Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

Unexpected Beauty Amid Unspeakable Violence

December 28, 2008


I’ve been reading pretty steadily lately, but not finding a whole lot to write home about (or, as the kids say these days, ‘blog about’). But one surprise came on the 25-cent shelf at the library. It was a book I remember hearing about, but either my memory is getting much better or much worse, because the book is a lot older than I imagined. Contrary to my recollection, Jarhead isn’t about the most recent Gulf War, but about the war in Kuwait of several years ago.

Anthony Swofford managed to create a memoir that is certainly the stereotypically honest, searing portrayal of life in the US Marine Corps. But more than that, his is a lyrical, beautiful, heartrending depiction of the life of a grunt with all of its utter monotony, celebrated violence, disturbing sexuality, and naked will to live. Swofford pens an excellent memoir by evoking much emotion without describing it directly. So, for example, he presents the perfect hypocrisy of sexual fidelity– soldiers who are obsessed with the real and imagined infidelities of their wives and girlfriends back home, while unabashedly hiring prostitutes at every opportunity– without trying to explain or make sense of it.

Among many other endearing images and motifs, his firsthand account of marching through the bombed-out remains of the Iraqi Army was staggering. Not only at the devastating killing power of the air assault, but at his own disappointment at coming all the way to a war and not getting to kill anyone himself. Too, he finds a way to write about his unit’s first turns with the Barrett .50cal sniper rifle that evokes both the genuine pride at his abilities with it as well as his fear of those same abilities. Being able to kill someone at 1600-2000 yards would be just that: a point of pride, but an uneasy one. In the same way, Swofford offers a compelling critique of war, while telling of his own joy at making war.

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