War is not a video game

November 17, 1993

Directed by Sam Mendes
Screenplay by William Broyles Jr, based on the book by Anthony Swofford
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper and Jamie Foxx
Showing at major cinemas


In the book Jarhead, author Anthony Swofford tells his readers, "Vietnam war movies are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message". This warning might be applied to Jarhead, the movie, which draws heavily on the war movies of Vietnam.

Jarhead follows Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a 20-year-old marine assigned to the elite Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon (snipers). The platoon is deployed to Kuwait in the first war on Iraq, Operation Desert Shield, which evolves into Operation Desert Storm shortly after the men arrive.

While the movie focuses on Swofford, it's the supporting cast of marines in his platoon, including Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), who show what it's like to be submerged in an environment awash with frustration, anger, depression, camaraderie, death and destruction.

The movie shows some brutal aspects of war — what it's like to be in an environment that dehumanises workers and emphasises the minutia of military life. There are graphic shots of a highway of death. The platoon marches over a sand dune into a bombed-out traffic jam, where refugees once sitting in their cars and trucks trying to escape the war are now charcoal human shells, victims of a US air strike.

In another scene, the main characters narrowly escape friendly fire from US planes, but an anonymous background marine is not so lucky. We watch him fall to the ground in flames. Swofford, wanting only to see combat and "get a kill", ironically wets his pants while Iraqi shells explode around him.

The "hurry up and wait", the constant preparedness for something that seems unlikely to happen, "dog and pony shows" for the press — Jarhead shows the constant push and pull that would drive anyone insane.

The marines are told to trust their supervisors and obey orders, but have to face the reality of being "fucked by the big green weenie". The effects of incompetent military personnel and inadequate gear on troop morale and safety are shown in many scenes.

Essential communication gear has dead batteries, and suits and masks meant to protect against biological and chemical warfare have missing parts. The men are forced to sign a waiver when they are told to swallow pills that will supposedly protect them from a biological attack, because the military won't take responsibility for unknown side effects. There are some moments in the movie that show the marines questioning orders and acting out in defiance — one character goes as far to say that they are there to fight for oil, not freedom.

These were men robbed of their youth, trying to juggle being trained killers and maintaining relationships built on emotions that they are taught not to deal with. Unfaithful marriages, suicidal thoughts and homicidal actions permeate the marines' lives — manifestations of extended periods in an environment that detracts from the value of life and prioritises the taking of it.

However, these assets of Jarhead do not compensate for its shallow investigation of the psychological toll of being a soldier.

I think this movie lacked character depth. What the movie was unable to do, the book does well. No voice guides the viewer through the fast-paced, video game-like scenes. The viewer is left to intuit Swofford's real emotions, his analysis, his understanding of the implications of what is going on around him. The movie trivialises the acts of desperation, dissent and brutality through a loud, monopolising soundtrack and eerily romantic cinematography reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

In the book, Swofford acknowledges that viewers' previously held beliefs inform interpretation of war movies. So, if you go into the movie anti-war you will view it as such, but a soldier or young person will be entranced by the "magic brutality and fighting skills".

As a kid, this movie would have offered me role models just as Vietnam and World War II movies did. The men are good-looking and strong. They seem to be having a good time; they have fraternal camaraderie. They are warriors. Even with an adult challenging me, I would have romanticised the men in this film.

There are too many scenes in this movie that could be used in a recruiting video. The soundtrack of war is not pop music. It is the cries of parent-less children and children-less parents. It is young men and women screaming in agony over the loss of a friend.

As we mourn the hundreds of thousands dead and injured in the continuing war on Iraq, the stakes are too high for anti-war activists to embrace Jarhead as an accurate portrayal of military life. My advice is to save an extra $5 and get the book.

[Chris Dugan served in the marines from 1995 to 1999 and was briefly a recruiter before becoming an outspoken anti-war activist dedicated to exposing the tactics of military recruiters. Reprinted from US Socialist Worker <http://socialistworker.org>]

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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