That Other Gulf War

Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. That same day, Marine Cpl. Anthony Swofford's platoon of scouts and snipers was put on standby at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base in the Mojave Desert. A week later they shipped out for Saudi Arabia. But before shipping out, Swofford reports in his honest, ugly gulf-war memoir, "Jarhead," they rented every Vietnam War movie they could find.

"There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar," he writes, "that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill." Swofford disagrees. "Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended." Civilians may weep at the films' murderous inhumanity, but soldiers "are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills... Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man." It doesn't matter how many civilians are antiwar, he argues. "The actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not."

Swofford the writer is much wiser, much more humane than the 18-year-old who enlisted in the Marine Corps (because that's what Swofford men did), but he never tries to improve the image of his barely adult self. He got hooked by the brass-balls rap of the recruiters who beguiled him with tales of the whores who awaited him in Okinawa and the Philippines. And if he was smart enough to see through the high-minded rationales for the gulf war, he was still dumb enough to buy into the macho elitism of the Marines.

Joel Turnipseed's forthcoming "Baghdad Express" offers a slightly more distanced view of the Corps, and of the life of the modern American soldier. Swofford was a frontline sniper, a one-shot-one-kill guy with an unobstructed view of the carnage, and little in the way of second thoughts. Turnipseed was a college philosophy student who happened to be a Marine reservist called up to active duty. He, too, saw carnage, and was often frightened by what he saw, but unlike Swofford, he never frightens us. The uniform notwithstanding, Turnipseed is always a human being, more like his civilian readers than not.

But for that very reason, Swofford's book is ultimately the more valuable. Both men write evocatively, but Swofford writes from the point of view of the killer he was trained to be. He offers little in the way of apology for that young man--except insofar as the whole book is an apology. He means to scare us, and he succeeds, largely because he allows us no hope. "Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought," he concludes, "but this doesn't erase warfare's waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry." If you want a clear-eyed sense of what might be going on today in the staging areas surrounding Iraq, a view stripped of cant, hypocrisy and the bloated lies of officialdom, read "Jarhead" and "Baghdad Express." But start with "Jarhead"; it's the one you really need.