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Friday, 25 June 2010

Review: Jarhead, Anthony Swofford (2003)

This sad and curious book ends in 1991 with the soldiers of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, Second Batallion, Seventh Marines, arriving on a combat mission in Kuwait after the extensive aerial bombing of Saddam Hussein's forces by the aircraft of the UN-backed coalition. The arrival is something of a disappointment after seven months stationed in Saudi Arabia in direct preparation for war and after years spent training at bases in the US, Okinawa, and the Philippines. One of Swofford's mates retaliates by desecrating the corpse of an Iraqi soldier.

The bodies are everywhere: in bunkers, in trucks and jeeps, seated around campfires that have long been extinguished. The devastation of the Iraqi Army is total, with over 100,000 aerial sorties completed by coalition bombers in a few months. To say that the Iraqis had been "softened up" would be a gross understatement of the facts.

Marines such as Swofford, who wrote this memoir over a decade after the events it describes ended, are trained to kill and, in fact, as a youth Swofford had yearned for entry into the force against his father's desires. The book is sad partly because the insight that combat and intensive training delivers is earned only alongside the ennui of disillusionment.

This feeling of disappointment is chronicled by the author in flash-forwards and flashbacks from the main thread of the narrative - which is the preparation for, and execution of, the Gulf War.

So, for example, we read about his adolescent self and how he used to fight with an authoritarian father in his hometown in California. We also learn about what happened to certain of his platoon mates after the end of the war, with their return to civilian life. The sadness accumulates and spreads out in all directions, like a physical complaint that is left to grow because it is not so painful that immediate surgery is required.

But I think it's this sadness, coupled with a world-weariness, that saves the book. Swofford is not overly dramatic and is also not overly pessimistic about life in the armed services. The readbility of the book is testament to the effort expended in telling a story that needed to be told.

Allied with the sadness of experience, is the anxiety that is generated by knowledge that the US decided to fight for Kuwait in order to protect US interests, rather than for humanitarian reasons. The book thus provides valuable insights for those who are concerned by a militaristic US administration and its thinly-veiled justifications for action in remote sectors of the globe.

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