Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Thoughts on Swofford’s “Jarhead,” the Movie

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.

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Swofford’s “Jarhead,” the Movie

  1. “The Marine getting a breakup porno video from his wife – rings true.”

    Damn, but that’s COLD. And here I thought I’d been put through the wringer a couple of times. Sheesh.

  2. Al,

    My take was pretty much like your. I was prepared to hate the movie because I figured it was loaded with anti war stereotypes: You know, the sadistic, know-nothing commander, the troops that are either innocent and eager or brutal psychopaths, the casual attitude of higher ranks towards the suffering of others, etc etc – we’ve seen it all before: The Boys in Company C, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, etc.

    But when I saw it, I was surprised by how much I liked it. Now, to confess, I wasn’t in GW1 (though I made it back for the sequel) although I was on active duty at the time, but nevertheless I thought a lot of the small details rang true (especially the chickenshit rules and constant boredom.)

    I agree with you that small annoyances were conflated into epic events, and since I haven’t read the book I’m not sure how to take that. I think there are a couple of ways to look at it:

    First, you could say that since Swofford, by his own admission, was a relative newbie to the military and to life, really, that things an older or more experienced troop would shrug off assumed more momentous proportions to him.

    Second, you could say that these events affected him no more than they did you, but that either Swofford and/or Hollywood realized that telling the story “as it is” would result in either boredom or confusion for the audience, so they had to “punch it up” in order to make it more appealing and/or exciting.

    So, having said that, I have added Jarhead to my movie collection, just because the parts of it that ring true, ring really true.

    But I have yet to see a movie that will replace Black Hawk Down as the definitive depiction of modern warfare on film (and yes, I know that even BHD has it’s own “hollywood silliness”, nevertheless it probably comes closer than any other movie to producing an authentic story without resorting to worn stereotypes and tired cliches.)

    While it’s important to acknowledge that war does change people, it’s also important I think to point out that the popular image of the shell-shocked veteran whose wartime experiences leave him unable to cope with life accounts for a miniscule fraction of those who serve.

  3. Great post, Al. Spot on as usual. I take exception – only slightly – with one comment

    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…

    That older generation did have more of a sense of decency. They had it because the society they came from also had, and bred into them, a sense of decency. Our society lacks that fundamental sense of good manners and personal boundaries which made your assessment of the previous generation accurate. (From the people who brought you The Sixties™!) They were a product of their society just as we are a product of ours. Our society, our generation is all about freedom, “self-expression” and “self-esteem” without actually having to really earn any of those things.

    I’m glad I had a chance to experience what that is like.

    Your response to your office was the same as mine would have been….and in fact is about twice a month at my as-yet-undosclosed-federal-social-service-agency. When it comes to matters military in my office, I don’t want a thank you, I don’t want a question, or a smile and a knowing nod. I just don’t want to hear opinions on shit they know nothing about. The ignorance is almost too painful to bear. Which is why I also don’t mind being apart. It’s better company.

    Other than that, you’re on your “A” game again.

    Call me, I pick up the Felt F4C tomorrow.

  4. All, thanks for the compliments.

    Martin, that’s an interesting take on Swofford. It may be correct. Part of the issue is Gyllenhall portraying Swofford – that quizzical look and shit-eating grin, the hesitancy. It’s so much unlike most guys who spend any time in – they either lose their carefree attitude, or learn to at least put on the mask. So much more so the snipers I’ve known; I never met one that was less than quite dark. As for those other films – there are some interesting takeaways. I actually enjoy Apocalypse Now because a lot of weird stuff always happened to me in the Army, a lot of surreal things. Maybe it’s because I was a flake and always put myself in weird situations, or maybe it was the nature of war & peacekeeping zones and my particular duty positions at the time, which demanded a lot of fairly independent work – perhaps that’s why aberrant stuff just happened to me. So I could relate to Martin Sheen’s getting a mission for his sins and that whole oddball meeting with Harrison Ford and G.D. Spradlin. The other thing I liked about it was the duality of man discourse. Apocalypse Now and to a lesser extent Full Metal Jacket (best, true-est basic training scenes evuh) were heavy-handed takes on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was a stunning and remarkably mannered, delicate, civilized attempt to address the dark and nihilistic beast that lurks within men. The last third of Apocalypse Now, if viewed as an allegory for all human struggle, holds up a magnifying glass to answer the question, “why do men kill and do evil to each other.” The horrifying answer, of course, is “because it’s what men do.” I don’t view it as a VietNam war film, though you could; I view it as a long discussion of the human psyche. The other stuff – Platoon, Deer Hunter, etc – yeah, they’re tweaked. I’ve read some books studying killing in the military and law enforcement. To a large extent, killing one’s fellow man is a traumatic thing, and the killer is altered by it. Society’s expectations on the killer greatly affect the outcome of his life. If society sanctions his act, says it’s justified and rewards him with medals and positive recognition, he can return from the dark side and into a productive life integrated into society. If society is ambiguous, acts ashamed of the act or even expresses approbation (“baby killer!”) then the individual has a very tough time squaring his actions with his conscience. So if there seems to be a lot of VietNam vets who can’t get over the experience, it may in fact have something to do with the media stereotyping.

    And as for you, Sean… on my post, you are right. The older generation was more decent than us. I think my point is still basically intact, I believe that if you looked at the writings of some of the truly great American military minds revealed by WWII – Red Mike Edson, Patton, Abrams, Holland Smith, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Curtis LeMay, Chesty Puller, Jeff Cooper (RIP) – you’d probably find that the military experience hardened their sensitivities and they had no qualms about discussing their work and sentiments about it in blunt terms. I think the default level of decency in society was higher but the coarse work of soldiering coarsens professional soldiers, which is as it should be. A career soldier should be more direct about the craft than a two year enlistee or a draftee – it doesn’t do justice to a sword, to treat it like a butter knife and to expect it to behave like a butter knife. So while sharpness of expression among professionals seems to be normal, the short timers are more willing to discuss the trade in decent society than they used to be. Dirka dirka Mohammed Jihad, etc.

    As for the bike… Out fucking standing! Congrats! That is an awesome bike and the carbon fiber will treat your overworked, vintage lower back more kindly than cheaper aluminum frames. The pleasure of riding it will spur you to ride it more. I envy you. Drink well tonight! Tomorrow we ride! Okay, maybe not tomorrow. But we need to go for a ride some time this week. I’ll get in touch with you later on Tuesday. You are going to so love that stinkin’ bike… I’m happy for you.

  5. Al, I wanted to expand on something here:

    if you looked at the writings of some of the truly great American military minds revealed by WWII – Red Mike Edson, Patton, Abrams, Holland Smith, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Curtis LeMay, Chesty Puller, Jeff Cooper (RIP) – you’d probably find that the military experience hardened their sensitivities and they had no qualms about discussing their work and sentiments about it in blunt terms. I think the default level of decency in society was higher but the coarse work of soldiering coarsens professional soldiers, which is as it should be.

    I think there’s another factor here that needs to be taken into consideration. Soldiers are both a part of, and apart from, the greater societies in which they serve. However, while societies change, greatly, many aspects of warfare remain the same, and I think that it is the difference between these two worlds that often accounts for the sense of acculturation or out-of-place feelings that many combat vets experience. Where there is a lesser difference between the society at large and the experience of the soldier at war, there is less of a sense of “outsider-ness.”

    Let’s face it, we live in a society that is profoundly separated from many of the realities in which it exists. A person can be born, educated, move through all elements of that society and still be blind to many of its aspects like death, suffering, deprivation, and the struggle for survival. If you’ve ever seen someone with a “Fur is Murder” pin stuck to a leather jacket, then you know the kind of cultural cognitive dissonance I’m talking about.

    But a soldier in a combat zone is confronted with these realities every day. Even if he isn’t being shot at or shooting at others, the fact that he is exposed to it, and to many of the other harsh realities of life, is bound to give him a profoundly different outlook than his countrymen who have never been exposed to the harshness of the combat zone. Is it any wonder the soldier feels isoloated and out-of-place when he goes back amongst his friends and family who have never seen the rough side of life?

    Now think back to WWII. The soldiers that served in that war came out of a very different society. Many, if not most of them, had lived through the depression and had experienced suffering and deprivation and death. In the war they saw it on a larger scale, but when they took their places back in society, it was a society that was not, itself, ignorant of the kinds of harshness to which they’d been exposed on a daily basis. As a result, you don’t see the kinds of veteran/society schisms that you saw after other conflicts.

    For that matter, there was a time not too long ago when many of the people in American society at large weren’t all that alien to the concepts of death, struggle, survival, and making hard choices, so while a soldier in a war might have had a larger helping of those things served to him, certainly the civilians and family members back home wouldn’t find it something they were unfamiliar with, and therefore the soldier integrated well back into the community.

    But over the past 50 years or so, we’ve done so well at creating a society in which many (if not most) people are insulated from most of the harsh realities of the world that it’s not a surprise that soldiers find it more difficult to be absorbed back into that society.

    One of the reasons I enjoy hunting large game animals is that it forces me to remember that there is a connection between life and death. The animal that is alive one moment, dead the next, the animal that I have to cut open to remove its guts, I become acutely aware that this once living thing is now dead by my hand, and yet it will become food for my table (and those of others, since I typically give away much of my game meat) which I take great satisfaction in, much in the same way that a vegetable gardner takes satisfaction in seeing the tomotoes or carrots that he planted, cultivated, weeded around, and finally picked, served to his family or friends.

    So I think it is this, the disconnect between the pampered, safe society we live in, and the rough and chaotic world of the combat zone, that accounts for much (if not most) of the difficulties that Soldiers feel when trying to move themselves back into modern civilian life.

  6. Martin, I think a large chunk of the problem can also be attributed to the almost total disregard — even contempt — for history (REAL history, history as it actually was and not as some fool thinks it should‘ve been) in the schools, the media, and the culture generally. Children aren’t being taught some of the most basic facts about how this nation came into existence and why, along with its hard-fought-for place in the world. Can it be any real surprise to anybody that they grow up taking it all for granted, if they’ve never received any real schooling in the realities of why it’s important that they shouldn’t?

    It takes a village of liberal educators, it seems, to screw up an entire generation. Or two, or three.

  7. couple of answers to your questions, from a marine that was there, and in the same neck of the woods as Swofford [who is a putz – btw]

    1) Are Marines really as insane as Swofford portrays them?

    no.

    2) I don’t remember anybody in the First Gulf War (GWI) / Desert Shield/Desert Storm having that football game mentality. Was it just the unit I served with?

    no.

    3) You pull a gun on a fellow unit member, you would be lucky to not be beaten down severely by your colleagues.

    agreed. lucky is one way to put it, i would suggest it is a fact.

    4) The Highway of Death scene wasn’t anywhere close to the real Highway of Death.

    Having not seen the movie, can’t comment on it. but the real HOD was huge. Drove down it. However the estimates on the number killed [in the media] were blown all out of wack. most of the idiots in the vehicals ran after the fist bombs started falling.

    5) Jerking off.

    it’s done. mostly under cover, away from others. fact of life.

    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.

    wrong. where we were it was pitch black. could not see more then 10 feet at times. caused all sorts of problems with NBC sensors. other times, as the wind shifted, could see better. north of the airport it was clear as day.

    8) Where were the prisoners?

    agreed. they were everywhere.

    9) There is no rain in the movie.

    rain. cold. more rain. stuck vehicles. mist. cold. sucked. almost lost a marine in a wadi digging a fighting hole.

    10) Oh, so much drama. War generally ain’t that dramatic, folks.

    nope. it’s boring. boring. [blam/pow/zing – wow! a few min of terror] boring. boring. repete…

    11) The Marine getting a breakup porno video from his wife – rings true.

    urban legend. been around forever, think vietnam.

    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.

    damn true.

    B

  8. Re: Darkness from oil fires. I’ll defer to you on that and consider myself corrected, at least as to your positioning relative to the fires. I only saw from my side of the fires. While we were in light smoke for a day or two, the Powers What Be decided to move us. (Senseless Interservice Rivalry Moment: Glad I served with people who were smart enough to eventually position the unit *outside* of the smoke plumes. I’d say I can’t believe the brass fucked you like that, but that would be a lie. I can believe it.)

    HOD: Yeah, there weren’t gazillions of bodies, but there were lots and they didn’t look too good. Swofford’s character gets on a bus and there’s a few crispies, and that was a bit eerie – I experienced exactly the same thing whilst loo… policing the battlefield. A couple days later there were cordwood-style stacks of crispy critters awaiting burial. I knew a handful of guys, military police, who got dicked for burial detail and each claimed to have personally buried around a hundred Iraqis each off the HOD convoys. I stopped asking after the first day because they were pretty tweaked by the experience.

    Breakup porno: Just because it’s an urban legend, doesn’t mean somebody won’t do it. I know (as in, “know personally”) a guy it happened to. It ain’t good mythbusters material – there’s no physical law against it. If it’s stupid or evil, and physically possible, it will get done.

  9. Re: The Breakup Porno, I’d say “Hey, I was in the Air Farce, and it even happened there!”, except I only heard about it third and fourth hand.

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