SN&R talks to local author Anthony Swofford about war, writing and an upcoming movie based on his book Jarhead.
In 1983, when young Anthony Swofford watched news of the devastating Lebanon Marine-barracks bombing—America’s first significant experience of a suicide bomb—on television in his Carmichael home, he was, as he writes, “a boy falling in love with manhood. I understood that manhood had to do with war, and war with manhood.”
Swofford could also see, even then, “the kaleidoscopic trajectory of my future,” which would lead him out of Sacramento in 1988 and into the Marine Corps. Jarhead, his first book, published in 2003, chronicles Swofford’s experience as a scout/sniper in the Middle East during the Gulf War (“and Other Battles,” the subtitle says, alluding chiefly to the author’s ongoing brinksmanship with his own demons). It is a searching and ferocious book. It suggests that the war was not as sanitary as the press suggested, but that it was, however, peculiarly efficient—to the point of inducing an astringent existential angst in the studious, philosophically inclined Swofford, who earlier had bought into a very different notion of military culture.
All of which is why everyone’s so interested in the movie adaptation of Jarhead, opening here and everywhere this Friday. People don’t just want to know whether the movie will be as good as the book. They want to know what it will tell them about war, and whether it will be true.
“There is talk that many Vietnam films are anti-war, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill,” Swofford writes. “But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message.” Swofford supports this claim with his experience of the Marine Corps. While well-meaning civilians console themselves with platitudes about the inhumanity and futility of warfare, “Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills … It doesn’t matter how many Mr. And Mrs. Johnsons are anti-war—the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.”
The obvious question on many minds is what sort of film can be adapted from a book that counts such caustic lines among its introductory chapters? Will Jarhead the movie bear out or contradict Swofford’s declaration? And what of his further point, which may be splitting hairs, that he hasn’t written a war book per se, but actually “a literary memoir that happens to take war as its main narrative thrust”? In the end, whatever effect the movie has on audiences both civilian and military, will it even matter what the film’s director, Sam Mendes, intended?
The movie Swofford is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose dreamy eyes prove useful here for the dramatized absorption of humiliation from variously debasing circumstances, and for the real absorption of identification from audiences. Whether Jarhead will be, as Swofford writes of other war-related films, “pornography for the military man,” is for us to decide. Though he doesn’t see it this way, the author has allowed that any young potential combatant might consider his book pro-war, and that the Marines at Twentynine Palms may one day have the movie in their DVD collection. But another important feature of the passage above is Swofford’s way of singling himself out from all the rest of the servicemen he describes. Jarhead’s salient strength is brought into relief by the timing of its publication—a moment when warfare and military culture had become faceless, mechanized, and rendered nearly anonymous by the media. Swofford wrote his own deeply personal story, without flinching, and that fact is its durable value, even if times have already changed.
Last week, Swofford spoke about the book and the movie in his room at the San Francisco Four Seasons Hotel, from which he patiently indulged a press junket and room service. In such a setting, dressed sharply in slacks, an open-collared shirt and a gleaming silver watch, Swofford wore a kind of righteous apartness, well suited to his literary persona. Stroking his reddish beard, he was capable, as many warriors seem to be, of oscillating rapidly between good-natured fun and stone-seriousness. He had a bigger belly than the corps would allow; his posture and tone of voice seemed both humble and confident, but there was, also, a haunted air about him. “Despair drives me,” he wrote at the end of the book, and so it still seems.
“The version of me that I write about is not always an attractive one,” he said. Swofford didn’t figure that having progressed from the experience of his life to that of the book to that of the movie had had an obscuring effect, but rather something closer to the opposite. “I was writing honestly about my personal life. Now that it’s being transfigured, I’m being exposed again in greater detail,” he said. “And I’m happy, because I think it’s a good movie.”
Consulting with screenwriter Bill Broyles Jr. and Mendes throughout the process, Swofford looked on “as the person that the film is about, but also as the author of the source—a radically different person. My worry was more about how the work was being handled, and I think the work was honored.” Close readers of both will discover several changes. “One thing that was sort of weird,” Swofford continued, “was watching some of my interior moments moved into dialogue.” The more significant alterations didn’t bother him, probably because he feels the film manages the sort of fidelity he described in print as “neither true nor false but what I know.”
“You must forget who you were before the Marine Corps,” Swofford writes. “You must also forget the person you might be in the future, after leaving the Marine Corps, because when war comes, you might die and then all of your fantasies and predictions for the future will have become lies.” Of course this particular protocol of forgetting, which is not in any of the training manuals, didn’t stop Swofford, when on patrol in the sand of the Arabian Desert, from anticipating the Nationwide Freezer Meats hamburgers he would one day enjoy in the leafy oasis of 24th Street. The person he was after the Marine Corps, in 1993, lived at 21st and P until 1999.
That person supported himself with a job at Fleming Foods’ West Sacramento frozen-foods warehouse. “It was hard work,” Swofford recalled. “And I knew I needed to commit myself to working.” Although by Swofford’s account he’d had trouble being a Marine, he also had trouble not being one. However solitary he often liked to be in civilian life, he felt unsettled without a commanding officer barking orders at him and fellow jarheads drilling with him and preparing at a moment’s notice to pack up their gear and move somewhere else. He had no somewhere else. Swofford stayed coiled up, drank too much, and couldn’t calm down. He was known to run drunk and singing war songs through the streets of downtown, and wake up in Capitol Park with the gear from his ruck spilled all around him and without his clothes on.
Always a reader, Swofford haunted Time Tested Books, and he took classes at American River College and UC Davis. He read almost compulsively, partly because that’s what teachers had instructed him to do, and he wrote and failed and kept writing. “You’ll keep failing miserably every day, but you’ll also succeed each day in different ways,” he has said of the experience of training as a writer, which in that way, at least, doesn’t sound so different from the experience of training as a Marine. Thus when he calls himself “always fairly confident that I’m going to fail at things,” it actually sounds reassuring. Jarhead gestated; eventually Swofford left for the University of Iowa writers program. He hasn’t been back to live here since.
“It’s hard for me to feel at home in Sacramento,” he said. “Partly because of the peripatetic nature of my family and the Marines, moving around all the time.” Swofford now lives in New York, where, he explained, “my urge to be always moving is sort of quelled by the city. And I’m a night owl. I like to be able to work until two or three in the morning and then go have a cup of coffee or a drink.”
Shake Swofford’s hand and look him in the eye, and it will be with the disquieting knowledge that those parts of him once were highly specialized killing tools. Although he has since proclaimed his skills and muscle memories dormant, it was their coordination that once could put a single .50-caliber round precisely and annihilatively into a grapefruit-sized target (“One Shot-One Kill,” scout/snipers like to say) from a distance of up to twenty football fields away (“Death from Afar”), with a weapon so devastating that the Geneva Conventions forbade its direct use on human beings. It’s also hard not to think, when Swofford fixes his gaze into the distance and blanks his expression with the effort of remembrance, that this must be something like how he looked when zeroing his targets.
Pointedly, however, the Swofford we meet in print and on screen, though an exhaustive target practicer and undisputed master of his weapon, never gets a single real shot off. In that way, his experience, whatever shifting ratio of horror and honor it contains, is totally emasculating—and that might be enough to discourage its glorification.
Jarhead is like a 21st-century elaboration of Waiting for Godot: It has that peculiar matrix of absurdity, frustration, and seeming importance, that terror and recognition of the void, and the violence lurking just outside what we call civilization. And, staving off doom in the jittery meantime, it has an uneasy but unequivocal esprit de corps. The book and the movie both offer a numbing refrain that sounds as if it were borrowed directly from Beckett: “This is our labor. We wait.”
It’s exactly the opposite of getting off. Maybe an effective anti-war movie really isn’t possible now, but one that could make military pornography less viable is significant. After all, war porn ostensibly goes back to Homer; in the book, when a fellow jarhead finds Swofford reading the Iliad, he says, “That’s some heavy dope, sniper. Cool.”
“For the sniper,” the author explains, “dope is anything that helps him acquire the target.”
“I don’t think the film is going to make a kid join or not join the military,” he said in the hotel. “Maybe it can be part of an informed decision.” Swofford is a propagandist of nothing but his own survival.