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A soldier's memories of the first Gulf War
A grunt's-eye view of war

Review by Helen Redmond | May 16, 2003 | Page 9

BOOKS: Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, Anthony Swofford, Scribner, 2003, 272 pages, $24.

JARHEAD: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles is a raw, unflinching memoir by Anthony Swofford.

The nickname "jarhead" comes from the regulation haircuts all marines have. Swofford describes the life of a jarhead grunt as full of physical punishment, non-stop verbal abuse and mind-numbing boredom. Stationed in Saudi Arabia, he says, "Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss."

Their days also consist of heaping sexist abuse on their girlfriends and wives back home. Swofford views most women as sluts and prostitutes and rape as part of the spoils of war. The contempt for women almost overwhelms the narrative at times, but the sexism and physical violence against women that the U.S. military promotes is an ugly reality--and not only for women in countries the U.S. is at war with. Recently, 50 women Air Force cadets came forward to describe how their complaints of sexual assault were shrugged off and covered up.

Through numerous examples--many sickeningly violent--Swofford shows how the military tries to strip soldiers of their humanity and mold them into obedient killers. But Swofford isn't stupid. He and others in the battalion know why they're in Saudi Arabia preparing for war with Iraq--oil.

The soldiers joke about, "having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion." He remembers a soldier from Texas saying, "All those old white fuckers from Texas have their fat hands in Arab oil." He's talking about George Bush Senior and Dick Cheney of course.

The reader can't help but fast-forward to Gulf War Two and the same men, and Bush Junior now, who currently control Iraq's oil.

Swofford is also full of contradictions and confusion. He knows he's being used by the rich and powerful and yet as a sniper he wants the "one shot/one kill." He swaggers with patriotic bravado and then pees his pants when he hears shells exploding. He terrorizes another Marine by putting a gun to his head and later buries the body of a dead Iraqi soldier so it can no longer be desecrated by a fellow Marine.

And when the war ends, he feels lucky that he wasn't killed or injured, but frustrated that he didn't kill anyone. For seven months, he prepared for a war that was over before it even started.

Swofford's prose is at times both beautiful and haunting, which is an achievement when chronicling the massive death and destruction of the Gulf War. And Swofford knows that none of the rewards of victory go to the jarheads: "[T]he rewards accrue in places like Washington, D.C., and Riyadh and Houston and Manhattan, south of 125th Street and Kuwait City." He's right.

Swofford's memoir is a hard read at times, but worth picking up because the voices of working-class soldiers, who fight all the wars and reap none of the benefits, need to be heard.

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