There is success and then there is huge success. “Jarhead” has enjoyed the second kind: best-seller status, fawning reviews and the “relevance” that only war can bring to a book by a military man. Would it be uncharitable to question whether such success has been deserved? Perhaps. Well, then, let us be uncharitable. The author certainly is.
In the opening pages of “Jarhead” (Scribner, 260 pages, $24), Anthony Swofford says that he repeatedly stole and sold the gear of other Marines, knowing it would cost his fellow soldiers weeks of pay and poor fitness reports, compromising their future in the corps. Is he remorseful? Not a bit. And why should he be? He portrays the Marines, generally speaking, as homicidal delinquents.
The New York Times gushed about Mr. Swofford’s “searingly honest portrayal of the combat soldier,” but his combat experience was brief: He experienced no firefights and two shellings in Desert Storm, which caused him to lose control of his bladder. But “Jarhead” isn’t mostly about combat; it’s about arrested development: part dysfunctional family, part boot-camp ritual, part sex and booze, part existential angst, part high jinks and part antiwar cant — e.g., Desert Storm was fought to protect “the profits of companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House.”
Much of the book authentically describes the boring, often comical, routine of infantry in peacetime. (Mr. Swofford served from 1989 to 1991.) But it also tells tales of cruelty and stupidity. Here are a few of the incidents he relates:
• In Saudi Arabia, waiting for Desert Storm, a colonel in an “air-conditioned Land Rover” (really) and a staff sergeant force the platoon to play football in chemical-protective gear and gas masks to entertain the press. It’s around 140 degrees in the suits, so in frustration the platoon seizes a hapless Marine and simulates gang-raping him. The horrified colonel hastily drives off.
• Upset by a transient love affair, the author decides to kill himself. When he puts his rifle muzzle in his mouth, another Marine hits him and snatches away the weapon. The two then go out for a run — and the emotional trauma dissolves.
• When a soldier falls asleep on watch, the author shoves the muzzle of a loaded M16 into his ear. The author twists the barrel slowly, debating whether to murder the man, who is sobbing and begging. After taunting him, the author lets him live.
• On his only patrol during Desert Storm, the author drains his radio batteries listening to news of the war. The next day, he says, he walks back five miles, dodging enemy tanks. Inside his own lines he discovers that the “men are lying naked . . . weapons strewn about.” The debauching company, having heard the war was over, forgot about the patrol, didn’t notice that the patrol hadn’t checked in on the radio, didn’t post sentries and, not least, didn’t see the enemy tanks.
• A few days later, the author’s platoon finds Iraqi bodies. One Marine, “day after day, with his bayonet hacks into [a] torso.” Others in the platoon, including the author, disfigure corpses until the sergeant major lectures them.
Reviewers have praised Mr. Swofford for depicting the “real” truth about the combat infantryman, so let’s do some real math: (1) For his repeated theft, the author deserved 18 months and a Bad Conduct Discharge; (2) for threatening suicide, a General Discharge and a sojourn in a psychiatric ward; (3) for threatening murder, five years and a Dishonorable Discharge.
Far from telling the story of The Universal Soldier, the grunt’s unadorned truth, as reviewers have intimated, “Jarhead” is the over-written memoir of someone who did not experience serious combat. He either told tall tales or committed criminal acts under oblivious leaders whom he does not name. Either way, this is not how combat soldiers behave. “Jarhead” is to nonfiction what “Platoon” was to the movies: an insult to the American infantryman.
Mr. West, a former Marine combat infantryman and assistant secretary of defense, is the author of the novels “The Village” and “The Pepperdogs.”