When Anthony Swofford wrote Jarhead, I doubt he knew how much praise it would earn. Jarhead is a non-fiction book that details Swofford’s service in the United States Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War. It is a gritty, raw story that may be hard for some to read, as it graphically depicts scenes of war, sexual content, and frequently uses profanity. In this, the book is true to its content, as war is never a pretty thing. It is full of death, violence, abuse, insanity, and horror, but in retelling this, Swofford also managed to incorporate his sense of humor. He describes aspects of war and life after experiencing the terrors involved in such description that I often found myself close to tears or looking behind me to ensure that no one was going to attack me. Swofford spent no time trying to paint a positive picture of himself, in fact, he often seemed arrogant and full of himself, as many young people who are high on adrenaline usually are.
Swofford’s descriptions were incredibly unique and gave a fresh look at a topic that’s been explored since the dawn of military activity. He vividly retells details of going through his old stuff and finding his uniform as well as the memories it brought up afterward. Rather than romanticizing military service, as much of the media tries to do, he offers a look into the dark, twisted underbelly of service in which men go insane. A world in which they lay in spider-filled pits in the middle of the deserts, piss themselves out of fear as mortar charges drop all around them, and play with dead bodies as though they were children’s’ toys.
Swofford was a sniper and thus had much experience in the… less savory side of military service. He describes the precision with which he worked in terms civilians can easily understand, but keeps it raw enough to send chills down my spine. At one point in the book, Swofford was prepared to take a shot that he’d been waiting on for quite a while, his stress was running high due to numerous factors of living in the war zone, but he received a call at the last second for him to not take the shot. He broke down mentally, something snapped within him as an airstrike was called to do what he’d been waiting to do. Swofford likely took a few creative liberties and exaggerated moments of the stories within the memoir, but it was an amazing read nonetheless and kept my attention for the days I spent reading it.
Rather than focusing on war itself, Jarhead focused more on military culture and the behavior of soldiers in times of desperation, boredom, fear, or sorrow. It shows how horrible conditions can get and how badly those conditions can mess with one’s mind. It goes through the bonding of brothers in arms, and the unbearable loss that comes when one of those brothers is lost to war or his own hand.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading military history or memoirs.