A Marine Chronicle
With Anthony Swofford
Friday, March 21, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
The air assault on Iraq continues as missiles pound the city of Baghdad. Ground troops have now crossed the border into southern Iraq to mount a massive invasion. The Marines are among them. This is now.
In 1990, Anthony Swofford was one of those frontline infantry Marines who began his nine-month Operation Desert Shield tour of duty in the first Gulf War. He landed a plum assignment with the STA -- the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon -- and that summer Swofford was sent to Saudi Arabia.
"To be a Marine, you must kill." That's a basic lesson Swofford learned during his long days and nights in the trenches of Desert Storm. "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" is a hard-hitting account of his tour of duty in the Middle East and its aftershocks.
He was online Friday, March 21 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about his life before, during and after his battlefield experiences and his feelings about the war going on right now.
A transcript follows.-
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Anthony Swofford will be along in five minutes. Please stay tuned.
Anthony Swofford: Hello. Thanks for joining me today. I look forward to our chat.
Washington, D.C.: Mr Swofford,
To what extent would you say that military training fundamentally "re-socializes" men (and some women) to see killing -- the destruction of other humans -- as a job, and even as an honorable mission? This seems profoundly disturbing! Is this the only way to prepare soldiers for war? Is there any moral education that might be appropriate for this context? Thanks!
Anthony Swofford: The training of fighters is complex and messy, and it requires not only an entry into a new moral ground, but an education that supports that moral choice. The education/training prepares the Marine for killing, and allows that if you're country asks you to kill, it is OK. This is necessary in order for the troops to pull the trigger.
Washington, D.C.: Did you ever consider trying to get out of the Marines once you were in?
Anthony Swofford: I first considered trying to get out of the Marines about thirty seconds after I arrived at boot camp, when a large man adept at using profanity in ways I'd never imagined began barking in my ear. This is of course a common response, and the Marine Corps is smart to know this, and they make sure you know that if you run you will be a failure, your father will look at you differently, as well you mother and your girl, and you'll be back on the block now with a shaved head, and everyone will know you couldn't handle the USMC. Who wants to fail? And go home with a shaved head. That's why they shave your heads before it gets really ugly.
Lyme, Conn.: In the military, one is trained to kill when so ordered. In battle, some freeze. There have been battle studies that find some never fire their weapons. Others seem to snap. What mental conditioning did you undergo to fit into that requirement? How did you find your fellow soldiers do with this mental training?
Anthony Swofford: The mental training is an extension of the practical training ... they are intertwined. Because you know how to use your weapon, you are capable at dealing with the other end, the mental end. Also, it's necessary to demonize the foe.
Washington, D.C.: Where did the book's title come from?
Anthony Swofford: JARHEAD is a nickname for Marines. It refers to the high-and-tight haircut that makes the head look like a jar, especially from the rear (see the cover of my book on the Web site simonsays.com). For the book, I am the Jarhead, the book is also a jar, a capsule that I've filled with my life in the Corps and at war. Please be advised, it's best to know the jarhead personally before you use the term ... strangers should not use the term ... it's potentially offensive.
Undisclosed location: Every Marine I have met has a strong tendancy towards punctuality. You were late for this chat. Shall I presume you had a legitimate excuse for being tardy?
Anthony Swofford: Sir, I do have a legitimate excuse for my tardiness. I've done fifty push-ups, as well, and forty bends-and-thrusts. Punishment enough?
Lyme, Conn.: It is the duty of a soldier to disobey an unjust order. How well do the Marines train you to understand that?
Anthony Swofford: The Marine Corps stressed from early on that unjust orders should be disobeyed, and indeed, that the Marine should suffer punishment or even death before obeying an unjust order.
Washington, D.C.: I just picked up a copy of your book and very much look forward to reading it.
Have you seen the film "Three Kings", which is about the Gulf War? If so, do you think soldiers view it the same way they do films like "Apocalypse Now" and some of the other war films you discuss in your book? What did you think of it?
Anthony Swofford: I thought THREE KINGS was a good entertainment. I didn't watch it for many years, until one of my writing mentors, whose advice I always followed, handed it to me. TK is not violent or profane enough to work for the soldier in the same way as APOCALYPSE NOW, FULL METAL JACKET and other Vietnam films.
Washington, D.C.: Do you have any experience with Gulf War Syndrome? How do you feel about the way the government has handled veterans' complaints?
Anthony Swofford: I do not claim to be afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome. I have this darn ringing in my ears, and in moments of high paranoia, I attest it to GWS, but it probably has to do with firing rifles for four years. The treatment of afflicted Vets has been dissapointing. Especially in the three to four years right after the war, the Vets were dismissed as malingerers and fakes. Certainly, there are those types within the military and subsequently among those who claim to be afflicted ... but something went wrong for those women and men, and the cause may never be known, but I hope that their aftercare continually improves, and that the young men and women now deployed in the same region are somehow spared the trouble, and if some of them are sick, that they'll be treated with more respect when they come forward with their claims. Otherwise their fellows will have died for nothing ... poor treatment of veterans is poor treatment of their fallen comrades.
Austin, Tex.: Do you have any comment about the apparent attitudes of men in the armed forces toward women? I know it's not reasonable to expect soldiers to be all in touch with their softer side (they'd better not be, after all). But some of the things one hears (the AF Academy, for example) really are troubling.
Anthony Swofford: Gender inequality and discrimination is a problem throughout society, and the machismo of military life only increases the tendency to discriminate based on gender. And, the military constantly fails to offer safe environments for women. The horrible news of what occurred at the AF Academy is another reminder that the miltary has much work to do in preventing attacks on women.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Having been on the scene, what are your thoughts as to how many people died during Desert Storm? One Defense Department estimate was 100,000. One analyst states that estimate may be low. An Iraqi source claimed 1,500 died. That is quite a range of difference. How much damage did you witness, and which end of the estimates do you feel are more accurate?
Anthony Swofford: I witnessed a lot of carnage that was a result of the bombing campaign, from the SA/Kuwait border to Kuwait City. Lots of corpses.
Sterling, Va.: How has the reaction been (if any) from your buddies in STA since the book came out?
Anthony Swofford: I haven't yet heard from any of my STA buddies. They're probably waiting for their free copies. I'm behind on mailing. I have heard from Marines who were in other units during the war, and from men who've fought in Korea and Vietnam, and the men have thanked me for creating their lives on the page, for opening up the experience of the individual Marine.
Washington, D.C.: The "shock-and-awe" bombing campaign has been going on in Baghdad in the past hour. Did that occur in the first Gulf War? What exactly is "shock-and-awe?"
Anthony Swofford: I don't know what shock-and-awe is supposed to be. Practically, it must mean a lot of bombs dropping in a short period of time and killing large nubers of people, I'd guess. I am watching the same scenes you are. Baghdad is burning.
Washington, D.C.: Tony -- I thought your book was beautifully written and about the most vivid depiction of war I've ever read. You mention it took you a while to get to the point where you could get it down on paper, but how long did the actual writing process take?
Anthony Swofford: Thank you for your compliment.
Jarhead Country, Yuma, Ariz.: What is a bend-and-thrust?
Anthony Swofford: It's a combination push-up and sort of jumping jack thing. A famous Marine Corps exercise/form of physical punishment. I think the DI in FULL METAL JACKET has the recruits bust out a few. I know there is a Marine Corps exercise manual out on the market, if you're really interested.
Vienna, Va.: Hey Anthony!
I was just noticing that when writing in Hebrew, if you're not careful, the words "jarhead" and "jihad" are pretty close -- you have to know those vowels ... Thought was kind of a weird coincidence ...
Anyway, to the question: What about women in the Marines and on the frontlines? Any objections?
Anthony Swofford: JARHEAD------JIHAD. Yes, weird.
Washington, D.C.: Anthony: Like you, I spent around 10 months in the Gulf during the last war. A number of my fellow veterans are appalled at the administration's brusque approach to war -- its lack of apparent understanding of the impact that the invasion, no matter how "successful," will have on our long-term interests and the hostility that it will engender. We attribute it to the fact that the biggest cheerleaders for an attack (e.g., Rumsfeld and Bush -- who when called to sacrifice for his country, didn't show up) have no real clue about its affect. They talk about it like it's a game of Stratego. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Anthony Swofford: As veterans, part of our responsibility is spreading, what I call in JARHEAD, the "bad news" about war. Unfortunately, others who do not know combat, and even some who do, spread good news about war and warriors.
Boulder City, Nev.: After having fought in Iraq during the last war, is it strange or surreal to be armchairing this one, watching it unfolding on TV?
Anthony Swofford: I am having trouble watching the coverage, and in fact, I'll do the best I can to stop watching.
Anthony Swofford: Thank you for your questions. I enjoyed the chat. And thanks to those of you who've read JARHEAD, and those of you who will.