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Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles by Anthony Swofford


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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There are times when Anthony Swofford writes poetically in his memoir, Jarhead, a story of his life in the Marines and service in the Gulf War. At other times, Swofford writes with the salty tongue of one Marine talking to another. He’s at his best when at either of those extremes. A lot of Jarhead is somewhere in-between.

Here’s an excerpt (pp. 123-5):

The man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war, and afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory and he believes he's finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands— love a woman, build a house, change his son's diaper—his hands remember the rifle and the power the rifle proffered. The cold weight, the buttstock in the shoulder, the sexy slope and fall of the trigger guard. Where do rifles come from? the man's son asks.

The rifle stinks like wet earth, like from where it came before being melted and molded into that sticklike form. And when you run out of ammunition and you're lucky that the enemy has run out at the same moment, you can beat the enemy with your rifle, as though the rifle were a baton, or a branch from a thick oak. The man remembers this: there are many different ways to fight and kill with the rifle.

Supposedly, and according to tradition and lore, the sniper needs only one bullet per kill. This is incorrect. The sniper requires thousands of bullets and thousands of hours of training per kill; he needs senior snipers on the deck beside him at the rifle range, telling him why he is not producing a dime group from a grand out. (A dime group is three shots that, when inspected on the target, can be covered with a dime.) There are reasons you're not hitting a dime group at a grand. Your spotter called the wind at five to eight but the wind is an eight to eleven. You hadn't completely expelled your breath when you shot. You are afraid of the rifle. Your spotter gave you the correct dope but you dialed the scope incorrectly. You are tired. You are stupid. You are bored. You are a bad shot. You drank the night before. You drank excessively the night before. You are worried about Suzi Rottencrotch and her man Jody back home, in the hay or in the alley or in a hotel bed. These are all unacceptable reasons for not achieving a dime group at a grand. A nickel group is occasionally acceptable. A quarter group and you are dead. You have missed the target but the target hasn't missed you. You must remember that you are always a target. Someone wants to kill you and their reasons are as sound as yours are for killing them. This is why you must know the dime group like you once knew your mother's nipples. Quarters are cheap. On your corpse no one will check the group, not even your mother. Your enemy will be the last person to witness you as a living thing. He'll acquire you through his optics and he will not pause before pulling the trigger.


The dream starts in November, after I read an article in the Arab Times about the Iraqi Republican Guard snipers.

I'm a boy again, wearing the glasses I had as a boy, and I'm on a quest, for what I don't know, in a land vaguely familiar that sometimes resembles the alleys of Tokyo and sometimes my grammar school. I might be looking for the denim jacket I lost on the playground in fifth grade. I might be looking for the candy store. Women walk through the alleys wearing red tights. Sometimes I try to sleep with them, and though I'm hard, the tights keep me from penetrating, but I come on their tights. Money changes hands.

There's no logic for why I choose one woman over another, or why any particular woman allows me to choose her. Once, the nonact is consummated on a toilet. In the dream, no one speaks. Diseased dogs roam the alleys, and addicts of either pills or drink or dope float above the alleys as they take their preferred drug. I never find what I'm looking for. I sweat throughout the dream. Eventually, I turn a corner out of the alley, and a sniper shoots me in the left eye. The shot doesn't hurt, and I return to the alley, and though my eye has been blown away, I still maintain vision through the socket. I can see the hole that the projectile made in the glasses lens. I begin coughing up pieces of shattered glass, but no blood issues from my mouth, though as I cough the glass into the dirty alley, I know my belly is stuffed with glass and that it might take me years to expel all of it. As the clean glass hits the ground, I hear the sound of chimes marking time though I can never figure the hour.

This dream recurs every night, until the Scud missile drills begin, and after that I’m unable to complete a full evening of sleep.

Jarhead is an unusual book, composed by a talented writer.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

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