Jarhead documents Swofford’s time in the US Marine Corps in the run up to Gulf War One – as a personal insight into the American war machine and the daily life of a scout/sniper both in preparation for and within the actual theatre of war, Jarhead is a compelling ground level description. Far more fascinating though is Swofford’s analysis of his own reasons for joining the Corps and the ambivalent mentality of those who serve within it, simultaneously wishing for nothing more than combat and hoping they will never see combat.
Swofford perfectly captures the Marine Corp for what it is – a tool of force, whose soldiers are frankly uncaring of the politics behind their orders (even if they disagree with those politics) but are wholly consumed with precision business of 21st century killing. To be primed to kill and yet remain wholly human is the tension that exists for every soldier and Jarhead’s brilliance is how Swofford captures this continual movement back and forth over the line. This is a short but perfectly formed book, with a prose style that places the reader straight amongst the high-octane and profane thoughts and actions of the grunts, that explores the undeniable glamour of war alongside its insanity and remains wholly unsentimental in its depiction of an elite combat unit.
Jarhead is neither a celebration or condemnation of Swofford’s time within the military, but an attempt to bring together the mass of disparate threads and emotions that training and serving as a marine produces on its subjects. It’s a sobering reminder that while those who serve in the Forces are at a peak of physical fitness and mental alertness unrivalled by most of those outside a military context, there is sometimes a price to be paid for achieving those heights whether or not the call to combat is made.