JARHEAD

A Marine's Chronicle

Of the Gulf War and Other Battles

By Anthony Swofford

Scribner. 260 pp. $24

Martin Russ became a Marine in 1952. He took care to play the role as he understood it to be written: Gazing soulfully out the airplane window as it carried him away from home (he waited until someone was watching); sauntering in from leave bruised and bloodied (he'd scraped his knuckles back and forth against a sidewalk); laughing only in "the regulation Homeric roar" and conversing only in the appropriately inarticulate and profane vernacular, belying his prep-school upbringing. He soon found himself in Korea, where he continued to observe the Martin Russ character with affectionate detachment:

"I watch myself stumble through a daily cycle of unrelated characters: the tough NCO, the intellectual, the matinee idol in a war picture . . . the seeker of truth -- all these and many more in a single day. (Busy day.)"

We're lucky: Russ kept a journal, which was later published as the war memoir The Last Parallel. That book is, in the expected ways, a coming-of-age story. War stories, after all, are about the chasm between youth and death, and what people decide to become when they see that chasm bridged. Those stories have often been told best by members of the U.S. Marine Corps. A few more examples stand out: Philip Caputo's magnificent Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War, tells the story of that conflict with cynical grace and bitter humor, while James Webb's Fields of Fire retains its place as the foundational brief for one side of the culture war that followed.

And so now we have Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, a Marine's memoir of the last Gulf War.

As it was for other Marines before him, Swofford's first challenge is something out of an acting job: He has to research the role. The day he and the other members of his platoon learn that they may be going to war, they march in formation to the barber for fresh high-and-tights. "Then we send a few guys downtown to rent all of the war movies they can get their hands on," he writes. "They also buy a hell of a lot of beer."

Watching movies and drinking beer, the men of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, are pretty sure they're training for combat: "We concentrate on the Vietnam films," Swofford explains, "because it's the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals." Remarkably, he is the son of a Vietnam veteran, a man whose relatively advanced age when he went to the jungle -- he was 28 -- made him part of "the population rarely depicted in the literature and films of the Vietnam War." Provided with a tangible counterexample, Swofford still turns to "Full Metal Jacket" to learn what his experience will be.

As much as these young Marines internalize their expected role, the institution they serve carefully regulates their public performance; as much as they turn to the media to learn who they are supposed to be, the posture they affect before the media distorts who they are. After Swofford's platoon arrives in the Saudi Arabian desert, they learn that reporters are coming to visit. A sergeant carefully dictates the complete list of things the Marines will and will not say -- and not just about tactical issues. Their leadership provides them with a detailed description of their feelings about the coming war, and runs the platoon through a discussion of the appropriate demeanor and posture: "Take off your shirts and show your muscles."

The circle closes, one of a number of closing circles. The dictated role is lived, felt, occupied as a home. "I want to come to the defense of free speech," Swofford writes, "but I know it will be useless. We possess no such thing. The language we own is not ours, it is not a private language, but derived from Marine Corps history and lore and tactics. . . . When you are part of that thing, you speak like it."

Swofford has become part of another thing, and he speaks like it. Joining the line of men who've fought in wars and then written about it, he finds himself trying to describe a role he only partially occupied and only partially abandoned; he watches himself stumble through a daily cycle of unrelated characters, all of whom are himself.

The lowest points of the book come at the very beginning and the very end, as Swofford tries to tell us What It All Means; here, the usual grace and wit of his prose give way to a few overwrought bursts of summary, such as "Their war stories march through my brain like a parade of epileptics." But these are minor complaints, and a small part of a smart and worthwhile book. Most remarkable are the moments just outside combat: a fellow Marine's ritual desecration of an enemy corpse, a lazy staff officer's last-minute appropriation of the opportunity to do some remote killing by "bomb cocktail."

Swofford's war ends in a strangely appropriate fashion, as he and a colleague are sent out on a mission far from their battalion. The Iraqi army quits, the fighting stops. And no one remembers the men who have been left out in the desert.

That's a story Philip Caputo and James Webb would have understood well. *

Chris Bray served in the peacetime Army. He will begin a PhD program in American history this fall.