MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. --
Modern literature is not built on the perfect iambic pentameter, a seamless haiku, or even a flawless sonnet, but rather, modern literature has created a phenomenon of truth, a question of events and an examination of accuracy. In yonder times, authors such as Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce wrote about the Civil War to recognize heroes and identify events in American history that were meant to never be forgotten. But, there have been many wars since.
Anthony Swofford, author of the controversial memoir "Jarhead," wrote about the gruesome kind of war we envision in our minds; he kind of war troops wish to forget. His was a war recounted not by dead bodies, but of the internal wars a soldier battles when in combat.
I came to read "Jarhead" when I stumbled upon it in a used bookstore. Upon browsing through the pages, I noticed mentions of Palm Springs and Twentynine Palms, places I am all too familiar with. I had previously watched the movie that was inspired by Swofford's memoir, but after taking a college Film and Literature course, I knew that movies don't always tell the most authentic version of the book. Without question, I bought the memoir.
In a brutal account of the war before the "War on Terrorism," Swofford brings me closer to a desert I have not yet lived, but can only recall by the TV images my mind remembers.
I am the second person in my family to have joined the military. My older cousin was the first, and he fought with the U.S. Army in the Gulf War in the early nineties: the same war Swofford recounts. Before I joined the military, I remember looking at what must have been my cousin's boot camp picture and thinking how proud my family was. In a selfish manner, I wanted that for myself.
At the time, television was saturated with the war. I was too young to clearly understand everything that was going on, but old enough to know that these soldiers were battling a war that my young and naïve imagination equaled with Fleming's "The Red Badge of Courage." But as life happens, my attempts to join the military twice did not come to fruition: once right after high school in 1995 and again following 9/11.
I come from a very traditional Mexican family, and for my mother, joining the military was like sending me to my deathbed. Being young, I simply followed her orders not to join. My second attempt came a few years later, right before 9/11 happened, but by then I was married. My then-husband kept telling me if I joined, I'd be deploying to war in an instant.
Perhaps he was right. Not only were we already at war, but then the devastating event that changed our nation happened. Surely, I think to myself, I would have been deployed, but I did not join the military then because of the war. I didn't join because I was trying to be a good wife.
Soon, my attention turned to other goals and aspirations, I went back to school to finish my B.A. in English and Anthropology, and I became an esthetician in 2001. After my divorce, I refocused on my original unaccomplished goals. I may have joined the military late -- I was the oldest one in my flight -- but I am now an Air Force reservist and proud member of the 452nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron.
The book "Jarhead" had mixed reviews. Some praised Swofford for his brutal honesty about his experiences, but others examined the un-heroic nature of the events and actions of a young man lost in a war with nowhere to go. Some were outraged at the portrayal of woman and the unapologetic treatment and total disregard for teenage girls and young women (for example, his descriptions of the 'Wall of Shame' in which Marines posted the pictures of unfaithful partners, with references to prostitution).
I think, however, that his revelation that he stole from fellow Marines to achieve a profit, or others' criticism of his unrealistic shooting ranges, as well as the continuous unnecessary battle with his father, are all indicators of a young man who was completely lost to a world he felt he never quite belonged to.
Though it seemed like Swofford had plenty of growing up to do, he exemplified an insight into what the war means: "...the most complex and dangerous conflicts, the most harrowing operations, and the most deadly wars, occur in the head." We are still left to wonder what is real and unreal about a war we can only come to know by true and real experience.
I have been in the military for less than a year and have not deployed myself. I read military literature as a way to relate to situations I have not lived, but will likely experience firsthand someday. In doing so, I always keep in mind that an author can only retell their version of events, but in that unique perspective is the true story of war.
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