Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: Jarhead, Anthony Swofford

A review of Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford

A lucid and brutally honest account by a Marine sniper who served in the first Gulf War. Swofford’s writing is clear and stark, but his erudition and poetic sense come through on every page (he studied at the renowned Iowa Writer's workshop); no gruff, simple Hemingway, he.

An emotionally draining memoir, this long but incredibly enthralling book not only discusses the actions of the war and its aftermath as seen by an infantryman (walks among charred corpses), but ruminates on the nature of war, of what it means to kill or not to have killed, of fear in the face of fire, of loneliness and despair. Swofford is forthright about his love/hate relationship with the military and his own experience. He is both proud of having been a Marine and possibly wishes he could forget; he is there to fight but is terrified; he serves and obeys but knows that some very bad and costly mistakes were made, and he details some of the arrogance he encounters in some of the higher-ups of the corps. In short, Swofford very successfully depicts on the printed page the human side of soldiery.

Did Swofford massage the facts or twist timelines to make his story more dramatic? Probably; almost all memoirs have a touch of exaggeration. But who cares if he did? He was there, his boots on the ground, and in these pages he pours out what the war made him see. To my mind, that's truth enough.

Without being ostentatious or even all that direct about it, by the book’s end Swofford has painted a picture of jarheads, including himself, coming home from the war shattered, twisted, with a strange sort of sadness hanging over them. Just a terrific, moving account.

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