Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Anthony Swofford

Unscrewing 'Jarhead'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Born into a military family, it's no surprise that Anthony Swofford joined the Marines. He once said that it was a good way to avoid what he considered certain "failure" -- getting married, getting a job, etc.

Even back then, however, Swofford, 35, was a bookworm who dreamed of being a writer. He began with "bad poetry" before going into the military and keeping a journal of his exploits. As fortune -- or misfortune -- would have it, his military career would provide him with more than enough material for a crackerjack book, and a way to face his uncertain civilian future.

Swofford's acclaimed 2003 memoir Jarhead documents his time spent in Saudi Arabia, sitting in the desert, waiting for his chance to fight Iraqis. He was among the first Americans sent to fight in Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Trained as a scout sniper, Swofford's adventures amount to drinking a lot of water, masturbating a lot, and messing around with his colleagues. Yet this memoir cleverly balances ennui with anxiety, and the real with the surreal.

Now a new movie based on Jarhead opens in theaters. Directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx, "Jarhead" resembles the kind of film that Swofford and his buddies devour in the book, films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now that capture the perverse thrill of war in addition to its hellishness. Jarhead is alive and vibrant, yet funny and frightening all at once.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, Swofford shared his enthusiasm for the new movie. "I think it's great. I can't think of a better movie having been made of my book. I think it'll live in the same way that the book has. The book is now passed around from Marine to Marine, and I think the film will be watched by military people as the defining film of the Gulf War."

Upon being reminded of the other major Gulf War film, Three Kings (1999), Swofford remarks, "I like Three Kings. It's more like a heist movie, though. It's a great heist movie."

Swofford, who is currently at work on a new fiction novel, describes his younger self as a "reader and a loner," both before and during his Marine stint. As a kid, he loved Hemingway and Steinbeck, and his character in the film, played by Gyllenhaal, is seen reading a copy of Albert Camus' The Stranger. Nowadays, he counts William H. Gass and Julio Cortázar among his favorites.

"The only classes I ever did well in in high school were English classes," he says. "Those are things that are essential to a writer's education."

After the war, Swofford completed his education and signed up for the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, the same workshop that spawned Raymond Carver. That experience became the catalyst for Jarhead.

Swofford began with his journal, which he describes as "sort of scant." "I had to do research for the larger battle that was going on. Being in a sniper platoon in the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, I didn't know what any other task force was doing. So I had to go through the official histories. But really I was just plowing through memories. Writing one scene would make me remember another scene or even another character."

Both the book and the movie portray Swofford in a potentially unflattering light. In addition to unsavory moments and thoughts, this is a Marine trained to kill who looks forward to the act of killing. These Marines even equate killing with sex, using the same terminology to describe both.

"We happened to be at war in a place where there were no outlets, such as alcohol and women, as there were in Vietnam," he says. "There's an ingrained psychological link between sex and death, and we were at the forefront of death."

Still, he resisted the temptation to tone his story down. "There are things about myself that I didn't want to put in the book, things that are not attractive. So I had to fight that urge; it was like getting ego out of the way. I could have written a flattering portrait of myself as a young Marine, but it would have been a much lesser book. Joan Didion has a great line about how writers are always selling someone out. I think the memoirist must sell him or herself out."

Swofford was ultimately brave enough to trust that people would embrace the complex portrait of himself, stuck in a harsh and violent, but also very exciting world. Also, by presenting the truth as clearly as he could, he managed to avoid simplistic labels like "pro-war" and "anti-war."

"The fact is that most guys who are there fighting and killing, they're not pro-war," he says. "They want to kill people, but they don't want to kill people -- they don't necessarily want to see people suffer. There's a difference. 'Pro-war' and 'anti-war' are convenient tags here in the States, but they're not very important to the guys on the ground with the rifles."

October 24, 2005

Movies Unlimtied