Most of the time, Anthony Swofford has no particular identity issues. Though his memoir, "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles," brings to vivid life an earlier version of war in the desert, complete with gas masks and Scud alerts, he's clear that that was then and this is now. Swofford's not a Marine anymore. He hasn't been a Marine for years.
If he gets drawn into television coverage of the war, "I can really reenter the landscape," he says. "Feel the sand and the heat and the oil well fires and the misery of having a ruck [sack] on my back." But he doesn't do that very often.
In fact, now that he's 33, his skills burnished at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, Swofford would really rather be known as a writer than as a onetime sniper with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. A confluence of a powerful story, admiring reviews, and events forcing the nation's attention back to soldiers and Saddam has had the disorienting effect of making his first book an immediate bestseller -- "Jarhead" will be No. 3 on the New York Times list Sunday -- but its author has largely moved on.
Except for that moment a couple of weeks ago. He was in England promoting his book, and happened across a long, evocative story in the Sunday Times of London, "this amazing piece" about the Marines and their fierce battles around Nasiriya. "Incredibly brutal fight," he says. "It really brought the war back to me, in the same way writing my book did."
He thought about 19- and 20-year-olds once more "going through an experience that will change them and that in some ways they'll never return from." He thought about his own training, the way the Corps came to feel like a kind of family even as he winced at its violence and swagger. He wondered if he'd moved on as completely as he'd assumed.
"I hate to admit this," he begins hesitantly. "It's troubling for me to say, but this little part of me is still a jarhead who thinks, 'I should be over there with these guys. They're Marines and they're fighting. That's what Marines do.' "
Saddam Purportedly Calls for Jihad . . . Centcomm: Coalition Plan Remains Sound and Effective . . . Al Jazeera Reports Planes Flying Low Over Baghdad . . .
The electronic headlines blare at him across Times Square from the ABC studios and Reuters. He's posing, obligingly if a bit stiffly, for a photograph in front of the Times Square recruiting station, where Uncle Sam still points a finger.
Swofford has broad shoulders, big hands. He's wearing a black suit that's seen more action in the past month than in the previous two years since he bought it, and he's exchanged the close-shaven haircut (the one that leads Marines to dub themselves jarheads) for a spiky, gelled look. Add his black-rimmed glasses and he's a beefier version of Elvis Costello, except it's not a guitar that one pictures in his hands.
A little later, settling in for a talk and a drink at the Algonquin -- a reporter's suggestion, for its venerable literary associations -- he shifts uncomfortably on a brocade settee. He looks like a Marine, though a bookish kind of Marine, the kind who toted the Iliad to war.
Growing up in Sacramento, he was simultaneously the sort of kid who took solace in reading, and the sort who got his mom to iron a Marine Corps insignia onto his T-shirt. Writing was an ambition that took root when he was a 14-year-old engrossed in John Steinbeck, about the same time he got the notion of one day joining the Corps. His was a military clan -- grandfather, father, brother, uncle -- and enlisting at 18 was "what men in my family did."
Perhaps, he thinks now, he wanted to understand what Vietnam had done to his father, who'd returned with migraines and fists that he could not unclench. Perhaps he was seeking a family to substitute for his own, which was fracturing; his parents would divorce and one troubled sister was repeatedly institutionalized. What mattered was the recruiter told him he'd be "a fine killer," and that was good to hear.
Yet he was also an ambivalent Marine, appalled by the brutality even as he learned to participate in it, scheming about how to get out almost as soon as he'd joined up. A total cynic at 20, "Swoff" was swapping jokes about the Oil Corps within days of arriving in Saudi Arabia in 1990. "It's part of grunt culture," he explains, looking quizzically at the orangey drink he's ordered. Called a Matilda, it's named for the hotel cat.
"You call [the Corps] the Suck. USMC stands for You Suckers Missed Christmas. You laugh about it and part of your joy is your misery. You know you're likely to be the guys fighting and dying first," which was both appealing and terrifying. "And romantic."
But it was over so quickly. Swofford's war: long months of idling in Saudi Arabia. Enough unremitting tension to -- at separate times -- make him hold a loaded M-16 rifle against a platoon mate's head and stick one in his own mouth (neither incident reported to anyone higher up). There was a lot of sleeplessness, too, caused by thoughts of chemical weapons. Followed eventually by several patrols through landscapes of bombed-out trucks and blackened Iraqi corpses and then -- before he could use his sniper skills and get a single kill -- a sudden outbreak of peace.
He skipped his own victory parade. "Was this war? Was this combat? It didn't live up to the expectations we had," he says. "Compared to our training and the history of the Marine Corps, even those Vietnam films we watched before we went over, it was a lesser fight." Which led to a troubling question: Was he a lesser Marine?
Long afterward, "I moved between those two poles of being damned happy to be alive . . . and also wanting more fight, more combat, because I was a Marine and I was there and we'd been preparing for a much different war," he explains. "To be a combatant, you need to kill, not just be fired at."
Was he a lesser Marine, then? He concluded that he wasn't. "We were deployed, we were prepared, and we performed," he says crisply. It's such a Marine-like response that he laughs at himself. "See, it's still in me."
He was a good Marine, and the Corps rewarded him with an ahead-of-schedule promotion to corporal and a stint at jump school. Though he was still able to lose himself in books -- buddies used to jeer, "What are you doing reading that [expletive]?" says Ken Westermann, whom "Swoff" trained as a sniper after the war -- senior officers expected that he'd make a career of the Corps.
How Marine-ish is this: A guy who mouthed off to Cpl. Swofford during sniper training still remembers him none too fondly. "Swoff made him carry a 20-pound boulder in his pack for the rest of the week, in class, in the field, everywhere," Westermann reports. "I called him up the other day, said, 'Hey, Swofford's written a book!' and he said, '[expletive] Swofford.' "
So when he didn't sign his reenlistment papers, Swofford says, "my staff sergeant threw me in his van and drove me around the base for an hour, yelling and cursing. 'We had plans for you, Swofford! You're the future of the Marine Corps!' "
"At least extend for three months," the sergeant urged, and Swofford felt "sort of tempted." But once released from the van, "I thought, no, three months turns into three years and then where am I? I wanted to get out and go to school."
It was harder than he thought. Swofford worked in a bank and in a frozen-food warehouse in Sacramento ("horrible work"), putting himself through community college and then the University of California at Davis, trying to write. "I had trouble," he confesses. "I was 22 years old and probably about as prepared for the real world as a 16-year-old running away from home. I didn't know the real world; I knew getting up at 5:30 and going for a four-mile run, getting some chow and then cleaning my rifle."
He didn't talk much about serving in the Persian Gulf. In fact, when he entered the Iowa workshop in 1999, nobody there knew that this quiet older guy had a military past. "He never talked about it," says his university instructor, Chris Offut, a novelist and memoirist. "He was incredibly reticent."
Yet military guys kept showing up, tangentially, in his fiction. At one conference, discussing a short story, "he mentioned that he'd been a Marine," Offut recalls. "Turned out he'd been in the Gulf War. There was his material."
Swofford initially resisted the idea of a memoir. "I was a fiction writer," he says. "I didn't want to write about myself. Fiction allowed me to hide." Besides, "I wasn't allowing the Marine Corps to define me as an individual anymore. I'd made a radical break."
Well, maybe not. Graduating from Iowa, he moved to Portland, Ore., an affordable town where he knew no one but could handle the rent on his book advance. Somewhere in there he separated from the woman he'd married. He wrote "Jarhead" in the small hours of the night, mostly, feeling what he'd felt at the time -- sweaty, irritable, fatigued.
It's a potent book. The Marines Swofford portrays aren't scrubbed heroes embracing sacrifice -- they love pornography, engage in pointless fights, bitch about everything from their officers to the people they're supposed to be liberating, and at least one of them desecrates an Iraqi corpse -- but they're memorable. "I was reading it thinking, 'That's right,' " says his platoon mate Atticus Larson. " 'Omigod, that's right.' "
"Jarhead" has received hosannas from critics (mostly -- the New Yorker and several British papers dissented). "The most honest memoir I have read from a participant in any recent war," Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," wrote in the New York Times Book Review.
Veterans are starting to show up at Swofford's readings and signings, and though Swofford worried that they might be angered by his bluntness, they mostly want to shake his hand and say thanks. "I think it's a good thing for anyone who's had that unique experience to put it down on paper and let people see it," says Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resources Center.
The downside, if having your first book get this rush of attention has one, is that suddenly everyone now wants to know what he thinks about Gulf War II: producers from Fox News and NPR, the morning shows and the late-night ones, reporters from the United Kingdom and Australia.
None of this is what Swofford expected when he sent his literary agent the first 100 pages of "Jarhead" -- it was August 2001 -- and she cautioned, "One of our hurdles is going to be that the American public is not tuned in to war right now."
A reluctant public commentator on geopolitics, Swofford doesn't feel easy in the role. He doesn't feel easy about the war, either. "I'm not a no-blood-for-oil person," he says, and he understands perfectly well why Saddam Hussein is (again) a target. "But I wish we weren't fighting right now. I wish we'd given the U.N. more time to work. That it wasn't just us and the Brits and 2,000 Australians fighting, because the most problematic times will come after combat."
He'd prefer to let his book speak for him, and in the long run of course it will, but at the moment interviewers keep asking Swofford about this stuff. Probably Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "Daily Show," will ask him too; he's due at the taping in less than an hour.
On the way uptown in a cab, more headlines, streaming around office buildings: Initial Reports Indicate Soldiers Acted Properly. . . . Purported Saddam Statement: Long Live Our Nation . . . Centcom Denies Using Cluster Bombs.
It's not every day one gets to see a former Marine sniper in makeup, but backstage at "The Daily Show," a woman is daubing Christian Dior pancake onto Swofford's face, then whisking a little brush around his forehead.
"You look beautiful," his publicist teases afterward.
"I feel beautiful," he says, solemnly.
Stewart, who has apparently read "Jarhead" and pronounces it "a hell of a book," asks Swofford a lot about being a soldier, not much about politics, a little about media coverage. The seductive thing about soldiering, the host muses, must be the bond, the team feeling, the way it's sort of "the ultimate sport."
"Soccer with guns," Swofford agrees, getting a laugh from the audience, which, like Marines, is mostly kids.
This is a part of war Swofford knows something about, and it's the part that calls to him still, a bit. The only part. He can't fit into his old uniforms and he doesn't want to go crawling through the sand with a rifle. He's about to move to California and begin teaching at a college in the Bay Area, and he's working on a novel about occupied Japan and atomic-bomb research. He's not sure he believes in what he did then or what Marines are doing now.
But he misses them. "It's them," he explains later. "It's not the war, it's not liberating a country, it's not Operation Iraqi Freedom. It's the men. There's a lot out there that's jive. But men depending on each other, wanting to take care of each other, that's not jive."
Sitting on a sand berm, hours from crossing the border into Kuwait in 1991, one of Swofford's platoon-mates had asked the other guys for a hug -- someone Swoff didn't even like very much -- and soon everyone was hugging everyone else, pledging love and battlefield devotion. It "helped make us human again," Swofford wrote in "Jarhead."
"That moment is meaningful now," he says all these years later. "I imagine similar scenes unfolding, in the hours prior to these guys crossing the border."