For some reason I have avoided reading Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead until now. I suppose I thought it would be all gung-ho on war. I just didn’t know and wasn’t sure I could take it. But then a friend mentioned she was reading it and how kick ass she thought it was and so I decided to read it, too, and boy am I glad I did.

Swofford’s memoir is not just of his time as a Marine during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, it is of how one becomes a Marine–makes that decision to give up personal freedom and train to kill–and how one then, afterwards, tries to once again become a civilian, an un-killer.

Written in clear, clean prose, the book waffles back and forth between harrowing self-reflection and stoic observation, moments of perversion and moments of bravery, but where it never wavers is in its honesty: How this one person saw the world he existed in.

In doing so, at some points he speaks for them all–and one of the great tragedies of it for this reader is that even though it has been over a decade since this war, he might as well be writing about today:

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 is 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 and being deployed to protect oil reserves and the rights and profits of certain American companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House and oblique financial entanglements with the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, and the commander in chief, George Bush, and the commander’s progeny.

And so how does a young man who sees his situation so clearly end up here? The answer is that it is both a career, an expectation, and something inexplicably ingrained:

Before me my father had gone to war and also my grandfather, and because of my unalterable genetic stain I was linked to the warrior line. I knew at this early age that despite what some politicians and philosophers and human rights advocates and priests insist, war is about revenge, war is about killing others who have killed and maimed you. After war there might be peace, but not during.

And also, this explanation:

I joined the Marine Corps in part to impose domestic structure upon my life, to find a home. But Marine Corps domesticity always ends. As much as you love your fellow jarheads and love field life and training and firing weapons, you will someday have to leave the Corps, a least spiritually, and find a partner and possibly have children and create a realistic domestic realm. The simple domesticy of the Marine Corps is seductive and dangerous. Some men claim to love the Corps more than they love their own mother or wife or children–this is beacuase love the Corps is uncomplicated. The Corps waits up for you. The Corps forgives your drunkeness and stupidity. The Corps encourages your brutality.

The love is not just ideological, it is also physical, comforting–ultimately in the face of death and killing, it is humane:

Welty solicits hugs. He has many takers, and when I finally leave from under the vehicle, I hug Welty and he hugs me and I feel better for a moment. I’ve never cared much for Welty, a loudmouth, a good marine, and a great shooter, but a very agitating person. But I think his hug idea is sound, and eventually everyone in the platoon has hugged Welty. We are about to die in combat, so why not get one last hug, one last bit of physical contact. And through the hugs Welty has helped make us human again. He’s exposed himself to us, exposed his need, and we in turn have exposed ourselves to him, and for that we are no longer simple grunt savages in the desert ready to jump the Berm and begin killing.

The group has been broken down: It is not just a platoon, a singular entity, it is a group of individuals who believe they are about to die, or kill. We should never forget that.

That is the big message I take: Never forget that those engaged in war are individuals in need of love and comfort and sympathy and empathy. Never forget how they might have ended up there. Do not forget that and do not forget them.

Also, never forget that the rich and the powerful are not on the ground fighting the wars. They are not now and they never will be. It is the men and women who are guided by their principals, their sense of self (or lack there of), their desire to prove something, and, often their seeming lack of choice due to poverty or politics or sense of duty.

This is an important book and I hope that you will consider reading it, just as I hope you will, on this Memorial Day weekend, think of all of those souls who are off fighting wars, who, I’m sure, would much rather be fishing in Crawford, Texas on a day like today.

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