YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Lost in the fear and joy of combat

A writer sees the conflict through the prism of his Gulf War service.

March 26, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Watching TV coverage of the war in Iraq, Anthony Swofford says, he can identify with "the fatigue, the fear" and above all the boredom of the young combatants. He remembers himself as a rah-rah, blood-lusting 20-year-old Marine recruit for whom the nastiest bits of "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" were "like pornography" -- sexy and addictive. He remembers what it was like trying to hunt down Saddam Hussein's troops in the open desert and kill them before they killed him. He recalls the queasy sensation of catching a lift on one of Uncle Sam's helicopters, which usually dripped hydraulic fluid "all over the place." "I was scared to death every time I got on one of those things," he says.

What the baby-faced Gulf War veteran wasn't prepared for this time around was cable TV news, with its razzle-dazzle visuals and ravening correspondents, especially CNN's Walter Rodgers, whom Swofford has dubbed "the wild man." "He's like, 'This is the 7th Cavalry, it's a great wave of steel, a great, immense wave of steel that's growing, growing on its way to Baghdad! And they will seek the enemy, they will search out the enemy, and if the enemy does not surrender they will kill them!' "

Swofford chuckles, shaking his head. "The coverage has been amusing so far, I think," he says. "The actual combat is not amusing. The last I heard, maybe two Marines had died?"

It is Saturday morning, two days since U.S. forces stormed into Iraq and barely three hours since Swofford got off a plane from Portland, Ore., where he lives and teaches at Lewis and Clark College. He's whirled into this pleasure-loving seaside city with just enough time to do a lunch interview and read for 40 minutes from his brutally candid, at times eerily beautiful new memoir, "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" (Scribner), at a Barnes & Noble in a strip mall. Then he's off on a red-eye flight to London for more interviews with the BBC. So excuse Swofford if he's not quite up to speed on the current body count for Desert Storm Redux.

"The video graphics are just amazing," he says, still marveling at the phenomenon of all-war, all-the-time television. "And I heard one of the anchors the other night say, 'These graphics are just great because they really give us a view of the battlefield!' No, they don't give you a view of the battlefield. It's nothing close to a view of the battlefield."

If battlefield close-ups are what you crave, Swofford knows, few opportunities can match a U.S. Marine Corps overseas tour of duty in wartime -- even a modern high-speed, high-tech encounter that collapses a lifetime of trauma into a few weeks or even days. He spent roughly nine months as a sniper-scout with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, between August 1990 and April 1991, when allied forces drove Hussein's battered army out of Kuwait and back into Iraq.

Taking its title from the name given to the Marines' traditional "high-and-tight" haircuts, "Jarhead" has been getting the kind of notices for which some first-time authors might consider squaring off with the Republican Guard. "By turns profane and lyrical, swaggering and ruminative, 'Jarhead' is not only the most powerful memoir to emerge thus far from the last gulf war, but also a searing contribution to the literature of combat," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Other reviewers have compared Swofford's sardonic, surreal narrative with such Vietnam War classics as Philip Caputo's "A Rumor of War" and Michael Herr's "Dispatches."

Both terror and exhilaration course through the book, creating a vivid and gritty texture -- blood laced with sand. Describing an enemy mortar attack, he writes: "The rounds explode beautifully, and the desert opens like a flower, a flower of sand.... I've [wet] my pants, but only a bit, a small, dark marker the shape of a third world country on my trousers."

At this point, Swofford acknowledges, the Gulf War reminiscence genre is still pretty much an open field. He's grateful to one of his former instructors at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop for suggesting the subject, which he admits he'd been trying to dodge ever since he started writing fiction in community college several years ago, after flailing around unsuccessfully trying to become a banker. "It was tough emotionally" to write, Swofford says. "I mean, I was as desperate and as full of despair as I say I was in the end of the book."

"Jarhead" also has managed to stay below the radar of partisan politics. Although his book makes several scathing, even bitter references to the "old white [expletives]" who run the oil companies and Kuwait's pampered, Mercedes-driving classes, Swofford -- in true sniper fashion -- keeps his narrative cross-hairs firmly trained on the timeless experience of the ordinary fighting man.

Los Angeles Times Articles