I am entitled to despair over the likelihood of further atrocities. Indolence and cowardice to not drive me—despair drives me.
—Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
“Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!” Cynical, pissed off, and posturing as rebellious, and 20-year-old Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) can’t take his marine gunnery sergeant seriously, even when the guy is yelling directly into his face. As Jarhead begins, Swoff and his fellow trainees—a company of “retards and fuckups”—don’t know they’ll be headed to the Gulf War in a few months. But they’re already self-knowing and already exhausted.
Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, a memoir of that brief encounter in the desert, is one man’s story but more than that, it’s a smart, sad treatise on war. This even though the author didn’t “see action” per se, an irony underlined by Sam Mendes’ movie version, adapted by Vietnam vet turned historian turned screenwriter William Broyles Jr. In the film, as in the book, Swoff is never quite naïve like the usual war movie recruit. Instead, he’s a “spectator,” but that hardly absolves him, much less leave him nightmareless. The movie remembers for him—the Gulf “conflict” is an endless series of traumas that will continue to afflict Swoff and his fellows long after they’re “home” (where they are greeted by a broken Vietnam war vet, a scarecrowish specter of their own futures). The problem with war, according to Jarhead, is precisely that it is endless. No matter who “wins,” loss is continuous.
Focused on the absurdist experiences of Desert Storm, Jarhead the movie can’t get at all the “other battles” in Swofford’s book, and so it dispenses with them neatly and perversely: as the camera approaches his parents’ hotel room door, his voiceover recalls, “I was made in a war,” during dad’s leave while he was in Vietnam. The door closes, as do literal doors on other scenes, “other things I can’t show you”: his suicidal sister institutionalized, his mother bowed over muffins in the kitchen, his father silent and turned inward, alone in his own house. Joining the marines, Swoff seeks sense, maybe a way to fit in. Not exactly to that end, he reads The Stranger, endures hazing rituals, and turns his tragedies into jokes, return fire aimed at the world that won’t grant him order or resolution.
In training camp, picked by Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), he becomes a sniper—assigned to STA, the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon—and learns to dote on his gun (“There are many like it, but his one is mine”) and love the corps. Swoff and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) believe they want to kill and so they’re thrilled when they’re sent (conveniently but oddly along with Sykes), to the Saudi desert. Here they are instructed to hydrate and train, masturbate and wait. Days and days and days they wait.
They follow orders and resist them. They find ways to entertain themselves in the scorching desert. They argue amongst themselves, spit prefab answers for the press (“I’m here to defend my country”), and erect a Wall of Shame to their cheating girlfriends back home. Asked to behave for reporters looking for true blue hero stories, they act out; Sykes schools them, has them play football in their suffocating NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) suits. Pained more by what seems their injunction to “artifice” (still believing that going to war means shooting demeaned and detested enemies), they begin to strip off their NBCs to engage in a wild “field fuck” for the benefit of their reporter audiences. “News,” the troops know, is as untimely and unreal as anything they’ve been told.
Showing their boredom, Jarhead pokes at the troops’ conditioned desire for action, their commitment to marine ideals, their need to believe that “kicking Iraqi ass” is the means to self-definition. As explained by Lt. Col. Kazinski (Chris Cooper), their current mission is to protect Saudi oil fields; when young Kruger (Lucas Black) wonders about the stability of their cause (assessing their starting point as all the “fat hands in foreign oil,” he asks, “Who do you think gave Saddam his weapons?”), Troy sets him straight: “Fuck politics,” he says, “We’re here, all the rest is bullshit.”
Focusing on the moment allows the troops to survive the monotony, as they also anticipate the worst. For most of them, history is a mishmash of movies (they whoop and cheer the Wagner-driven choppers scene in Apocalypse Now, dread and desire to see the homemade sex tape sent by one buddy’s wife). Macho and childish at the same time, they drink and dance on Christmas, can’t imagine the horrors they will behold, when, at last, they’re sent to a battleground that’s been decimated by the awesome U.S. air war.
Here the film turns poetic and uncanny. Traipsing through the desert until they come on what became known as the Highway of Death, they look out on charred vehicles and corpses, the top layer of sand burned black beneath their boots. As Swoff leaves his unit to take a dump, his feet leave white prints as he walks up to a blackened body seated, mouth open as if in mid-sentence. Swoff sits nearby, a series of camera angles pairing him with the dead man, so each appears in foreground and background, as if they are conversing. The effect is more harrowing than any battle sequence, underlining Jarhead‘s anguished point: war is not heroic or rousing. It is only devastating.
But if death is the most personal effect of war, it is hardly the foremost motivation. A next sequence strands the men again, in the desert, this time made surreal by the burning oil wells, black fluid raining down on them. “The earth is bleeding,” declares the lyrically inclined Swoff, but this “blood” is brutally meaningful, not a life source, not even a means to an end. As they dig into the sand, seeking respite from the downpour, they bicker with one troop who has, Full Metal Jacket-style, taken a corpse as his new friend. But as much as Swoff and Troy try to make the moral point here, draw a line between what’s decent and what’s not, they’re lost. The sky is black with oil, the sand drenched, their goggles greased over.
When they’re assigned, eventually, to snipe enemy soldiers, they’re beside themselves with giddy self-delusion: at last, they think, they’ll be in the war. But no, they’re trumped by the air war (embodied here by the wary Major Lincoln [Dennis Hasybert]), a more effective instrument for annihilation. Sniper-like precision has become old-fashioned. Jarhead doesn’t lose sight of this basic truth of war. More effective weapons only deepen its despair.