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When Boys Will be Jarheads

Sam Mendes' film version of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir succeeds in airbrushing the harsh reality of war while obscuring the tragedy.
 
 
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There are two great Hollywood narratives about war. The "good" war version -- think World War II epics -- goes something like this: Boy meets war, discovers courage under fire; boy wins war and comes home/dies a hero. Vietnam and its attendant sorrows brought us a variation on the theme: Boy meets "bad" war, discovers the dark side; boy loses war and comes home a disillusioned but wiser man. Antiwar flicks like Platoon and Apocalypse Now hewed close to the traditional plotline but inverted its value system, redefining true masculinity as an enlightened opposition to the horrors of war.

But all Hollywood movies construct war as a rite of masculinity, a crucible of violence from which the soldier emerges either a stronger, better man or forever destroyed. So, director Sam Mendes was already in trouble the moment he decided to make a movie based on Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead. Here's how this true-life tale of a Gulf War Marine grunt (Jarhead) unfolds: Jarhead meets pointless war, wallows in fear, confusion, and ennui; Jarhead watches the Air Force win the war and comes home, well, a Jarhead.

The young men in Swofford's book are not innocent boys hardened by war into fighting men, but unhappy, insecure kids who desperately seek and fail to find answers to their masculine angst in battle. Or to be more accurate, in the absence of battle that characterizes our age of pyrotechnic warfare, conducted at great distances behind the battle lines and above the ground. The book violates the Hollywood mythology of the warrior in its unflinching portrayal of the bloodlust of twenty-year olds. Where grim-faced men on the big screen kill the enemy out of duty on the sands of Iwo Jima, or in desperation and madness in the jungles of Vietnam, the lads of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition/Scout-Sniper platoon are dreaming of "getting some" long before they get called up for duty on the frontline:

I've spent many hours of my life imagining what my bullets will do to the enemy. The medulla oblongata is the most coveted shot. Entry through the mouth or the eyeball is also acceptable. The Marine does not shoot to injure but only to kill. Sometimes my imagined enemy has been a Russian, sometimes a Chinese, sometimes an Arab, depending on world events and what version of those events I'm receiving or currently involved in.

The book exposes the single greatest lie about war: Heroism among soldiers lies not in facing death but inflicting it upon the enemy. As Swofford puts it, "To be a true marine, you must kill." We don't want to think of our sweet-faced hometown boys as bloodthirsty killers, which is why Hollywood would rather serve us up heroes like a kind and gentle Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan who refuses to kill a German POW with the words: "Every man I kill the farther away from home I feel." We want to believe that even the act of taking life is a personal sacrifice that "our boys" make on our behalf. They kill -- with regret and at great cost to their soul -- so that we don't have to.

To his credit, Sam Mendes does not shrink from showing the soldiers' unseemly enthusiasm for blood. As the Marine squad pumps itself for battle by screening Apocalypse Now , Mendes pans across the faces of the soldiers as they watch helicopters lay waste to an entire village -- including children -- in the "Ride of the Valkyries" attack sequence. There is no mistaking the near-orgasmic expressions of joy on their faces. Then there is the moment when Swofford's friend Troy suffers an emotional meltdown because he is denied the opportunity to take out an Iraqi officer.

Yet the jarheads in his movie remain carefully confined by Hollywood norms. As A. O. Scott observed in the New York Times :

Swoff's comrades are basically stock platoon-movie figures retrofitted for postmodern warfare. There is an irresponsible prankster (Evan Jones), a trash-talking Texan (Lucas Black), a shy, nerdy guy (Brian Geraghty) and a Latino family man (Jacob Vargas) who shows off pictures of his pregnant wife. Sergeant Sykes is the in-your-face, tough-talking leader who shows his tenderness and wisdom at just the right moment as the flames of burning oil wells illuminate his features.

Even Jake Gyllenhaal's Swoff is just one among a long line of brooding, sensitive anti-war heroes -- except with a propensity for luridly sexual language.

More unforgivably, Mendes succumbs to Hollywood's need to airbrush reality. The more unpleasant aspects of jarhead behavior -- in keeping with war movie tradition -- become the preserve of one "bad apple," who is entrusted with the job of offending Arab women, shooting camels and desecrating dead bodies -- over the loud protests of his platoon mates.

Swofford's memory is less kind. Here's how First Sergeant Martinez responds to his men's propensity to vent their frustrated need to kill on dead men in the book:

Because we are U.S. Marines, and honorable, we do not shoot dead men, we do not carve their skulls open with our E-tools, we do not throw grenades into a pit of corpses, and after we don't do these things, we don't take pictures of the resultant damage. If we do take pictures, and the pictures are discovered, we will be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And if we steal weapons or articles of identification or other battlefield trophies from the corpses, we will also be punished under the UCMJ. Carry on.

This is just one of the many scenes in the book that offered Mendes an opportunity to say something timely and relevant about the current war in Iraq -- opportunities he declines in favor of delivering a trite "war is evil" message.

Political commentary aside, Mendes' greatest failure is that he is either unwilling or unable to capture the true genius of Jarhead, which lies not in its exposition of war but of its combatants. Swofford's memoir is singular in revealing the peculiar mixture of self-loathing, anger and confusion that lies beneath the posturing machismo of military life:

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.

But -- contrary to what some antiwar activists may want to believe -- it is not the process of becoming a jarhead that creates this sense of malaise, but rather it is the very disease that spurs them to become a Marine. Swofford's desire to become a Marine is "based on my intense need for acceptance into the family clan of manhood." So when his father rebuffs his first attempt to sign up, the seventeen-year old is devastated:

In a matter of seconds my entire life plan had been altered. I wept. What would I do with myself? I'd already, in my heart, signed the contract and accepted the warrior lifestyle. I wanted to be a killer, to kill my country's enemies. Now I'd have to take the SATs and visit colleges. I'd have to find a part-time job. I'd never live abroad and chase prostitutes through the world's brothels, or Communists through the world's jungles. I needed the Marine Corps now, I needed the Marine Corps to save me from the other life I'd fail at -- the life of a college boy hoping to find a girlfriend and later a job.

Our society offers young men only two badges of masculine success: money or violence, or preferably -- as the title of 50 Cent's new movie Get Rich or Die Tryin' suggests -- some combination of both. No wonder then that a young man with limited prospects would seek a shortcut to manhood in the military. It becomes almost inevitable when even failing in college isn't one of the options on the table.

In its Summer 2005 issue, Radar magazine profiled the men of the 506th Infantry -- the same regiment that became the legendary "Band of Brothers" during World War II -- now stationed in the heart of Sunni Triangle. Only one among them has a college degree, and it's not nineteen-year old David Nash, who explains that the war is no more violent than the place he calls home:

My best friend back home just shot himself. Three days ago. Now I only got one friend left at home who isn't dead or in prison. Just one. Fuck that... There's nothing hard about the army. It ain't even that dangerous for a lot of us, compared to home. It's not even uncomfortable. You should see where half the people in this platoon grew up. Or fuckin' prison. I've seen bad things in Iraq, but I seen bad shit at home, too. One of my friends, we were in a car at a red light and four dudes stopped and lit us up. That was okay: Back home I could get revenge. Here I can't do nothing about it when my friends get blown up. After they shot my friend at the traffic light we went to their neighborhood, some ghetto-ass neighborhood, and took them all out. I killed two of them myself, shot 'em dead.

The antiwar left's well-founded argument about the connection between class and military recruiting does not acknowledge the other, equally compelling reason why young men succumb to the military's allure. These boys enlist for the same reason their peers join street gangs: for the heady cocktail of violence, intense camraderie and sexual aggression that makes them feel like a man. From a poor inner city kid's point of view, there isn't that much difference between becoming a jarhead or a gang member; it's a matter of ducking bullets in the Sunni Triangle or in your backyard. More importantly, fighting in Iraq may actually be the safer option.

Like far too many Hollywood directors before him, Mendes refuses to face the immense complexity of war and the men who fight them. Jarhead the book asks that we accept that all wars -- good or bad -- are brutal and loathsome. That the young men we send into battle will often behave badly irrespective of the reasons for invading Iraq or any other country.

In rewriting Swofford's memoir as a "coming of age" story, Mendes instead reiterates the Hollywood fantasy of war as a male rite of passage. The intimate relationship between masculinity and violence runs deep in our culture, and war is merely one of its many manifestations. There is nothing more dangerous than an insecure nineteen-year old with a gun, be it on the battlefield or the streets of Oakland. The more important question then is whether we can imagine a world that offers him a different path to manhood.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor at In These Times and writes the L-Files for AlterNet.