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Swofford won’t play politics with Jarhead

"You are Marines. There is no such thing as speech that is free," barks a sergeant in Sam Mendes’s adaptation of Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir about his experiences as a Marine sniper in the 1990-91 Gulf War. "You must pay for everything you say."

The sergeant is addressing a squad about to be interviewed by TV-news reporters as they await deployment. The soldiers have been coached on how to answer expected questions. While audiences will undoubtedly equate the scene with President Bush’s most recent Iraq media debacle, the sergeant’s words also ring true for Hollywood, especially when it comes to promoting a big-budget motion picture.

Politics, so conventional wisdom goes, is box-office death. Consequently, the makers of Jarhead have downplayed any political implications in their film and witheld comment on the current Iraq conflict or the morality of warfare in general.

"Our story is unromantic and apolitical," says screenwriter William Broyles Jr. in the film’s press kit.

"I didn’t write a political book," adds Swofford on the phone from Los Angeles. "The politics of the rifle are what matter to the young guys on the ground.... What we see on-screen is the making of a young warrior and the making of this family of warriors."

But Swofford’s book seems to this reader romantic and political. In it he frequently expresses his suspicions that the war is being fought over oil for the benefit of the wealthy. And he hasn’t made a secret of his opposition to the latest invasion of Iraq or the handling of the subsequent occupation. Debuting now, doesn’t Jarhead have particular relevance?

"I think that it is an essential American story about how we fight and why, and the story of the men and women who choose to do this fighting," he says. "This is a Marine grunt story. It’s always important, and obviously now it has immediate resonance."

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie shows an audience of Marines watching a screening of the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now. They cheer ecstatically, until the film is interrupted by an officer who tells them they’re being shipped to the Gulf. It underlines a point Swofford made in his book, that "all Vietnam movies are pro-war, no matter what the supposed message ... the magic brutality of films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man ..."

Can the same be said for the film version of Jarhead?

"I think it depends on who is sitting and watching it," Swofford says. "We see the blown-off legs and the guys blinded by artillery fire and sucking chest wounds and different kinds of heroics in other films. But this is a different kind of war film, where the men are in search of their war rather than having it land on them right away. That slows down the psychological moment of war and I think it allows, in the same way the book allows, more time for contemplation of what it means to choose to live your life this way."

Read Peter Keough’s review of Jarhead here.

Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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