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An Air Force detail from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. A flag-draped coffin. The family with hands over hearts as Taps mourns over the cemetery. A flag folded into a tight triangle, saluted.

I know why my father joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952. Or rather, I think I know. The Korean War was at its fiercest. There was still a draft. Rather than be drafted, my father joined the Air Force. He wanted to have at least some choice of what branch he served, a choice in the capacity in which he served. Or so that was his explanation.

When I was old enough to understand that some boys had resisted the Vietnam draft, while others had little choice but to go, my father would tell me that I might have to make such a choice—to go or not to go, to join or not to join. At the time, pubescent machismo overran any fears of dying, any moral convictions against killing. Certainly, if I ever had to decide, I would go, I would join up, as my father had, perhaps even go into the Air Force, serve in communications as my father had, with the knowledge that in communications I would likely have a better chance to survive. I would serve my four years and head home, just like my father.

In college, pubescent machismo collided with classic anti-war novels and at least one anti-war film: A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon. The images of blood, gore and death overrode machismo. Soldiering was stupid. War was insane. And yet, because my father had served, I would still have to face my own newly shaping conscience—always the question, to go or not to go, to join or not to join?

I knew I would never join the military on my own; it would take something like another Vietnam to create the dilemma—a dilemma that because of my age I now may never have to face. And yet, then I longed for some kind of institutional acceptance—high school sports, academia, something to give me the sense that I wasn’t always going to be outside of life.

From time to time I would wonder if military service would have met that need. At the same time I wondered why anybody in his or her right mind would join—what kind of person would voluntarily suffer the indignities of boot camp? of leaving family behind for months at a time? the possibility of getting killed or worse, surviving but surviving permanently maimed? Was institutional acceptance worth it, especially when military service had become so separated from civilian life? That’s the question Anthony Swofford tries to answer in his memoir Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles.

As a 17-year-old boy Swofford’s answer seemed clear: “I believed I’d enlisted in the Marine Corps in order to claim my place in the military history of my family …This initial impulse had nothing to do with a desire for combat, for killing, or for heroic death, but rather was based on my intense need for acceptance into the family clan of manhood.

“By joining the Marine Corps and excelling within the severely disciplined enlisted ranks, I would prove both my manhood and the masculinity of the line.”

As his training progresses, as the buildup to the Gulf War progresses, however, Swofford—a Marine sniper—experiences doubts about whether military service was his answer to a need to belong. At one point, he considers suicide, his M16 in his mouth, without the faintest idea why: “It’s not the suicide’s job to know, only to do.”

Why? That seems the guiding question Swofford tries to answer throughout his memoir—he takes us through boot camp, into bars and drunken escapades with prostitutes, he takes us into the desert and the waiting and wondering when or if the shooting will start. The troublesome aspect of the memoir is that Swofford never seems to be able to answer his own question. The memoir’s last paragraph reflects upon losing the opportunity of possibly getting his first kills—instead of sniping an Iraqi observation post Swofford receives orders to call in artillery: “…I think that by taking my two kills the pompous captain handed me life, some extra moments of living for myself or that I can offer others, though I have no idea how to use or disburse these extra moments, or if I’ve wasted them already.”

The institution that Swofford supposedly joined to become a man, he leaves with a sense of bewilderment. The institution is supposed to be fulfilling, the biggest challenge of courage, of manhood, of honor, of leadership offered one in this life.

Swofford’s bewilderment, his search for self while serving as a Marine has received bitter criticism from some fellow Marines—some even extending a sense of betrayal, a sense that Swofford’s whole portrait was untrue, a complete fabrication. The serviceman’s mythos betrayed.

The sense of betrayal is something I don’t understand, and perhaps most civilians wouldn’t. The loyalty to an institution no matter what. The loyalty to a way of life.

When I read Jarhead or Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, I read to understand the military life—a life I’ve chosen not to share in—because I respect that chosen life. I want to close in on the gulf between the military life and the civilian life. And when I finish reading the books I am not sure I know more about that life. No one can really know why someone serves. We can only respect that service, as I did my father’s.

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  • SFC SKI

    I’d say the reasons are almost as varied as those who choose to serve, and also for those who make it a career.

    Both Swofford’s and Bowden books are great books for insight into the military mind, but there are a lot more, and while a lot of the opinions and sentiments will vary dependsing on the authors period of service, as well as his or her experiences, you may find some common themes.

    Good post.

  • louis quinones

    This is SGT Louis Quinones from the 101st Airborne Division heading to Iraq in sep 2005. Trying to get an email address or contact for Anthony Swofford. I was a marine from 87-91 and just loved his book. I was a pog in the marines but now a combat soldier and see so much differences from the army and the marine corps (their are similarities as well). So if anybody has a contact email, please email me. Hooah and/or Ooh-Rah

  • j megna

    Jarhead is indeed a great read, but I think Swofford’s various morality lectures and dubious political statements, particularly toward the end of the book, are a bit gratuitous.
    Of course he’s entitled to his own opinions about the validity and necessissity of the ’91 gulf war, but I don’t think that his award-winning author status gives him license to claim to speak for all, or even most, of his fellow returning combat vets.
    It would have been nice if he’d admitted this somewhere in the book, but rather, he comes across to me as someone who’s claimed the moral high ground and looks down with disgust on everyone who disagrees with him, and for that reason, I think a lot of vets feel betrayed.