by Anthony Swofford
New York: Scribners, 2003. Pp. 260.
Illus, notes, index. $24.00. ISBN:0-7432-3535-5
In uncompromisingly graphic detail this book forces readers to see, hear, smell, and feel everything that is thrown at a young enlisted marine in the early 1990s. We progress through his experiences as though carried in his pocket, attached to his dogtags, or tucked in his skivvies. Like termites we are lodged deep in his mind, and those of his comrades, looking on from the inside at all the insanity outside. This can be an unnerving trip for those of us who were never young men, and perhaps even for some who once were, but not in the military.
Conversations are waves of profanity only occasionally interrupted by a profound word or thought. From boot camp to overseas training in West-Pac – Okinawa, the Philippines and Korea – the young men’s lives focus on the acquisition and consumption of mind-numbing quantities of alcohol. They are awash in the crudest of real and fantasy sex. Training seems almost incidental to the business of drinking and whoring, although at the same time, they become hard, strong and proficient in the art of killing. They clean and care for their weapons like sweethearts, especially those who, like Swofford, are selected for STA, the special scout/sniper outfit.
While flashbacks gradually build up a picture of Swofford’s family, his air force childhood, and his reasons for joining the Corps, the heart of this book is about war. In August 1990 Swofford, who now teaches at a small college in Oakland, California, was sent to Saudi Arabia with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, scout/snipers, of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. A larger picture of what we now call the first Gulf War emerges, but as with everything else in this book it is refracted through the lens of the young marines on the ground. During Operation Desert Shield, Swofford and his outfit swelter in the boredom of hydration tents, struggle with the insanity of the ten pounds of MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) gear which is supposed to protect them during a chemical attack, and endure weeks of “sand and water and sweat and piss.” (p.11) Finally, in February, they move up to the berm marking the Kuwaiti-Saudi border where they take their first shelling, have their first experience of friendly fire, and go on their first combat patrol. With Operation Desert Storm they advance into Kuwait.
Swofford is hardly an average grunt. Both at home and while deployed overseas he carries with him and reads books like The Myth of Sisyphus, The Anabasis, The Portable Nietzsche and Hamlet. And yet his sensibilities are entirely interwoven with those of his comrades. Each man reacts differently to the terrors of war but they all feel it, and through Swofford the reader feels it too—the chaffing of sand in clothes, the smell and taste of petrol rain falling from the oil fires, the gut-wrenching confusion of night action, and the shattering sound of a round passing close overhead. The brilliance of the book is that its ugliness, its immediacy, and its depth of feeling are relieved by a pervasive ironic humor and a strong compassion. By engaging all the senses, Swofford’s brutal honesty has left an unforgettable picture of young men caught up in war.