Anthony Swofford's acclaimed new book "Jarhead" bills itself as the chronicle of a frontline Marine Scout/Sniper during the first Gulf War. It is hardly that. This is not a book you might give your son or nephew to help describe your experiences in the Corps. You won't give it to your mom or your wife to help her understand your new post-deployment mindset. It is not technically interesting, historically aware, nor is it even compelling literature. It is, rather, obscene, nihilistic, and insulting to every honorable man or woman who has worn the Marine Corps emblem. In this memoir Mr. Swofford has done a disservice to the Marine Corps, to infantrymen in general and to the legacy of Scout/Snipers in particular.
Upon reading the book, one is asked to believe that scout/sniper platoons are populated with the dregs of the Marine Corps. He doesn't see fit to introduce one character without mentioning the criminal offense that landed that new sniper in his STA platoon. One new indoc had been busted for lusting after a colonel's daughter, another for theft and fraud - throughout the book he describes in depth his own kleptomaniacal, homicidal, suicidal and adolescently sexual compulsions. In short, he never grew up, and hates the Marine Corps for trying to make him do so. His attempts to put his MOS in historical context take up about a page - he briefly explains the origin of the word "ghillie", opines that in World War I German snipers shot from open positions on the battlefield, and that Marines used night vision technology to kill significant numbers of Japanese in the Battle for Okinawa. (They did?) He never gets around to describing his training in much detail, and while he occasionally graces us with a description of the sniper's hardware, it is done merely to illustrate the criminal absurdity of giving great power to simple men.
The author's references to supposedly accurate memories come off often as too contrived and on several occasions simply impossible. For example, he describes the chewing out of an unwilling non-rate by his platoon sergeant as ending with "because I'm an E-6 and you're an E-3!" There is no way that any self-respecting Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps would ever refer to himself as an "E-6" to a Lance Corporal, especially during an ass-chewing. Never, not even in the Wing.
Professor Swofford's contradictions, both practical and literal, abound. He smugly reflects repeatedly on the elite nature of STA, and then dismisses almost all of his platoon members as psychological loose cannons, thieves, beggars, drunkards, lazy, slovenly, untrustworthy slackers. He describes in haughty, offended detail the obscenities bellowed at him in boot camp, then proceeds to fill the entire book with language that one would not at all expect of a professor of literature. This book is inconsistent and devoid of significance, especially in a post-9/11 world. It is brimming, however, with scatological insight, impotent paranoia, decadent navel contemplation.
On one thing he was consistent, however. The author urinated on himself in boot camp while a DI yelled at him, and he did so again while being shelled in the Gulf War. Obviously, his bladder cannot be trusted under stress. We should all get down on bended knee and thank God he never had to actually shoot anyone. In one memorable, though overwrought anecdote, the author depicts in exquisitely revolting detail his time on the crapper-burning detail in the desert. All Marines well know that when in the field, or in a tent city, the least qualified, most undisciplined platoon members would be selected for this choice assignment. For this duty he was well chosen indeed, though apparently he never came to appreciate the lesson in having been given the assignment.
A final word for those who wish to learn more about the Marine Corps Scout/Sniper MOS by reading this book - don't. There isn't enough information about the craft, the service, or the hardware to make it worthwhile. Nor is this a grunt's eye view of the brutality of battle, like Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed at Peleilu and Okinawa" and it is certainly not a rich but readable historical work like Robert Leckie's "Strong Men Armed". He is not Winston Churchill, nor William Manchester, and he is obviously not Carlos Hathcock. The author appears to simply be a whiny, self-indulgent child of the 90's who now contaminates the heads of college students in a sheltered university setting, which is probably right where he belongs. Real Jarheads should be happy to carry on the fight without him.