog & pony show, your book gets published and your film gets made if you fit into that media expectation of how vets are alienated. Or maybe some guys are just hyper sensitive, and that’s how they view things. I don’t know. I do know there’s a difference between being on your own, and being alienated; Swofford seems to conflate the two.
Not so for me, however. I’m marked by my experiences, but not martyred. Bits and pieces of Swofford’s film rang true for me, but a lot of it seemed to be a caricature, an exaggeration of things that went on, and that left me cold. Swofford tells the story in the measured, modest tones of a soldier or Marine, but the “facts” he conveys are outsized. Is it the truth to speak with modest tones, but to grow the facts a bit? Or is it dishonest in some way? I don’t know that either. My takeaway from this film is that it is an impressionist version of GWI. Some things are exaggerated, some things are untrue by virtue of being distorted, but the author and maybe some viewers take truth away from that, the way an impressionist picture of lillies, with runny colors and blurred borders on the actual flowers can give a true-er impression of the lilly for some viewers. It didn’t for me, and although I laughed at a lot of the stuff that did ring true, the key outward flourishes of the story, the things that elevated the routine into the epic, the scary into the horror, didn’t ring true for me. In making all things colorful and epic in scale, nothing was left colorful. In truth, the first crispy critter you see, the first leg blown off with a bone sticking out of a combat boot, these things are truly horrifying. By elevating routine hazing and intrasquad rivalry to the level of horror, the few things that were really remarkable in Swofford’s experience seem somehow diminished.
Anyhow, it’s an interesting film. If you take what Swofford put in the film and dial it down about 50%, you probably have a fair representative sampling of what GWI felt like for very many troops in combat or combat support units, which generally rolled with the infantry and armor battalions, in a lot of cases 200 meters behind the foward line of troops. Nobody’s experiences are the same, but like Swofford says, all wars are different, but the same, and this film conveys in some way a lot of the workaday experiences of American troops at war.