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The Horror Is Seductive

Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies;
Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man.
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse….

—Henry V

1.

The volunteer military has always been most enthusiastically, even devoutly, embraced by those who would not themselves dream of volunteering—or of encouraging their children to do so. Among the 535 members of Congress, just one—Senator Tim Johnson (D–South Dakota)—has an enlisted son in the Iraqi combat zone. Senator Johnson’s son, a staff sergeant in the 101st Airborne, has also been in harm’s way in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan—four wars in five years; only a handful of others on Capitol Hill have offspring in the ranks. The country may have been on fire with war fever, but not many young men and women sold the pasture to buy a horse. The last time that happened was in World War II.

In a recent New Yorker “Comment,” Roger Angell counted off nineteen friends, relatives, classmates, colleagues, and acquaintances who were killed or maimed in the air, on land, and at sea, Atlantic and Pacific, in France and Italy, on Saipan and Tinian and Wake Island. What was shocking about Angell’s piece was how matter-of-fact it was, how expected that war might bring death, how alone these men had been, without “embedded” correspondents to report their agonies on 24/7 news (“Target: Schweinfurt”), and how the presence of death had seemed a commonplace bad card in the nation’s winning hand.

Early last December, Richard Morin in The Washington Post reported the results of a poll conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics on the attitudes of 1,200 randomly selected college students toward a possible war with Iraq. Nearly seven in ten respondents said that the United States should take military action against Saddam Hussein, with a bare majority—51 percent—saying that any such deployment should be part of an international effort under the auspices of the United Nations. But when asked if military conscription might be an option to strengthen the overstretched American armed forces, the result was an overwhelming no—67 percent, or almost as many as favored the solution of force. Only 24 percent of those polled said they would “eagerly serve,” but one can wonder how that number would shrink when the letters began to arrive ordering the recipients to report for their pre-induction physicals. For interns at The Weekly Standard or National Review, where the martial instinct finds its most insistent voice, what Robert Kagan calls the military “career path” is not widely seen as a plausible future. Pulling a trigger is what José, Tyrone, and Bubba do, not early admission students at the better private universities.

That the enlisted volunteer military has often been characterized as a Hessian force of the unlettered and underprivileged, many of color (and in higher proportion than their civilian numbers), tends to a truculent defensiveness on the part of its most fervent supporters. The Duke of Wellington, however, was under no illusions about the quality of men in the ranks. “The mere scum of the earth,” he said, and again: they “have all enlisted for drink.” It was a recurring theme: “People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling—all stuff—no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children—some for minor offences…you can hardly conceive such a set brought together.” But Wellington knew that even if “none but the worst description of men enter the regular service,” they could—and can—be welded into a fearsome army, brave and resolute under the most withering conditions. He was a firm believer in corporal punishment, “a wholehearted flogger,” as John Keegan writes in The Mask of Command, and relied on the cat-o’-nine-tails to enforce the discipline that turned a rabble into an army. “He also hanged and shot,” Keegan adds almost as an afterthought. “Like every army of which we have records from the sixteenth century onwards, Wellington’s carried on its books a body of executioners.”

The cat and the noose have fallen out of favor; those most committed to a professional soldiery that does not include themselves seem to think that the maximum censure these young men and women need when they get out of line is not the lash but a stringent talking to, as when a child is grounded for violating the school dress code or indulging in controlled substances. People with a fondness for the military search their memories and Rolodexes for someone wearing the colors other than the maid’s son or a limo driver’s daughter. One hears the same names regularly invoked: the historian’s son, the novelist’s nephew, the sons of both a retired columnist in San Francisco and a newsmagazine correspondent in the Middle East, the top aide to a senior Democrat, the conservative pundit’s boy; this makes six, most not actually known personally to those who bandy their names, but known about, and used to counter the Hessian argument.

Consider the case of Pat Tillman, the twenty-five-year-old defensive back who gave up a multiyear $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals and joined the army last spring, at $18,000 a year, in the hope of becoming a Ranger. Private Tillman became an instant celebrity and a shining example on talk radio and among the punditocracy. “In this war, not only the sons of the poor are enlisting,” read the headline on Peggy Noonan’s column in The Wall Street Journal, a refrain quickly picked up and repeated. “Now more and more I see the sons and daughters of the privileged joining up,” Ms. Noonan wrote. It is a stirring idea, but begs the next question: Who was the second NFL player to enlist? Or the first major-league baseball player? Are Derek Jeter and Mike Piazza going to exchange their Louisville Sluggers for M16s? Hank Greenberg joined up in World War II, even before Pearl Harbor, and so did Bob Feller, and dozens of other major leagu- ers, stripping team rosters to the point that in 1945, the center fielder for the St. Louis Browns, Pete Gray, had only one arm.

Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the most unsentimental government official in living memory (and incidentally a Princeton classmate of mine), gets almost gushy when he talks about the American military today, making its members sound like the latest sophomore section at Cap and Gown, his Princeton eating club. “We have people serving today—God bless them—because they volunteered,” Rumsfeld said at a press conference early last January as the Bush administration prepared for war. “They want to be doing what it is they’re doing. And we’re just very lucky as a country that there are so many wonderfully talented young men and young women who each year step up and say, ‘I’m ready; let me do that….’”

In that same press conference, Rumsfeld dismissed the idea of conscription put forward by two black congressmen, Charles Rangel and John Conyers, both Democrats and both Korean War veterans. During Vietnam, Rumsfeld said, draftees added “no value, no advantage really to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time.” It took several weeks before anyone investigated Rumsfeld’s assertion, and then it was pointed out that however valueless and disadvantageous the secretary thought the contribution of Vietnam draftees, nearly 21,000 of them were killed in Southeast Asia, or 35 percent of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial. At first Rumsfeld tried to tough it out. His flack, Victoria Clark, complained in a letter to The Washington Post that the secretary’s remarks had been “misconstrued,” and that “other outlets reported the story without the inflammatory implications.” But by now the flame on the burner was too high, and two days later Rumsfeld apologized to the American Legion and other veterans organizations. “The last thing I would want to do,” Rumsfeld said in his statement, “would be to disparage the service of those draftees.” One heard the sound of gritted teeth.

2.

One reason Vietnam lives is that a number of very good writers wrote a number of very good books about life under fire in a strange, faraway, and misunderstood land—Philip Caputo, Tim O’Brien, William Broyles, Ron Kovic, Michael Herr, James Webb; the list goes on and on, but of course so did the war. About the first Gulf War, however, the books were mainly written by “policy” analysts interested in reshaping the Muslim world, or by correspondents who stitched together their battlefield dispatches, adding an overview that did little to conceal the stitching. It was not just that the war was so brief; in a force where a high school diploma or a GED certificate represented for most the academic summit, the literary life was neither an available nor an enticing option. One unfortunate result is that in retrospect we know more about the psychotic veterans of that conflict—Timothy McVeigh, say, or John Allen Williams, aka John Allen Muhammad, one of the two DC-area snipers—than we do about the men and women who served honorably, fought, came home, mustered out, or settled in as military lifers not unlike First Sergeant Milton Warden and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in James Jones’s From Here to Eternity.

All this is by way of welcoming Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, a bracing and unforgiving corrective to the spectator patriotism so prevalent today. Jarhead—the title comes from the Marine haircut, shaved to the skull on the sides, a jar of hair left on top—is derivative in the sense that all stories about coming of age in the military are derivative, are indeed, as Samuel Hynes maintains in his 1997 book The Soldiers’ Tale,1 a single coherent story whatever the changes in centuries, armies, weapons, or battlefields. Swofford’s boot camp and drill instructors might have been mine in basic training at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, four and a half decades earlier, although Marines think that one might as well be a civilian as be in the Army, with its effeminate (the politically correct version of the word actually used) berets and baseball caps and unit badges. To this day, I can conjure up Corporal Harber and the way he used the red plastic helmet liner worn by training NCOs as a weapon. He would clasp his hands behind his back and drum the helmet liner against your forehead or the bridge of your nose; he of course never touched you physically—his helmet liner did. Corporal Harber was nineteen, and he screamed in what to my New England ears was an incomprehensible Southern accent. He was terrifying, spraying your face with saliva as he put his considerable nose tight against yours, and God help you if you flinched.

Swofford enlisted at seventeen. He was a military brat, and not atypically the product of a seriously troubled family; siblings were estranged or institutionalized (a sister who periodically tried to kill herself), and the marriage of his parents held together as if with masking tape until it finally tore itself apart. His father was an Air Force career man, not a flier but an officer who had built landing strips in the jungles of Vietnam; he was also an alcoholic. The Marines offered Spofford respite from the domestic guerrilla wars. His recruiters, both ser-geants, called him buddy, and pal, and dude; they offered the majesty of the Corps and its Few Good Men, and then in private conversations, when mother and father were not around, opportunities not mentioned in the brochures and television commercials—the best blowjobs in every Marine port of call from Bangkok to Athens, and the low cost of bargirls who catered to every taste and fetish (forty dollars for a threesome, for example, at Olongapo, PI). “I’d had sex three times,” Swofford writes, “and been the recipient of five blow jobs and fourteen hand jobs. I was sold.”

The Marines seemed a better home than the one he had: “Loving the Corps is uncomplicated. The Corps always waits up for you. The Corps forgives your drunkenness and stupidity. The Corps encourages your brutality.” As it did right from the start. “Tony will be a great Marine,” one of the ser-geants told Swofford’s father. “He will be a great killer.” One wonders if this was the same selling proposition with which Army recruiters sealed the deals with Timothy McVeigh and John Muhammad.

Enlisted Marines call the Corps “the Suck,” Swofford writes, “because it sucks dick to be in it and it sucks the life out of you.” “‘Chickenshit,’ the petty harassment of the weak by the strong,” as Paul Fussell calls it in Wartime, was the bonding agent of unit cohesiveness; cleaning a latrine with a toothbrush—urinals, toilets, floor, and walls—tends to give privates ample reason to hate the NCOs and officers who spread the stuff around so liberally, their version of Wellington’s lash or gibbet; but in the process they turned individuals into a squad, a platoon, or a company. Full of adrenaline and testosterone, the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old jarheads became automatons with weapons, trained to a murderous hair-trigger alertness. Swofford was one of them, but with a difference; unlike his unlettered comrades, he was a voracious reader, and in his footlocker kept copies of The Stranger, the Iliad, The Myth of Sisyphus, Hamlet, and Anabasis.

While on six-month deployment in the western Pacific, Swofford volunteered for his battalion’s Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, or STA, pronounced stay; “target acquisition” means sniper, an antiseptic and evasive euphemism, from the same military glossary as “collateral damage.” “Sniping” means the killing of a person, and is the battlefield equivalent of making one’s bones for the Mafia, with the object of the hit on an enemy of the state rather than an unsuspecting Paul Castellano or Joey Gallo. When a platoon or a company attacks an enemy stronghold, the object is to blanket the target with grenades, rockets, and automatic weapons fire in order to suppress a hostile response; in Vietnam, it was estimated that fifteen thousand rounds were expended for every enemy fatality. For STA, perfection was one shot, one kill, from a distance of a thousand meters, or more than half a mile, instead of up close as it was inside Umberto’s Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy. At a thousand meters, the target in the cross hairs is an abstraction, not an identifiable human being. STA operated in two-man teams, a scout and a sniper, and as they approached a target, elbows and knees were the means of locomotion over forbidding terrain, its waves and gullies providing natural cover. The perfect pattern was what STA snipers called a dime: three shots that could be covered by a ten-cent coin. The dime meant “pink mist,” or an exploding skull seen through the ten-power telescopic sight.

In the summer of 1990, while waiting to ship out to Kuwait, Spofford’s outfit began to get in the proper martial spirit by renting war movies, especially the big-ticket Vietnam films generally seen as antiwar—Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, rewinding rape and battle scenes and playing them over and over. “Actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message,” Swofford notes. “Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” Later he adds: “The pleasure of the violent films is like the pleasure of cocaine or a good rough fuck.”

Once in Saudi Arabia it was hurry-up-and-wait. American reporters came to visit their desert camp, and a sergeant scripted what the platoon could and could not say: they were proud to be there, they believed in their mission, they would slaughter the Iraqis, they loved the Corps, God is the ultimate gunny, semper fi. “You are marines,” the sergeant warned. “There is no such thing as speech that is free.” The Marine colonel assigned to look after the reporters ordered up his own gimmick for a photo op: a touch football game played in full chemical protection gear, helmets, and gas masks, even though the temperature in the sand was 112 degrees, and 140 degrees inside the chemical suits.

Mail call now included letters addressed to Any Marine, sponsored by some American service organization, and bringing news from home. Children wrote, and grandparents, and a few young women who had their own ideas of what might make the boys feel good: “I just quit Yale. I like to fuck a lot and drop acid. Write me.” The lucky Marine who got this letter answered it immediately; there was no reply. Another Marine’s wife sent him a video of a war film into which she had spliced a homemade porn segment of a man and a woman in masks performing; unfortunately, the jarhead recognized the masked woman as his wife, and the masked man as a neighbor. A sergeant advised the platoon to remove all foreign matter from their rucksacks: “foreign matter” meant letters and photographs of women not wives or girlfriends, “also pornography or other profane materials that wives and girlfriends and mothers might not want to receive after our deaths when our personal effects will be shipped…directly to our homes of record.” There were also rules about the desecration of enemy dead. “Because we are US marines, and honorable,” the company first sergeant said, “we do not shoot dead men, we do not carve their skulls open with our E-tools, we do not throw grenades into a pit of corpses, and after we don’t do these things, we don’t take pictures of the resultant damage.”

Ultimately STA went into combat. It was a war like all others, higher tech, of course, as each succeeding war always is; the unexpected was the only certainty. “My vision was blurred—by wind and sand and distance,” Spofford writes. “By false signals, poor communication, and bad coordinates, by stupidity and fear and ignorance. By the mirage.” In a friendly fire incident, Marine tanks fired on Spofford’s convoy. “We know that our own guys will not stop until the entire convoy and all nearby personnel are annihilated,” he writes. “That is the way of the Marine Corps. We are fighting ourselves but we can’t shoot back.” Because Marines do not fire at other Marines, even those mistakenly trying to kill them. Two Marines were killed and six wounded “at the hands of the trigger-happy and blind tankers.”

Fear was endemic. Under rocket attack, Spofford pees in his pants; it runs into his boots, “piss everywhere, thighs both, knees both, ankles both, bottom of my soft wet feet both.” Enemy dead are everywhere, usually charred and decaying. “I smell and taste their death,” Swofford writes. “I vomit into my mouth. I swish the vomit around before expelling it, as though it will cover the stink and taste of the dead men.” There is an urge to take an Iraqi life, because “to be a marine, a true marine, you must kill…if you don’t kill, you’re not a combatant.” The converse is that enemy is trying to kill you, as Lance Corporal Swofford discovered when in a deserted bunker after hostilities ceased he nearly tripped the wire of a booby trap that would have blown his head off.

Jarhead is occasionally attenuated, as when Swofford spends two pages on the by-the-numbers care and cleaning of his sniper rifle, but even then it is as if he is catching his breath, two pages of R&R. He captures the small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness of military life; company commanders resent the snipers as glory-hogging Sergeant Yorks; a captain grabs a kill that Spofford and his scout have tracked down. War is not hell, it is worse than hell, but as its most hardened chroniclers invariably admit, it is also an aphrodisiac, sublimely sexual. The horror is seductive, even to those who hated it most: “The fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it,” Wilfred Owen wrote of no man’s land and trench warfare in France. Without war there would be no war stories, and Jarhead is one of the best—loopy, stoned, its prose like three heavy metal bands playing three separate songs at once. It honors the literature of men at arms.

3.

The war in Iraq has made the volunteer military a good deal less voluntary. On January 9, two days after Rumsfeld lyricized about its virtues and got snooty about a peacetime draft, the Marine Corps, which reports to him, froze its entire active duty complement of 175,000 men and women in place for the next year; Marines who had completed their enlistments or who sought to retire after twenty years would be unable to do so. The Air Force has put a “stop-loss” order in effect that prohibits its officers and enlisted personnel from leaving active service. In the Army, the freeze is called “involuntary extension.” There are now also nearly 1.2 million reservists and National Guard forces, and they make up nearly half of the American military.

In many cases, the reserves and the Guard offer a kind of military welfare, a second job with medical benefits and PX privileges for people unable to support themselves and their families with only one paycheck, many of them hourly workers for Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, McDonald’s, or Wal-Mart; the gamble is that any call to active service will be brief, and that their home-front jobs will be waiting for them when they return. In uniform they generally provide noncombat backstage logistical support; the MP unit guarding the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is a reserve outfit from Rhode Island.2

As of late March, over 212,000 reservists and Guard men and women had been activated. Though official Defense Department policy limits call-ups to twelve months, the Pentagon’s manpower demands have forced it to extend their tours for a second year. However it is presented, stints without job security at the end and with a family at home struggling to make ends meet breeds discontent in the ranks.

Today, recruiters in spiffy Class-A uniforms prowl malls and high school corridors courting teenagers who can ease the personnel shortages. High schools are now obliged to give home telephone numbers to the military or face the possibility of losing federal subsidies. The NCOs may still talk about fellatio out of parental earshot, but they also play video games with the mall rats and can carry their end in conversations about Eminem and whether or not the soundtrack of 8 Mile sucks. I suspect there are no recruiters roaming the halls of St. Albans’ School in Washington, or of St. Mark’s in Dallas.

  1. 1

    Penguin.

  2. 2

    See Joseph Lelyveld, “In Guantánamo,” The New York Review, November 7, 2002.

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