Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, by Corporal Anthony Swofford, isn’t the kind of book I’d usually grab from a book sale table. I wandered around the Glendora Library one Saturday looking for old hymnals to use for an art project, and stumbled upon this book amidst the others. I knew this had been made into a movie about Marines, I’d seen bits and pieces years ago when my brother was off on deployment. I added it my pile of book purchases, telling myself it would be a good read in the month before Veteran’s Day.
And I was correct.
This book is every bit as gritty and filthy as I expected a tale of the life of a Marine to be. However, what it has done is bring such humanity to the story of men and women serving our country in our modern age. I grimaced and shuddered through much of it, imagining the wonderful people I know who serve and have served undergoing this kind of torture and distress.
The author, Anthony Swofford, is an incredible writer with a remarkable skill for making words fit together to describe the grueling day-to-day life of a Marine. I particularly appreciated the way he authored the tale to be read and understood even by civilians.
I read this paragraph on page 73 and then just sat, staring at it:
“Troy snaps his fingers as he runs, a trick his high school track coach taught him to keep on pace. Our boots slap the sand with the sound of a theater curtain falling. And we are actors running around the stage. We are delivering our lines as we run. We are proving to the great theater director of All Time that we are ready for war or whatever. We can run all night, and we will run all night, through the sand, in circles around our fake encampment. The wagons are circling. We are the wagons. We have no reason to challenge one another this way, to prove anything to one another, there is nothing to prove, there is no challenge. We are the same body. We are nearly the same brain. We are running ourselves into the earth, literally; we run a path around the fence, like wild animals circling prey they don’t yet know how to eat.”
As an American citizen with so many rights and freedoms, it is depressingly easy for me to forget what it means for so many men and women, some much younger than I, to leave home and enter this theater of war. I find that term, theater of war, so fascinating, and it settled into a groove in my mind as I read that paragraph about the men being actors, running, delivering lines, proving something to the “great theater director of All Time”.
In warfare, a theater is an area or place in which important military events occur or are progressing. A theater can include the entirety of the air, space, land and sea area that is or that may potentially become involved in war operations.
It is a military term, to be sure, but it is also a term that denotes the place where actors perform, where roles are played and adventures take place on a small stage. For many young people, the military is that, a place where they accept a title, a role, a part to play for a certain amount of time. As they accept that role, they become it. They weren’t always soldiers, but now they are. With every minute in that theater, the part they play on the outside becomes more and more a reflection of their insides, rather than the other way around. And for many of them, it seems, they weren’t always soldiers, but from then on, they always will be.
The theater of war is tragic for the loss of so many, and the grieving families who are left behind. To me, though, what is just as tragic are those who live through wars and carry that weight, that burden, with them every day. Swofford wrote this, describing a conversation with someone denouncing the war and America’s part in it…
“I told her quite confidently that our war was important not because of duration or the number of dead and tortured and burned, but simply because we’d been there and only so many men know the horror of war and the fear, and they must suffer it, no matter the war’s suspected atrociousness, because societies are made, in part, by the men who have fought. I told her that the importance of a war is never decided within years and certainly not within months, but rather in decades, or even centuries. After V Day the vision of the victors is obscured by champagne and skirts and parades, increased profit, decreased loss, and joy, for the war is over and the enemy dead. The war is over and the enemy dead. I said, ‘The value of every war is negligible.‘”
I can’t imagine what it’s like to carry this weight, but I am thankful, especially for the men I know, who have carried it and who continue to. I remember you. You are not forgotten.
Veteran’s Day this year is Tuesday, November 11th.