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Experts' opinion on 'Jarhead'? Mixed

Marines like the film's depiction of the 'first-to-fight' spirit but call it a relic of a pre-9/11 world.

November 07, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

It is hard to imagine more attentive audiences for the opening weekend of "Jarhead" than the active-duty and retired Marines who flocked to the theater just outside Camp Pendleton, where the movie, adapted from ex-Marine Anthony Swofford's book about the Persian Gulf War, was showing on three screens.

In large measure, what the Marines saw conformed to their sense of themselves and the Corps: the tough training, the forever use of the F-word, the camaraderie, the "first-to-fight" spirit, even small details -- the common belief that the Army gets better equipment and that your girlfriend back home is cheating on you with that infamous snake "Jody."

Jamie Foxx as the kick-butt staff sergeant and Chris Cooper as the charismatic battalion commander got high marks for realism. But in two fundamental ways, "Jarhead" was seen by many in attendance at the multiplex in downtown Oceanside, Calif., with first-hand experience of the war in Iraq, as a relic from a world that no longer exists.

The Gulf War took place in a world before Sept. 11, before young men enlisted in the Marine Corps not with the vague hope of combat but with the full promise of it.

And it was a world before the Marine Corps and other U.S. forces were mired in a war of attrition with a relentless and lethal insurgency that kills by stealth and remote control and where enemy fighters are often indistinguishable from civilians.

In "Jarhead," as in that earlier war it depicts, opposing forces mass at opposite ends of an open plain and then collide in great, albeit brief, fury. In such a contest, the U.S. enjoyed the enormous advantage of superior technology and firepower, with the result never truly in doubt.

Jake Gyllenhaal's Swofford is unsure of why he has been sent to Saudi Arabia to help oust Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait. Swofford had joined the Marines in the twilight between the end of the Cold War and the full explosion of the U.S. war on terrorism.

The world that gave rise to Swofford's ambivalence ended "when we watched those two towers come down," said retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Steven Schweitzer, 46, who served 27 years, including during the 2003 assault on Baghdad.

As film critics have noted, it helped that Swofford's book was published shortly before the assault on Baghdad, but that might not help the movie because of the differences between the Iraq war and the one Swofford fought in 1991.

"That was the last classic force-on-force war," said retired Gunnery Sgt. Robert Kane, 41, who served for 22 years, including stints in the Gulf War, Afghanistan and the assault to topple Hussein. The current conflict "has changed the entire nature of warfare."

As Marines from Camp Pendleton prepare for their fourth deployment to Iraq, the enemy that awaits them is not an opposing army but insurgents from multiple countries planting roadside explosives and using suicide bombers.

This war has also seen a change in perspective for many of those fighting in it. During the Gulf War, service personnel fought to liberate a country that some had never even heard of. For many in today's military, the terrorist attack on the U.S. made this fight more personal.

Swofford "doesn't seem to know the reason he's being sent to fight," said Pvt. Matthew Donnelly, 18, of Salem, Ore., who is being deployed to Iraq soon. "I know exactly why: to serve my country and protect my brothers in arms."

As the U.S. attempts to help a fledgling Iraqi government, Marines are engaged not solely in head-on combat but in what the Corps calls a "three-block war": fighting a gun battle on one block, providing humanitarian assistance on another and acting as peacekeepers on a third.

"It's a different war," said Donald F. Armento, 48, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves with 23 years' experience. "We went after the symptoms [in Kuwait]. Now we're going after the causes."

The filmmakers had sought assistance from the Defense Department, but were turned down when Pentagon officials decided the script was not a "feasible interpretation of military life."

At one point, Swofford threatens to kill another Marine and, later, when Iraqis surrender, the Marines celebrate by dancing around a bonfire and firing their weapons in the air. Too often, "Jarhead" shows Swofford and his buddies acting "more like a college fraternity house than a disciplined Marine unit," said Paul Geitner, 60, who served 26 years before retiring in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel in the Reserves.

On the issue of camaraderie, of the bonds developed in a war zone, "Jarhead" got higher marks. "I'm closer to guys I spent a few months with in Iraq than guys I've known for 10 years or more," said Kane. John Dadian, 47, who served in the Corps from 1977 to 1981 and is now a political consultant in San Diego, agreed, noting that the scene in which Swofford and others gather for a funeral of a buddy they haven't seen in years captures the sense of kinship that persists despite time and distance.

Bill Miller, 73, who served for 20 years before retiring as a gunnery sergeant in 1967, said he was glad to see a Vietnam veteran shown in a positive way. As Swofford and others return home, a scruffy-looking veteran offers congratulations to his fellow Marines. "It's good to see that even if you're down-and-out, those ideals and values stay with you," Miller said.

Lance Cpl. Patrick Wilkinson, 20, of Wisconsin, said that even though the topography and military tactics were different from those he's seen in Iraq, "Jarhead" still captures the reality of each Marine calculating his chances of survival.

Wilkinson is considering reenlisting to get a guarantee of staying with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, rather than risk being transferred to a new battalion for his upcoming third tour to Iraq.

"We don't die in the three-four," he said. "We have the best ratio of bringing guys home alive."

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