06 November 2005

Jarhead (Universal 2005)

Like the book, the movie Jarhead follows the enlistment of Anthony Swofford into the US Marine Corps during the late 1980s. He goes through grueling basic training and is then assigned to train as a scout-sniper: elite marksmen who are trained to take out targets with devastating accuracy. It must have been a downtime for the US military. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the world was at peace. What a crappy time for a marine. As luck would have it, long time allies, Saddam Hussein and Iraq were tricked into invading Kuwait. The world cried foul and a coalition of nations positioned troops in Saudi Arabia. Diplomats pushed Iraq to withdraw from its tiny neighbor and the troops waited: some of them waited for upwards of 175 days. It is said that warfare is long periods of boredom interrupted by terror. Swofford’s platoon had to endure just that. Stationed in the dessert, they drilled and fought boredom by talking; guessing when their loved ones would cheat on them; masturbating; and talking about masturbation. The monotony drives Swofford to the edge. He was trained to be this surgical tool: to assassinate key targets from a mile away and instead he drills with his fellow jarheads. Finally the war comes. They move into Kuwait to kick some Iraqi ass. They do get shelled by the Iraqis who promptly retreat. At one point they’re shelled by airborne tank killers—US tank killers. They find evidence of collateral damage; and the Iraqi sabotage of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Do they engage the Iraqis and put all of their training to the test? I won’t spoil the story for you, but sufficed to say: this was a war fought from the air. It was a one-sided war. America was braced for massive casualties but lost more troops to accidents and friendly fire than they did to the Iraqi forces.
Jarhead has so many levels that it brings something new to this well traveled territory. Full Metal Jacket explored this same territory in a 1960s setting. The terror of Saving Private Ryan is almost the opposite of Jarhead. According to cinema, we know how ludicrous the military is: everything from Stripes to Catch 22 to Private Benjamin has taught us that. Jarhead doesn’t move into parody territory, but it does carry an undercurrent of sarcasm: e.g. when a drill sergeant is slapping Swofford in the back of the head and asking Swofford why he’s in the military, Swofford replies, “Sir! I got lost on the way to college! Sir!”
Swofford: the author of Jarhead is the central character of Jarhead. He’s well played by Jake Gyllenhaal who turns in a solid performance as a man who would rather be anywhere else but he needs to earn money for college. The mess of his family is described in a short montage: a depressed mother; an institutionalized sister; a father who managed to never leave Vietnam behind. Swofford is simultaneously eager to snipe his first kills; and repulsed by the disregard for human life that is common in war and in the military.
Swofford’s platoon is made up of losers, rejects, psychopaths and unskilled men who needed the work. Swofford’s spotter, Troy, is played by Peter Sarsgaard: who fills out the role as Swofford’s foil. The supporting cast is rounded out by Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes, leader of his squad. Some of the troops want out. Some who love the marines are about to get tossed. Sykes is the exception: he’s happy where he is and the marines aren’t about to throw him out.
In Vietnam, soldiers were thrown into the fray, mowed down and spat on when they came home. By the time of the first Gulf War, military reconnaissance had become so evolved that air strikes scrubbed out the enemy and troops were sent to mop up. The US military is so good at killing and so good at surviving enemy fire that the majority of their casualties come from friendly fire. The soldiers—especially the marines— are left with this sense of pent-up rage that can’t be satisfied on the battlefield. They’re so effective at warfare that they come home victorious to cheering crowds. Whether it’s a hated Vietnam vet; or a Jarhead who’s getting accolades for surviving boredom—both of them came home feeling they got something they didn’t deserve.

The book, Jarhead is available for sale


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