Military Book Reviews

A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles

Jarhead: Anthony Swofford

Jarhead is a first-person account of Cpl. Anthony Swofford’s[1] experiences as a Marine Corporal between the years 1988 and 1991. Jarhead, aptly named for the high and tight haircuts sported by Marines, touches on the life of an enlisted Marine through the perspective of an immature young adult. The book emphasizes the civil-military divide as a result of the Corps’ indoctrination and the divisions within the Marine Corps. Anthony Swofford gives a vindictive perspective of the Marine Corps by highlighting his love-hate relationship with the organization while simultaneously talking about the creatively destructive outlet that the Corps has given him. The book deconstructs the Marine Corps as a professional fighting organization by arguing that the Corps dehumanizes and corrupts each person through its indoctrination and culture.

The Marine Corps prides itself as a professional organization that fights and wins America’s wars and creates quality citizens of character. Swofford, through his book, subverts the values traditionally found in the recruiting slogans regarding what it means to be a Marine.  Throughout Jarhead, the Marines portrayed are drunkards, mentally unstable maniacs, and philanderers. Swofford, in his account, argues that the Marine Corps, as an organization, fosters these traits. Explicitly stating, “loving the Corps is uncomplicated. The Corps always waits up for you. The Corps forgives your drunkenness and stupidity. The Corps encourages your brutality”.[2]  By ending with that phrase, Swofford argues that the drunken immoral cheating behavior that he and the Marines demonstrate is not because of personal actions but because the Marine Corps has inadvertently fostered this behavior through its brutality. Swofford even subverts the idea of “once a Marine, always a Marine.” Still, instead of emphasizing the positive traits of being a Marine, he summarizes it by saying, “When you’re a jarhead, you’re incapable of not being a jarhead.”[3] Being a Marine or a jarhead to Swofford does not mean being a member of a professional fighting organization; it is instead to be a part of a group of undisciplined savages whose capacity for destruction is allowed a creative outlet in the Marine Corps.

A combat unit’s combat effectiveness is due to its training and sense of comradery. Swofford takes and subverts this idea by instead comparing a combat unit to a dysfunctional family, stating that the “means of dysfunction are also the ways and means of survival.”[4] Swofford attacks the idea that the combat unit itself indicating “the platoon consisted not of elite warfighters but a platoon of young assholes, and his (the staff sergeant’s) safety and welfare, his life, depended entirely on the combat performance of these young assholes.”[5] Swofford in this also argues that a staff sergeant’s care for his marines is a selfish endeavor as opposed to the paternalistic care espoused by Marine Corps doctrine. However, more importantly, Swofford’s characterization of both his comrades and his superiors speaks towards his immaturity.   

Jarhead succeeds at giving a first-person perspective of a young, immature Marine Corporal and his experiences in the Marine Corps. However, Jarheadfalls short in providing an unbiased assessment of what the Marine Corps is. The reason why Jarhead fails is because of both the author’s emotional immaturity and mental instability, which go hand-in-hand. Swofford exhibits traits of a victimhood mentality. Swofford’s mental instability is evident as he fetishizes and fantasizes about his death stating, “I imagine the trip my bullet will take, its movement through cerebrum, cerebellum, corpus callosum, pineal body, medulla oblongata.”[6] This is one of many episodes of Swofford’s negativity and depressed mindset. Swofford’s depression is evident whenever he imagines his girlfriend Kristina unfaithfully sleeping with other men, extrapolating statements such as “she called him a good friend and a great listener.”[7] The result of Swofford’s unique perspective on the Marine Corps is a sensationalized over-dramatic account of what it means to be a Marine.

Jarhead capitalizes on the shock factor as a means to elicit a visceral response and to sell copies. What Jarhead tells the reader about the Marine Corps is that the Corps comprises itself of people from many different backgrounds and that not even its indoctrination can change the inherently unstable or immoral. The danger of this book is taking the book as a reflection of the entire Marine Corps and its individual Marines. The book also provides insights into the challenges that potential Marine leaders, whether non-commissioned officers or officers themselves, face in leading Marines. The value that this book contributes to the Marine Corps writ-large is an emphasis on carefully aligning the branch’s mission with the overall benefit of American society. The Marine Corps must make quality citizens. Jarhead is not a depiction of the Marine Corps at large but is a reflection of his experiences. Still, his book has inadvertently informed the opinions of Americans on what the Marine Corps does as an organization. The Marine Corps should identify and address this culture of Marines within the service, and push a better narrative in its recruiting practices.

ENS Kyle Chiang is a graduate of the U.S Naval Academy Class of 2020. He is entering the submarine warfare community. In the past, he worked at and has published articles as an Intern for the U.S Naval Institute.

Swofford, Anthony. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles. Reprint edition. Scribner, 2005.

[1] Anthony Swofford was a Corporal that served as  Marine Corps Scout Sniper during the Persian Gulf War. He is now an accomplished published author. He was born in Fairfield, CA. His father was a Vietnam War veteran and believes that his grandfather fought in World War II. He has written four other books, and his book Jarhead has become a movie.

[2] Anthony Swofford, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, Reprint edition (Scribner, 2005), 145.

[3] Swofford, Jarhead 119.

[4] ibid., 110.

[5] ibid., 88.

[6] ibid., 71.

[7] ibid., 68.

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