Monday, November 14, 2005


My friend Rick, a Gulf War combat vet, recently saw "Jarhead", Sam Mendes's film based on Anthony Swofford's book about Desert Shield/Storm. Like Swofford, Rick was there, a young Marine thrown into a situation that was officially described as a "stand" against aggression, but as we now know, was the opening chapter in a larger imperial scenario.

When you talk to Rick, you see just how much that experience shaped him. He wrestles with it still, and given that some of his old comrades served in the current Iraq campaign, part of him remains there. Rick's a deeply sensitive man who takes ideas seriously. When I read the below, I was reminded of the intensity and honesty that Rick brings to a discussion. With his permission, I pass on his thoughts about "Jarhead."

"It has taken me a week to get my mind around this movie. For people interested in a movie that takes one side or another on the current war in Iraq, they will be disappointed. For those who are looking for a monumental movie, such lofty expectations will not be met. As for me, a veteran of that brief but violent war, it hits home.

"It seems that Swofford and I went in the Corps about the same time -- later he went to Cali while I was stationed in Hawaii. From these two bases, however, our units joined in our deployment to Saudi Arabia. And from there many of our experiences were similar, as well as our observations. Observations of those around us as well as circumstances beyond our control. The main character opts for silence until he is confronted with the moment that we all face, where it erupts.

"After the movie, I stood on the sidewalk with my Dad, my girlfriend, and Robert, my best-friend since I was 15. Robert and I came of age during that time in our own respective ways. We led different lives then, both wondering if we had made the right decision, one cheering for the other. I think we both needed to see 'Jarhead' to see if Swofford’s account might bring some insight into that period. As we talked about the film, Robert noticed that in certain scenes, 'Jarhead' borrowed from other war movies, from the burning of the buckets filled with human waste to the mental breakdown scene. 'True' I thought, and there’s a reason for that: those kind of things happened then, and they happen still. I have no trouble imagining a future movie about the current chapter in warfare containing similar scenes. Because where there is war, there are constant images and déjà vu moments. This is because war is insane and robs its participants of everything from dignity to social norms. It asks much of those who are involved. For some it is a total cost of life, and for their families they are left with the inevitable, inescapable question, 'Was it worth it?'

"The simple and obvious answer for the 'greatest generation' of World War II has not been so simple to duplicate since, and it is why the debate over the current war can become so heated. Perhaps it is also why 'Jarhead' falls short in my eyes. It's not the movie or the story itself that I have problems with. If it had come out in 2000, I do not feel my review would be this harsh. It is the context of the world we live in now that lessens it. We never left the Gulf after that War in 1991. And we have upped the ante since. We tried to depict another Hitler in order to do so. It was a lie at worst and a mistake at best.

"I spoke with someone today who asked what I thought of the movie. When I said I admired its tale of one human’s perspective that was apolitical, she said, 'Oh, that’s good, so they didn’t have an agenda they were pushing? Good.' I thought, 'Is it?' I know why Swofford wrote the story he did. I would have done the same thing. But the story has come too late, and the world needs more from us. More from veterans who support and oppose the war today. And a well reasoned explanation for those beliefs. People who think Swofford is neutral in the current prologue are mistaken. I know what that absence of support means. He is separating the warrior from the war. He is saying that what happens to us all is irreversible and is forever. He is saying that the decision should be harder to accept, and that we should not be so eager to change people so irreparably.

"Separating the warrior from his or her experience is difficult to do. One must work at it. It has taken me years to do this and when I finally was able to do so, I came to realize that the cost this time around was too great, in my opinion. Some soldiers never do this, and to those I simply say, 'I love you brothers, and I understand your anger with me for opposing this war. I can only offer you this thought: I would rather you be home and angry with my views than over there for one more day.'

"'Jarhead' is worth seeing, but I doubt it will mean all these things to most who see it. I am too close to this subject to offer an objective opinion. See it for yourselves and judge it accordingly. But for veterans who fought in an unnecessary war, the truth is complex and painful to live with. Another cost that never lessens."