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Jarhead - A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
Anthony Swofford

Contributed by Keenan Robert





"But if you want to go on fighting
go take some young chap, flaccid & a half-wit
to give him a bit of courage and some brains"

- Ezra Pound, Canto LXXII





I go to the basement and open my ruck.

I think of what I must look like to the late - night walker peering through the basement windows: the movie cliché, the mad old warrior going through his memorabilia, juicing up before he runs off and kills a few with precision fire. But, no, I am not mad. I am not well, but I am not mad. I'm after something. Memory, yes. A reel. More than just time. Years pass. But more than just time. I've been working toward this - I've opened the ruck and now I must open myself.

I open a map of southern Kuwait. Sand falls from between the folds.

Still, my vision was blurred - by wind and sand and distance, by false signals, poor communication, and bad coordinates, by stupidity and fear and ignorance, by valor and false pride.

I remember most of the names and faces of my platoon mates. I remember the names and faces of some of their girlfriends and wives. I think I know who cheated and who stayed faithful. I remember who wrote letters and who drove their men mad with silence. I remember some of the lies and most of the questions. I remember the dreams and the naïve wishes, the pathetic pleas and the trouser - pissing horror.

I remember some of the sand, but there was so much of it, I should be forgiven.

I remember being told I must remember and then for many years forgetting.

We are afraid, but that doesn't mean we don't want to fight. It occurs to me that we will never be young again.





There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim.

But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended.

The supposedly anti-war films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam war, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, and I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.





I'm in the base gym at noon on August 7, lifting a few hundred pounds over my chest, working off the days - long damage from our Vietnam War Film Fest, when I hear an announcement over the public address system: All personnel from STA 2/7 are ordered to report immediately to battalion headquarters. Get some, Jarheads! Now we're locked down on base. Our deployment is inevitable.

As I debark the plane, the oven heat of the Arabian Desert grips my throat.

We'll be shielding enough oil to drive hundreds of millions of cars for hundreds of millions of miles, at a relatively minor cost to the American consumer.

We joke about having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion, and while we laugh at our jokes and we all think we're damn funny jarheads, we know we might soon die, and this not funny, the possibility of death, but like many combatants before us, we laugh to obscure the tragedy of our cheap, squandered lives with the comedy of combat...

Our days consist of sand and water and swear and piss.

We walk and drive over the sand and we drink water, gallons of water. And as we drink, we sweat, and as we sweat, we drink.

We can't see the superhighway... though we know the road runs just to our south and we hear their Mercedes diesel engines racing through the night, like some muffled cosmic laughter.

Our platoon commands three Humvees, and the vehicles are under IR cover. Ideally, weapons, vehicles, and personnel shielded under the netting will avoid detection by enemy infrared devices. We're not convinced. Why believe in the effectiveness of IR netting when the drink tube on your gas mask breaks every time you don-and-clear during a training nerve-gas raid? When the best method of maintenance for the PRC-77 radio... is the Five-Foot Drop?

I want to come to the defense of free speech, but I know it will be useless. We possess no such thing.

Marine Corps birthday? 10 November 1775, the Marine Corps is older than the United States of America. Birthplace? Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, a gang of drunks with long rifles and big balls... Deadliest weapon on earth? The marine and his rifle. You want to win your war? Tell it to the marines!

Staff Sergeant Siek says, "You are marines. There is no such thing as speech that is free. You must pay for everything you say."

I wish to speak with him honestly and say: I am a grunt... with limited vision. I don't care about a New World Order. I don't care about human rights violations... Amnesty International, my ass. Rape them all, kill them all, sell their oil, pillage their gold, sell their children into prostitution. I don't care about the Flag and God and Country and Corps. I don't give a fuck about oil and revenue and million barrels per day and U.S. jobs.

I have a job. I'll walk the rest of my life. I'm a grunt. I'm supposed to walk and love it. I'm twenty years old and I was dumb enough to sign a contract and here I sit, miserable... in the hairy armpit, swinging in the ball sack, slopping through the straddle trench of the world, and I can hear their bombs already, Mr. Times, I can hear their bombs and I am afraid.

Grunt mathematics: ruck minus ten pounds equals happy grunt. What else can I burn?

Field-fuck: an act wherein marines violate one member of the unit, typically someone who has recently been a jerk or abused rank or acted antisocial, ignoring the unspoken contracts of brotherhood and camaraderie and esprit de corps and the combat family.

... we're fucking the sand and the loneliness and the boredom and the potentially unfaithful wives and girlfriends and the parents and siblings who don't write and the bad food and the fuckhead peaceniks back home... we're angry and afraid and acting the way we've been trained to kill, violently and with no remorse.

The fires, the smoke and mirrors of history have been transposed to our skin.

So here we are, defending a country none of us gives a shit about, eating its neighbors' shit, and burying ours in the sand.





The recruit had made the mistake of using personal pronouns... The recruit is the recruit. The drill instructor is the drill instructor or sir.

He yelled, addressing us all, "I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your nightmare and your wet dream! I am your morning and your night! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will teach you how to kill and how to stay alive! I will forge you into part of the iron first with which our great United States fights oppression and injustice! Do you understand me, recruits?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

"If your daddy is a doctor or if you come from the projects in East St. Louis or a reservation in Arizona, it no longer matters. Black. White. Mexican. Vietnamese. Navajo. The Marine Corps does not care! Your drill instructors do not care! You are now green! You are light green or dark green. You are not black or white or brown or yellow or red. Do you understand me, recruits?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

Now, hands were dickskinners, the mouth was a cum receptacle, running shoes were go-fasters, a flashlight was a moonbeam, a pen was an ink stick, a bed was a rack, a wall was a bulkhead, a bathroom was a head, a shirt was a blouse, a tie was still a tie, and a belt a belt, but many other things would never be the same.





Like most good and great marines, I hated the Corps. I hated being a marine because more than all of the things in the world I wanted to be - smart, famous, sexy, oversexed, drunk, fucked, high, alone, famous, smart, known, understood, loved, forgiven, oversexed, drunk, high, smart, sexy - more than all of those things, I was a marine. A jarhead. A grunt.

I was in the Desert, sending out messages worldwide, clamoring for love with my pen. And with each letter I wrote and sealed, parts of me escaped the Kingdom of Saud. At times I thought I might write myself away, fit my entire body and mind into a few thick envelopes, and that way, as a stowaway, escape the ghastly end that awaited me.





One night between the thirteenth and twentieth of November 1969, I was conceived at the Honolulu Hilton. My father had received a surprise week of R&R. He called my mother from Saigon and told her to be in Honolulu in ten hours, and she called my aunt and asked her to watch my brother and sister. Not expecting my father home until February, she'd been off the pill. I am that old practical joke, the mistake. No one saw me coming.

In the bed, in Hawaii, my parents are fornicating. I cannot watch, and neither can you.

My father was thirty-nine years old and the world seemed a dead, cold place, void of promise. The problems of his psyche had become manifest in his hands. With his fists he beat at the thick chest of the world, but the world ignored him. Of course the world ignored him.





"Thanks, Staff Sergeant."

"Don't thank me. Just don't fucking die."





Too much time and energy are expended during boot camp and subsequent rifle-training sessions convincing the marine that he must covet his weapons system just has he does his girl back home, his girl back home a beautiful and noble creature, and so too his weapons system a beautiful and noble creature, capable of both saving the marine's life and jeopardizing the marine's life, causing him either joy or grief.

The paradoxes of love are the paradoxes of war, the lesson goes, the thing you love most deeply might someday fail you. But when men are at war, the weapons system is simply a system, and those who understand and maintain the system understand and maintain order, and they are more likely to survive, and those who fail to understand the system, they might die faster. This has nothing to do with naming your weapon after your girl or your wife, or likening the deadly system to the tight insides of the girl or the wife. Most weapons systems are made of steel and hard plastic, material nothing like the soft great insides of the woman the marine loves. Systems management. We might just as well call marksmanship training by this name. Anyone can be taught a system. And anyone can wreck a system.

In all of the literature I read, certain words reappeared: uncompromising, highly trained, elite, cruel, shrewd, calculating, hard-nosed, sacrificial, light.

I wanted a thankless mission; I wanted poor odds and likely death; I wanted to give myself over to beliefs that were more complex than the base beliefs of the infantry grunt. The grunt dies for nothing, for fifteen thousand poorly placed rounds; the sniper dies for that one perfect shot.

STA INDOC
ONE SHOT ONE KILL
LEAVE YOUR MOTHER IN KINVILLE
19-23 DEC, 1989
MUSTER AT O-COURSE, 0300 ON 19 DEC
GEAR LIST FROM S-2






I've been in the Marine Corps for less than two years, and I've probably performed this one act, assembly the M16, more than ten thousand times. I break it down again. I wonder if mothers worry because their marine sons live with high-powered rifles always within arm's reach.

Some insist that the suicide is both a coward and a cheat, but I think the suicide is rather courageous. To look at one's life and decide that it's not worth living, then to go through with the horrible act. Millions of people live lives that aren't worth living. Many fewer people end their worthless lives.

To look down the barrel of the gun or over the lip of the pill bottle and say, "This is what I want, that is the world that needs me, better than breath, better than banging my bones through the remainder of these sorry days" - there is the courageous man and woman, the suicide. But I don't own the courage to kill myself.

I must return to the thing I know best, possibly the only thing I truly know: being a jarhead.





The problem with living through war is the false sense that after combat you are untouchable.





The man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war, and afterward he turns his rifle in at the armory and believes he's finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands - love a woman, build a house, change his son's diaper - his hands remember the rifle and the power the rifle proffered. The cold weight, the buttstock in the shoulder, the sexy slope and fall of the trigger guard.





There is a moment when the target disappears, when the shooter sees only the clear, lovely intersection of the reticle, as if a bucket of sun has been poured into his scope, and the light means it's time to pull the trigger. For the best shooting teams this is the exact moment that the spotter begins his soft, religious chant: Fire, fire, fire.

I return to the disturbing nature of the terrain, the lack of variation, the dead repetition, and constantly, the ominous feeling that one is always in the open. The open, we were told as early as boot camp, is a poor place to find yourself. In the open you die, and your friends, when they try to save you, they die. But the whole god damn desert is the open.

There is something meditative in rifle cleaning, as with most tasks that might help save your life.





We turn the inside of our hootch into a circus, and inside of this circus we cannot be injured, inside of our circus we cannot be touched.

But we are insane to believe this.





In the middle of the afternoon the Quantico instructors call the crowd to order and commence classes on the .50-caliber.

The weapon looks truly devastating, as though you might create casualties simply by flashing it on the battlefield. Yes, the motherfucker looks so deadly it makes me giggle and blush.

(I don't know this in January of 1991, but the Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle will become a controversial weapon in America. After the Gulf War, the militia movement and white separatists will latch on to the Barrett as the standard for the individual's potential power against the tyrannical state. The Barrett will make junkyard relics out of "bulletproof" limousines and the safety glass that surround public podiums. Presidential candidates will never stump the same way again when the shooter has an effective range of a mile and a half... Representative Henry Waxman of California will become a major opponent of the idea that your neighbor might own a gun that can fire rounds through your living room and on through the living rooms of the next ten houses down your block.)

From sixteen hundred yards away I'm achieving tight groups and punching armor-piercing projectiles through hardened steel. This is marksmanship magic. But also, this is death - the war moving closer, encroaching upon me. How long before I'm really pulling the trigger? Who is that man quartered in my crosshairs? Who will sight in on me?

I say, "The most effective psychological weapon on the battlefield is the nuclear bomb. And then gas, and the bastards have gas and we don't. Or we won't use it. Tell us, Quantico, are you taking these goddamn pills three times a day? Fuck no, you aren't. In six days you'll be on Virginia Beach drinking rum runners and fucking your wife. They haven't even told us what's in these pills. They tried it on rats, and they say it might be an antidote to nerve gas. Fuck yes, I'll take the pills. But in a year my asshole will turn inside out and start talking to me!"





We haven't talked about body bags for a few months, but we start again. Word is they have about one hundred thousand of the damn things waiting in Riyadh. We wonder if they don't come in sizes, because a small jarhead about Goerke's size, you could fit two and a half of him in a bag that would barely fit a Combs, big Oklahoma bastard as thick all over as a tree.

It's been a few months since the command ordered an official dog-tag check so we perform one of our own - you need at least one around your neck and one strung in the lace of your left boot.

Without looking, I know that my tags misrepresent me as a Roman Catholic. I'd prefer to be known as a nonbeliever, but Johnny says, "I don't care if you don't believe in God and some padre tries to give you the last rites. Anyway, when we get hit, there won't be a priest within miles. Just make certain your blood type is correct. And wouldn't you rather get some useless last-breath religion than the wrong goddamn blood?"

He has a point. And I can't not believe in blood.

Already, I recognized the incompatibility of religion and the military. The opposite of this assertion seems true when one considers the high number of fiercely religious military people, but they are missing something. They're forgetting the mission of the military: to extinguish the lives and the livelihood of other humans.

What do they think all of those bombs are for?

The comfort of dog tags is surrounding yourself with and disbursing so many pairs that there is no way you could possibly die, because your goddamn dog tags are everywhere: in your boot; five pairs hanging from your neck; in your mom's jewelry box; in your girlfriend's panties drawer; buried in your backyard, under your childhood fort; discarded at sea; nailed to the ceiling of your favorite bar in the PI; hidden in that special whore's mattress; hanging around the neck of the mama-san seamstress on Okinawa, the one who sewed your chevrons perfectly every time. There's no way a jarhead with that many dog tags - his name and SSN and blood type and religious preference stamped into so many pieces of metal, spread so far and wide - will die.

This is the only true religion.





I'm a soldier, in a "conflict." A "conflict" is much easier for the American public to swallow than a war. War still has that messy Vietnam feeling - the Vietnam War was not an official war either, but a perpetually escalating conflict with many poor, dead, sad fuckers.

"Welcome to the motherfucker."

... Honey, the war started today, but you already know this, you probably knew before I did.





If we get carved to oblivion out there, it doesn't matter, as long as we don't massacre surrendering Iraqis, and the current mission is to convince the Iraqis to surrender. Somewhere, at regiment or division, or even higher, a major and a light colonel are busy crunching the numbers, and a six-man scout team or a two-man sniper team from a marine infantry battalion have been deemed worth losing.

One of their sergeants tell us that if we get caught in a firefight, dial him up and if he's able, he'll send a squad for us. The sergeant's generous offer is not smart but noble and even admirable, and, if only for a moment, he makes us feel better, or at least loved, loved in the way men love one another before they enter combat - loved as brothers love brothers and fathers love sons and sons love fathers - because they are men and they might soon die in one another's arms.

The patrol must maintain 360-degree control - 357 degrees leaves three slivers of time and space open, and this is where the enemy enters and now you are dead.

Psy-ops helicopters fly overhead all day, playing tapes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, and I'm not sure that we aren't as unnerved by the music as our enemies might be.

Iraqi troops have lit fire to hundreds of oil wells in southern Kuwait, and we're told that they're also spilling crude onto the desert floor. The oil fires burn in the distance, the sky a smoke-filled landscape, a new dimension really, thick and billowing. A burning, fiery oil hell awaits us.





I wanted to be a grunt, a rifleman, I didn't even need to hear what other options existed, and the recruiter supported this choice. "You'll be a fine killer," he'd say to me after our meals.





But before we break off, Staff Sergeant Siek advises us to remove any foreign matter from our rucks.

Word has it that two light-armored-vehicle crew members were blown to fuck yesterday by friendly fire - an A-10 Warthog dropped a bomb on them, by mistake, a big fucking devastating bomb, by mistake - and that among his personal effects one of the two men carried pictures of dozens of girls and women not his wife, as well as letters from and early drafts of letters to the dozens of girls and women not his wife, along with a healthy dose of pornographic material.

The psy-ops bastards continue playing the loud rock-and-roll music. I like rock music, but I don't think it belongs in my war. It was fine in the movies, on the boat with Martin Sheen going up the fake Vietnamese Congo or with grunts patrolling the Ho Chi Minh and as they take a hill and heavy casualties, but I don't need the Who and the Doors in my war, and as I prepare to fight for or lose my life. Teenage wasteland, my ass. This is the other side.





Our rucks are heavy with equipment and ammunition but even heavier with the burdens of history, and each step we take, the burdens increase.

The sky is a dead gray from the oil fires billowing to the north. We hump and hump and look at one another with blank, amazed faces. Is this what we've done? What will I tell my mother?

The back sides of the corpses are charred and decaying, the bottom halves buried in the sand, the sand wind-smeared like cake icing against the bodies, and I wonder if the bottom halves of the men are still living, buried by the mirage, unaware that death lurks above. Maybe the men are screaming into the earth, living their half lives, hoping to be heard. What would they tell me? Run.

The flames shoot a hundred feet into the air, fiery arms groping after a disinterested God. We can also hear the fires, and they sound like the echoes from extinct beasts bellowing to reenter the living world. We can feel the heat.

I reply, Roger, roger. I want to say, Fuck you sir, copy.

Because I'm angry and frustrated over being forgotten and ignored, I tell Johnny I want to shoot one of the Iraqis, and I spend half an hour hopping from head to head with my crosshairs, yelling, Bang, bang, you're a dead fucking Iraqi.

My stomach turns. I vomit. It feels as though I'm regurgitating the last seven months of my life. This is how I welcome the peace.





The mouths of dead men remain open in agony, a death scream halted. Can you hear?

I say, "It's as though they wanted their weapons to fail."

"Their weapons didn't fail," Johnny says. "They failed their weapons."





To be a marine, a true marine, you must kill. With all of your training, all of your expertise, if you don't kill, you're not a combatant, even if you've been fired at, and so you are not yet a marine: receiving fire is easy - you've either made a mistake or the enemy is better, and now you are either lucky or dead but not a combatant.

I have gone to war and now I can issue my complaint. I can sit on my porch and complain all day. And you must listen. Some of you will say to me: You signed the contract, you crying bitch, and you fought in a war because of your signature, no one held a gun to your head. This is true, but because I signed the contract and fulfilled my obligation to fight one of America's wars, I am entitled to speak, to say, I belonged to a fucked situation.

I am alone and full of despair - the same despair that impelled me to write this book, a quiet scream from within a buried coffin. Dead, dead, my scream.

What did I hope to gain? More bombs are coming. Dig your holes with the hands God gave you.





Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn't erase warfare's waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose suns will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry.









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