Remember Operation Desert Storm, the other Persian Gulf War, the prequel to the sequel, the dress rehearsal for a military campaign that continues to this day, with few signs of a final curtain? Remember Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guard? Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf and the Highway of Death? George Bush and the New World Order? Remember Scud missiles? Smart bombs? Remember CNN, broadcasting live from the Al Rashid Hotel? Remember "No Blood for Oil"?
Ah, it seems like only yesterday, when in fact it was 15 years ago. "The Simpsons" had just debuted. So had "Seinfeld." David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" had everybody scratching their heads. Meanwhile, over on PBS, the wine-and-cheese crowd was dutifully slogging its way through Ken Burns' almost-as-long-as-the-thing-itself documentary series, "Civil War." Julia Roberts was still basking in the glow of Pretty Woman. Macaulay Culkin was Home Alone. Grunge rock was around the corner. And so was the World Wide Web.
Gas was $1.17 a gallon.
Like most wars, "The Desert" ' as it was known to the men and women who fought in it ' had its share of indelible images. Who can forget those Kuwaiti oilfield fires, flames licking the sky, the thick clouds of smoke turning day into night? Or those Iraqi soldiers, hands over their heads as they walked straight into the line of fire, the only thing separating this life from the next a scrap of white paper or a piece of white fabric? Or how about the aerial bombardment of Baghdad, which resembled nothing so much as a videogame ' Space Invaders without the joystick.
If Vietnam was "the living-room war," jolting Mom and Dad out of their La-Z-Boy recliners with its televised carnage, Gulf War One was the game-room war, lulling us into a state of suspended animation. In fact, so weightless were its effects outside the theater of operations that French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, employing abstruse theories understood only by him, argued that the war "did not take place." Or, as one commentator put it at the time, "Desert Storm was in reruns before it was over."
How are we supposed to remember a war that was already being forgotten while it was still being fought?
Enter Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's testosterone-fueled memoir, which has now been made into a testosterone-fueled movie by Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Named for the high-and-tight haircuts that distinguish them from warriors of the past, jarheads are the G.I. Joes of today's Marine Corps, their rallying cry: "Get some!" And Swofford, a military brat who joined up because he couldn't think of anything better to do with his life, takes us deep inside their hearts and minds, not to mention their testicles.
He also takes us along for the ride as he sweats out boot camp, trains as a scout/sniper, then ships out for the Arabian Desert. With The Myth of Sisyphus, The Portable Nietzsche and Hamlet (everything you need to know about him) tucked into his rucksack, Swofford isn't exactly your average soldier, but he's nevertheless a card-carrying, dues-paying member of "the Suck," which is how Marines refer to their beloved organization. And at times he writes like one: "I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers," he reveals.
So much for the eloquent reserve of Ernest Hemingway, who almost literally bit his lip while bidding A Farewell to Arms. World War I was such a devastating affair that memoirists had to underplay its horrors, lest they leave their readers numb. World War II was similar. But the Vietnam War, which went on and on, each day a little crazier than the day before, opened the rhetorical floodgates. Michael Herr's Dispatches, clearly a model for Swofford, read like the rantings and ravings of a psycho-ward inmate ' war as the ultimate bad trip.
Swofford's prose is just as overheated but not quite as disillusioned. He's both gung ho and tired of this shit. "Like most good and great Marines, I hated the Corps," he writes. And somehow the book manages to shout "Semper Fi" while letting the whole damn outfit have it with both barrels. As for the engagement he engaged in without firing a single bullet, Swofford both "resented the easy victory that just scraped the surface of war" and thanked his lucky stars that he left the godforsaken place without any blood on his hands.
How to get Swofford's complex views from the page to the screen? Mendes and scriptwriter William Broyles Jr. have bent over backwards to capture the book's sense of full-throttle idleness ' all that build-up to a climax that may or may not come. And the result is a grunt's-eye view of a war most of us had to strain our necks to get a decent look at, the press having been in bed with ' excuse me, embedded with ' units assigned by the Pentagon. If nothing else, Jarhead puts us smack dab in the middle of the desert, inhabiting foxholes that, like sand castles, keep drifting away.
But first it puts us through basic training, an experience that's eerily reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket, where a sadistic drill sergeant (is there any other kind?) systematically converts human beings into killing machines. Like Swofford, Mendes is well aware of the war movies that have come before. He even includes a screening of Apocalypse Now where the jarheads, oblivious to the movie's satiric overkill, hoot and holler as a helicopter squadron destroys a village in order to save the village, all to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
To them, even anti-war films are pro-war films, if they contain the requisite blood and guts ' orgies of pornographic violence. And perhaps no movie in the history of cinema has gone farther than Jarhead in depicting the average soldier ' the average Marine, anyway ' as a legally sanctioned goon, a sexual psychopath who's both fiercely homophobic and blatantly homoerotic. No wonder Jake Gyllenhaal's Swofford stands out like a sore thumb. He politely refuses to hump everything in sight.
Gyllenhaal wouldn't have been my first choice to play Swofford ' too soft around the edges, too much gentleness in those eyes. (Where's Ben Affleck when you finally need him?) He's bulked up a lot, but even his muscles seem smooth, delicate. Swofford may have always been a bit of an odd man out, but the book gives us a pretty good idea of who he was and who he thought he was in danger of becoming. Gyllenhaal's Swofford, despite the wide use of voice-over narration, remains something of an enigma, the unknown soldier.
Unknown soldier, unknown war ' Mendes may be after something here, the empty feeling left behind by Gulf War One, which wasn't quite like other wars. "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came," the old line goes. Well, suppose everybody came and there wasn't a war. A large part of Jarhead consists of Swofford and the rest of his platoon sitting or standing around, waiting for something, anything to happen. They were there for months before a shot was fired, the objective being to kill time instead of Iraqi motherfuckers.
That leads them into the kind of irreverent, even absurdist humor that fueled such movies as M*A*S*H and Catch-22. When the press shows up for a photo op, the platoon's sergeant, rendered much kinder and gentler than the book version by Jamie Foxx's lightweight performance, organizes a touch-football game in full chemical-warfare gear. It's like watching little green men cavort on the surface of the moon. Jarhead is, at heart, a service comedy ' "McHale's Navy," only with a lot less water.
A lot less water and a lot more adrenaline. All dressed up with nowhere to go, Swofford and his fellow jarheads instead go a little stir-crazy. You can only disassemble and reassemble your rifle so many times before you find yourself pointing it at someone ' in jest or in earnest, who knows? Then paranoia sets in, via the gonads. Denied the release they seek, the men start to imagine all sorts of scenarios involving their wives and girlfriends back home. Hence, the Wall of Shame, a photo gallery devoted to infidelity real and imagined.
So, a comedy, but with a bitter taste in its mouth. Then things turn serious. When the artillery shells start exploding around him, Swofford neglects to jump into his foxhole, just stands there, calmly peeing his pants. "My combat action has commenced," he says to himself, rather formally, as if conducting a ceremony, an ancient rite of passage. And the movie, which has been moving along at a nice clip from the beginning (thanks to dazzling editing by the legendary Walter Murch), suddenly slows down ' that's right, slows down ' to enjoy the scenery.
War movies have been conjuring up Dantean infernos almost since the discovery of fire, but rarely have they matched the work done by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins. When the platoon comes upon the charred corpses left behind by the air sorties, it looks like ground zero at Hiroshima ' bodies frozen in poses they will hold forever, monuments to themselves. And when the fires are lit, oil droplets drip from the sky, drenching the soldiers in the lifeblood of the West ' liquid gold.
"Fuck politics," one of them had said when another one brought up the Texas oil companies that came rushing to Kuwait's defense. Like the book, the movie isn't very interested in what got us into the war. It's interested in who fought the war and what kind of war they fought. How do you distinguish yourself in battle when there's no battle per se? How do you "get some" if there's none to be gotten? One platoon member's answer, which confuses esprit de corps with esprit de corpse, makes the abuses at Abu Graib look like mere child's play.
For a brief moment, it seems as if Swofford won't have to violate the Geneva Conventions to make his trip to the Middle East worth his while. With only hours left before the official Iraqi surrender, he's assigned the task of taking out an officer in the Republican Guard ' one-shot/one-kill, from a thousand feet ' and we're suddenly reminded that he's a trained assassin. For a sniper, success is measured by "the pink mist," a direct hit to the medulla oblongata, which releases a spray of blood and brain. Swofford is about to get some.
Or not. And when his spotter, a mysterious figure played by Peter Sarsgaard, realizes they may not get a single shot off the entire damn war, he throws a temper tantrum, then dissolves into a puddle of tears. Alas, we have no real idea what Sarsgaard's character is supposed to be. A good guy? A bad guy? A crazy son of a bitch? Mendes hasn't kept as close a watch over the performances as he might have. They don't mesh, nor do they add up to more than the sums of their parts. Even Swofford seems a little thinly conceived, dramatically AWOL.
Despite these lapses, the movie has a strong sense of verisimilitude. We feel like we're getting the real deal, whether we are or not. And when you compare it to Three Kings, which actually took a stand on the Bush administration's decision not to go on to Baghdad (and entertained the hell out of us while doing so), Jarhead may have a slight edge, if only because it doesn't resort to heist-movie conventions to hold the audience's attention. Three Kings was about soldiers of fortune. Jarhead is about soldiers of misfortune ' i.e., soldiers.
Thus far, the only other major movie about the first Persian Gulf War was 1996's Courage Under Fire, where Denzel Washington tried to determine whether Meg Ryan, a downed Medevac pilot, had acted like a hero or a coward. A Rashomon-like search for truth, Courage Under Fire could have been set during any war, whereas Jarhead, a work of art meant to last, embraces the universal and the particular, reaches for the sky while remaining buried in the sand. "Every war is different," Swofford concludes. "Every war is the same." That's true of war movies as well.
More a pre-war film than a war film, Jarhead will be remembered for its air of Beckettian absurdity, the sense that the war, even once it finally arrived, let the warriors down, turned them into spectators. "Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss," Swofford wrote, evoking the eternal hope and despair of Waiting for Godot. And the movie has caught the memoir's existential anxiety, the hysterical ' in both senses of the word ' musings of a stranger in a strange land, one who just happens to be reading Camus' The Stranger.
As for the war itself, it will have to find its place in America's centuries-long military parade. At first, it looked like one of those mini-wars, another Grenada, Libya or Panama. Now, it's starting to look like the warm-up act for a show that could go on for years, with plenty of blood and guts to go around. "By God, we've killed the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," Bush the Elder proclaimed as the jarheads were packing up their gear and heading back to the states. Perhaps someday in the future, thanks to Bush the Younger, we'll speak of the Persian Gulf syndrome instead.