War is hell. And maybe just a little fun, once some of the shock has worn off. So this literate and nuanced if sometimes self-conscious coming-of-age tale instructs.
Swofford’s debut covers all the bases: a stint in basic training with a brutal drill instructor, drunken episodes with prostitutes, fights with sailors, explosions and their attendant airborne body parts, postwar trauma and depression. Yet there’s not a clichéd moment in this rueful account of a Marine’s life, in which the hazards are many and the rewards few. Swofford, for instance, recounts a bout with one of those hazards, dysentery, earned by consuming a stolen vat of salad greens while awaiting orders to attack the opposing Iraqi line along the Saudi border: “The lettuce came from Jordanian fields where they use human feces as fertilizer. So here we are, defending a country none of us gives a shit about, eating its neighbors’ shit, and burying ours in the sand.” Another hazard, we learn, is the presence of battle-deranged fellow squad members, one of whom takes to systematically disfiguring a fallen Iraqi fighter: “He says the look on the dead man’s face, his mocking gesture, is insulting, and that the man deserved to die, and now that he’s dead the man’s corpse deserves to be fucked with.” Still another hazard, quite apart from dangerous food and dangerous psychopaths, is the endless politicking of the brass, one of whom keeps Swofford, a sniper, from assassinating an Iraqi officer and perhaps inducing that officer’s charges to surrender rather than fight on. And so on. For all the dangers, the author allows, a certain exhilaration attends the facing of a deadly enemy and living to tell the tale, a joy that no civilian can possibly understand—though Swofford does his best to explain.
Extraordinary: full of insight into the minds and rucksacks of our latter-day warriors.