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Page 21
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Intense Male Bonding

By Kenneth Hermann (Reviewer)

[Printer-Friendly Version]

By Anthony Swofford
(Scribner, 2003)

The memoir "Jarhead" by Anthony Swofford was way up on bestseller lists this spring due to perfect timing. The author served as a Marine combatant during Bush the 41st's splendid little war in Iraq, as Rudyard Kipling would have described it. The title refers to the typical Marine's haircut. Swoffie (as he is affectionately called by his comrades-in-arms) jumps around in time through about the first two-thirds of the book and then concludes with a description of the horrific battles.

I was drafted into the Army during the war in Vietnam, and I remember well the demasculinizing and humiliating experiences of basic training, but about the worst thing I remember being called by a drill instructor was "shithead." Perhaps due to the availability of hardcore pornography, Swoffie experiences much rougher language. The DIs referred to hands as "dickskinners" and mouths as "cum-receptacles." But Marines think anyone in the other branches of the armed forces is a pussy. After one of the recruits pisses in his pants due to fear, the DI says, "You had an orgasm, is that it? You think I'm so sexy you jizzed in your trousers?" (Perhaps Swoffie should apply for a job to a maker of porno movies as a scriptwriter.) This would surely be considered sexual harrassment in any other occupation, as though people in the military are not entitled to the rights of ordinary Americans. Your unbiased opinion, Justice Thomas?

But the purpose of all this abuse is to cause the men to bond with each other through common goals and shared misery. Just before they are sent to liberate Kuwait, one of them even suggest they hug each other and tell each other they love them. One of the real reasons for the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise is that the same-sex military environment is erotically charged enough as it is without anyone being overtly "out."

The overworked euphemism "collateral damage" has been much tossed around lately, but it should be applied to other damages besides deaths and injuries to civilians. Many of the demented homeless men seen in the streets of our big cities are veterans of the war in Vietnam. Both Timothy McVeigh and the mentoring sniper in the Washington, DC area were veterans of our armed forces. What occupation as a civilian are you prepared for when your primary experience is learning how to kill?

For me the high point of the whole book comes about halfway through, in a chapter less than two pages long. Swoffie finds himself on a boardwalk in San Diego, a city in which many ex-Marines live. He seems to be able to identify them by appearance and manner. He describes men with poor grammar and stupid looks on their faces and an "overweight wife from his hometown of Bumfuck." The short chapter reeks with class consciousness but not snobbery, because the author includes himself among the unfortunate ones, although very few of his fellow ex-Marines had the talent to be professional writers. Perhaps the author should have explained more clearly the way in which he fits into this category.

In another chapter Swoffie and his buddies get together in Greenville, Michigan to attend a funeral. The deceased hit a patch of black ice while "at least hungover and possibly drunk." The former grunts go on a drinking binge that lasts longer than Ray Milland's in "The Lost Weekend," although no one ends up in a hospital. They blame his death on the fact that he was not allowed to re-enlist and had to drive thirty miles to work in miserable weather in an economically depressed town. If you can tolerate military discipline for twenty years you are entitled to a reasonably generous pension, but there is no guarantee that the brass will accept you for re-enlistment.

Swoffie is unambiguously hetero. When he volunteered at age 17 his parents' consent was required. They did not like the idea but grudgingly consented after having the recruiter over to dinner. Then he went outside with the recruiter, who then told him about the exotic sexual experiences to be had (such as threesomes) in other countries like the Philippines and Panama. Up until then Swoffie reports that "he had sex three times and been the recipient of five blow jobs and fourteen hand jobs." But how did the intense male bonding affect his sexuality? This he does not address. I wondered while reading this absorbing memoir whether some of the jarheads might decide they prefer the love of their own gender.

Kenneth Hermann is a member of VVAW living in New York City. His military experience consisted of one year stateside and one year in Vietnam where he served as a company clerk and performed such duties as preparing court-martial paperwork for men caught smoking pot.

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