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The Few, The Proud: A Jarhead memoir of the First Gulf War

The mythology, the dogtag dogma, the cult of masculinity and most of all the haircut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson on a memoir of the First Gulf War.

(Independent on Sunday 23/03/2003)

It may seem odd that the United States Marine Corps, the elite fourth branch of the US Armed Services, larger and better equipped than the whole British Army, heroic victors of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, spearhead of the last and current Gulf War, should be best known for, and most proud of, its hairdo. But then, the USMC is a peculiar institution. Magnificent, but very peculiar.

“Jarhead”, the moniker US marines give one another, derives from the distinctive “high and tight” buzzcut that Marine Corps barbers dispense, leaving perhaps a quarter of an inch of personality on top and plenty of naked, anonymous scalp on the sides. Like circumcision and the Hebrews, the jarhead barnet has historically set US marines apart, marking them as the chosen and the damned: monkish warriors. Or as one of the Corps’ mottos has it: “The Few, The Proud”.

Image is important for US marines, perhaps because of the burden of symbolism – for many, the USMC is America. Or perhaps more particularly because the USMC is John Wayne. Jarheads, or rather, actors in high-and-tight haircuts, are invariably the stars of Hollywood war movies; the other services just don’t have the glamour and the grit of the devildogs. As a result, the mythology, the rituals and the dogtag dogma of the Marine Corps cult of masculinity – boot camp, the DI, sounding-off, cussing and hazing, tearful graduation, test-of-manhood deployment, and that haircut – are probably more familiar to British boys than, say, those of the Royal Marines.

The relationship of real jarheads to their actress impersonators is confusingly close. When 20-year-old Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford and his buddies in a scout/sniper platoon get the order to prepare to ship out to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they spend three days drinking beer and watching war movies. Ironically, their favourite films, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are ostensibly “anti-war” liberal pleas to “end this madness”, but for fighting men they only serve to get them hot: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” explains Swofford, “with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his First Fuck.” Take note, Oliver Stone, you pink feather dick-tickler: “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”

In fact, Swofford’s ”Jarhead: A Marine’s chronicle of the Gulf War’’ is an avowedly “anti-war” memoir, powerfully written (pink feathers aside) and well-crafted, by someone who was clearly embittered, not to say damaged, by his experience of the USMC and his participation in the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, it isn’t clear whether Swofford, for all his reflectiveness, and of course his authenticity, is much more successful in demystifying war in general or the Corps. Telling us that war is hell (again) is rather counterproductive: hell is after all a rather interesting place, certainly more interesting than heaven, or civilian “normality”. Moreover, the quasi-religious, dramatic tone Swofford strikes of despair and ecstasy, loneliness and camaraderie, and the awful- but-fascinating baseness of war is not so different from that of Stone or Coppola (or for that matter, of Mailer). And while there are not quite so many explosions, there’s no shortage of pornography.

When sweating in Saudi in 1990 waiting for the war to start, Swofford’s unit find themselves being ordered to perform for the media, playing football in rubber NBC suits in 100-degree heat. To sabotage the hated propaganda op, they start a favourite ritual of theirs, a “Field fuck”, a simulated gang rape, “wherein marines violate one member of the unit,” Swofford tells us. “The victim is held fast in the doggie position and his fellow marines take turns from behind.”

Getting into the spirit of things, the jarheads shout out helpful remarks such as: “Get that virgin Texas ass! It’s free!” The victim himself screams: “I’m the prettiest girl any of you has ever had! I’ve seen the whores you’ve bought, you sick bastards!” The press stop taking notes.

Swofford reassures us that this practice “wasn’t sexual” but was instead “communal” – however, even in his own terms it seems that the distinction is almost superfluous: it’s the hallmark of military life that what’s sexual becomes communal. Elsewhere he tells us about the “Wall of Shame” on base: hundreds of photos of ex-girlfriends who proved unfaithful – frequently with other marines.

Swofford’s obsession with the marines had a media origin, beginning in 1984 when the USMC barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 US servicemen. He recounts watching the news bulletins on the TV and how he “stood at attention and hummed the national anthem as the rough-hewn jarheads… carried their comrades from the rubble. The marines were all sizes and all colours, all dirty and exhausted and hurt, and they were men, and I was a boy falling in love with manhood…”. Manhood in Swofford’s family was intimately linked to the military: his father served in Vietnam, while his grandfather fought in the Second World War. The desirability of manliness was the desirability of war.

It is probably not so strange that his obsession should have begun with an almost masochistic image of suffering and death: taking it like a man is an even more important part of the military experience than giving it. Sure enough, at boot camp Swofford finds his Drill Instructor to be a fully-fledged sadist of the kind that civilian masochists can only fantasise about: “I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your nightmare and your wet dream! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will forge you into part of the iron fist with which our great United States fights oppression and injustice!” Like many recruits, Swofford signed up to get away from a disintegrating home life and the flawed reality of his father and found that he had married his superego made barking, spitting, apoplectic flesh.

The DI’s job, as we all know from the movies, is to humiliate and break down the recruit, shame him, strip away his civilian personality and weaknesses and build him up into a marine. The DI is obsessed with inauthenticity: finding out who is not “really” a marine. He asks Swofford if he’s “a faggot… you sure have pretty blue eyes”. During one of these hazings, Swofford pisses his pants – an understandable reaction, but intriguingly it happens to be the same one that he mentions earlier in the book, when, as a young boy living in Japan (his father had a tour of duty there), he received “confusing and arousing” compliments on his blue eyes from Japanese women.

For good measure the DI also smashes Swofford’s confused shaved head through a chalkboard. Later, when this DI is under investigation for his violent excesses, Swofford shops him. However, he feels guilty about this and daydreams about running into the DI and “letting him beat on me some more”. Like I said, the USMC, God bless it, is a peculiar organisation.

Of course, Swofford isn’t your average jarhead. “I sat in the back of the Humvee and read the Iliad” is a memorable line. Other days might see him buried in The Portable Nietzsche or The Myth of Sisyphus. Swofford also seems a little highly-strung: he attempts suicide, Full Metal Jacket- style, fellating the muzzle of his rifle after receiving a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. He’s saved by his returning roommate, who takes him on a run “that lasts all night”. More physical pain to salve the existential variety. By the book’s end, we are left with an image of Swofford, long discharged, wrestling with despair, not least over the sights he saw in action in Kuwait, but now without the distraction of physical suffering and discipline. Sisyphus without the rock.

Mind you, “jarhead” does suggest something that can be unscrewed: brains that can be easily spooned out. It may be true that some men become soldiers to kill; but it may equally be the case that some join to be killed, or at least escape the burden of consciousness. Swofford appears to feel cheated that life not only went on after the Gulf War (like most U.S. ground combatants he was a largely a spectator of the massacring potency of American air power) but in fact became more complicated and burdensome.

Under these circumstances, I think most of us would miss our DI.

Lashings of manly love in a Humvee – review of ‘One Bullet Away’

‘One Bullet Away: the making of a Marine Officer’, Nathaniel Fick (Orion)

Reviewed by Mark Simpson

Why do we blokes – and it is almost always blokes – read war books, catch war movies and play twitchy first-person Second World War shooter games like Call of Duty? Why do we crave “war porn”?

Because we still believe, deep down, in this post-masculine era of digitised, virtual life and professional/quasi-mercenary armies that “take care of business” for the rest of us, that one day we will be called up. That one day we will be roused from our comfortable cosseted techno-textured vanilla-flavoured semi-slumber and tested. And we wonder whether we will be able to find the necessary selflessness, courage, virtue, toughness, and, well, murderousness.

Most of all, we worry that they’ll find out we’re sorry sacks of shit.

And, let’s face it, we’re all sorry sacks of shit compared to… blond, square-jawed, Nathaniel Fick, former elite USMC officer, Afghan and Iraq war vet, Classics scholar, talented writer (damn him) and all-round gent. Fick is one of that strange minority of men who isn’t interested in what it’s like to go to war. He’s one of those oddities: someone who actually goes to war. Voluntarily. So, during a particularly hellish, sleepless, hungry moment in Basic Training he spies from a helicopter commuters on the freeway headed to work, rested, showered, well-fed, calm and finds himself not wishing to change places with them for a minute. Moreover, unlike, say Anthony Swofford, the slightly neurotic author of Jarhead (about the first Gulf War) he’s no passive grunt. He’s a man who makes things happen, who takes decisions, who looks after his men and, even argues with superior officers. Not surprisingly, he comes across as inspiring but also rather peculiar.

His memoir ‘One Bullet Away’ provides the self-loathing civilian with almost everything he is looking for. We get the officer version of USMC boot camp, which turns out to be much the same as the grunt version, except even more gruelling, and starring the same homo-sado DI we know and love: ‘”What’s in here?” He grabbed my toiletry bag. “Drugs? Booze? Maybe a tube of K-Y jelly and a big cucumber?”‘

We get action, and rather more of it than Swofford was able to offer: with almost Hollywood-style scripting, Fick passes the terrifying training programme in time for 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. A swift promotion follows a successful tour of duty, and he joins the elite Recon Battalion, the Marines of the Marines, and the vanguard of the Coalition forces invading Iraq; he describes the action and his own experience of it in economical, fluid, convincing and occasionally lethal prose. Though not always “unflinching”: for example, when the firing started, sitting in his unprotected Humvee, he would will his limbs to retract into his body armour (but, rest reassured: this was only because he didn’t like to be stuck in a vehicle during combat and preferred to feel the ground beneath his feet).

We also get the “money shot” of war porn: and not just gruesome descriptions of exploding heads (though we do get some of that), but lashings of manly love in the form of camaraderie: Fick was devoted to the Spartan Band that is the USMC, is unafraid to quote Classical Greek poetry and Rudyard Kipling, and takes an almost maternal interest in his men. Fick even confronts his superior officers when they appear to him to be taking reckless risks with his chaps. He is rightfully proud of the fact that he succeeded in returning from Iraq without having lost a single man from his platoon.

Fick, who is clearly a thoughtful and sensitive man – as well as a well-oiled killing machine – eventually leaves the Corps because he doesn’t feel capable of regarding the lives of his men as expendable. If this is “war porn”, it is definitely the better kind.

So what’s a civvie pussy to complain of? Well, Fick may question the policies of his superior officers, but not of his Commander in Chief – and blocks any discussion of whether it was a “just” war or not with a riposte that seems to have come from Platoon: “We fought for each other.”

Then again, Fick joined the Marines because he wanted to fight. Having been called upon to fight for his country, it’s not so surprising that he wasn’t keen to question the cause, especially in the dusty wake of 9/11. No, the main reservation I have – my armchair whinge – is that I don’t feel that either Afghanistan or Iraq tested Fick enough.

Although Fick sees much more action than Swafford, and is fired upon regularly, he and his men always have absurdly superior firepower to the enemy, who most of the time run away or surrender, or can’t aim their weapons. And when they don’t run away, Fick can usually call in the Cobra gunships or F-16s or an artillery barrage and wipe them out in seconds. Which he does, frequently. The disparity in firepower is greater than that between Mussolini’s troops and the Abyssinians – or the stormtroopers and the giant bugs in Starship Troopers. I don’t mean to diminish the training, skill, bravery or all-round awesomeness of Fick and his men, without which the technology would be worthless, nor do I wish any more of them dead or wounded, but Afghanistan and Iraq were not heroic wars. They may or may not have been necessary, and are tests that I would have failed miserably, but they would have sickened the Spartans.

I suspect Fick feels uneasy too, but in a way that he has yet to accept. After a battle, surveying the piles of lightly-armed enemy corpses shredded by American weaponry, one “stapled to a tree trunk by .50 caliber machine gun rounds”, another filled with “thousands of tiny metal slivers” from a Cobra’s flechette rocket, Fick reflects: “I found no joy in looking at the men we’d killed, no satisfaction… But I wasn’t disturbed either. I fell back on an almost clinical detachment. The men were adults who chose to be here. I was an adult who chose to be here. They shot at us and missed. We shot at them and didn’t miss. The fight was fair.”

Much as I admire Fick and his book, and much as I consider myself unworthy to polish his boots with my tea-towel, I find it difficult to believe any of these statements about his feelings – or the nature of the fight that provoked them.

(Originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 26 March 2006)