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Jarhead: a war movie without a war

spiked-film: Sam Mendes' satire about the first Gulf War reveals more about modern warfare than his critics have twigged.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Jarhead, directed by Sam Mendes, on general release.

Jarhead is a war movie without a war. Set in the scorched, oil-drenched deserts of Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, it tells the story of a group of young US marines hanging around endlessly waiting to ‘kick some Iraqi butt’. They wank, drink, scuffle, clean out toilets and wank some more for what seems like an eternity. They know a war is taking place, and even overhear it at one stage when US fighter planes zoom overhead, but the closest they get to seeing any action is while watching Apocalypse Now in a cinema screen. It’s all very postmodern. If the Gulf War, in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s words, didn’t really take place, then Jarhead is the movie in which we see it not taking place.

Jake Gyllenhaal of Donnie Darko (and more recently Brokeback Mountain) fame plays Anthony Swofford, who wrote the book that the movie is based on. He’s a bright guy who reads Camus and is separated from the rest of the square-jawed, foul-mouthed jocks in his platoon by the fact that he speaks some Arabic and doesn’t really want to be a killing machine (he claims to have ended up in the Marine Corps because he got lost on his way to college). The training scenes will look familiar to anyone who has seen Full Metal Jacket: they’re all scary-looking, leather-faced lieutenants bellowing at the new recruits and accusing them of being queers, lazy sons-of-bitches, motherfuckers, etc. It’s the later war scenes, in which there are no scenes of war, that are weird and eerie.

Having spent more than 150 days in the desert doing not very much, Swofford and his fellow ‘jarheads’ (a reference both to marines’ cropped haircuts and the fact that their heads are seen as empty vessels waiting to be filled by war talk) get overexcited when they’re finally called on to fight. They dig trenches in the sand and train their guns on anything on the horizon that looks vaguely like an Arab. But still nothing happens. They wander through the desert with the oil vomited up by burning pipelines (set alight by fleeing Iraqi soldiers) squelching beneath their feet but find no one to fight. Swofford and a colleague hear what sound like Iraqi soldiers over a sand dune, so they sneak up on them, sure that this, at last, is the moment they will get to fire their weapons. But they are not Iraqis; they are American soldiers celebrating the end of the war. Swofford’s face is a picture: ‘What war?’ he wonders.

Jarhead is directed by Briton Sam Mendes, who seems obsessed by the dark underbelly of American life: his first feature film was American Beauty, which exposed hypocrisy and violence in suburbia; his second, Road to Perdition, was about Depression-era gangsterism. Jarhead has been criticised by both the pro- and anti-war camps. Those who support the current US-led intervention in Iraq are concerned that it will dent soldiers’ morale; those opposed to the Iraq war are disappointed that the film is ‘neither overtly political enough, nor unambiguously anti-war enough’ (perhaps they wanted Mendes to make a public announcement broadcast instead?) (1). Others point out that Mendes seems to have wanted to comment on the current Iraq war but has chosen to do it through the earlier Iraq war, a bit like the way that 70s US series M*A*S*H depicted the Korean war but was really about the Vietman war – and no doubt that is true. But it seems to me that for all these complaints, Mendes has made a film that captures very well the peculiar inhumanity of contemporary warfare.

Yes, as numerous reviewers have pointed out, the film shows how the American military’s reliance on airpower threatens to make Joe Soldier redundant. But it is about more than the futility of war, even the futility of a massive air war conducted by some of the most powerful nations on Earth against one of the weakest. It is more depressing than that; it’s about the futility of life in general. Swofford and his colleagues are all young men with dull and directionless lives. On the flight to Iraq they feel like they have finally come to life, having spent years trying to get to the ninth level of some video game or other. ‘You know what happens when you get to the ninth level?’ one of them says. ‘Nothing.’ Swofford didn’t really get lost on his way to college; he’s just not convinced that going to college and getting a good job is all it’s cracked up to be.

In contrast to the speedy and lively photography of their time in the desert, their civilian lives are depicted as grey and static. One is shown stacking supermarket shelves; another gives a soulless presentation to a bunch of boardroom execs; Swofford sits in front of a blank computer screen. They don’t go to the desert to fight for something (as evidenced in their heated debates about whether this is a war for oil or to liberate Kuwait or what?) but rather to find themselves. They believe the physical experience of fighting in a war will give a kind of meaning to their otherwise bland existences. That’s why, when one of Swofford’s mates has the opportunity to kill an Iraqi general with a sniper’s rifle, only for the operation to be called off at the very last minute, he breaks down and sobs uncontrollably. This, he insists, was ‘my moment’. ‘It’s my kill!’ he bawls. He doesn’t see knocking off the Iraqi as one small part of a greater war effort (whatever that might be) but as something akin to popping his cherry, a cathartic experience that will make him more of a man than he is.

This belief that war has a special power to imbue our personal lives with purpose has been doing the rounds, and not only among jarheads. Many journalists over the past 10 years have thrown themselves into war situations in search of that special something that seems to be missing from their daily lives. In his widely-praised War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (the title kind of says it all), the New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges writes of having become addicted to war in the 1980s and 90s and how he much preferred ‘the simplicity and high’ of war to ‘the routine of life’, our ‘sterile, empty, futile present’. ‘Many of us, restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives’, says Hedges. ‘We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness…. The eruption of conflict reduces the headache and trivia of daily life.’ (2)

In a more embarrassing contribution (but which was equally widely praised by other journalists) British writer Anthony Loyd wrote a memoir called My War Gone By, I Miss It So about his experience covering the civil war in Bosnia for the London Times. He describes the Bosnian war as being like ‘falling in love…a heady sensual rush’ which ‘I have never found elsewhere’. He takes journalistic narcissism to a new low when he describes even a sexual encounter with a Serb woman as part and parcel of his thrilling sense that he was in the midst of a good war against a bad people (the Serbs). ‘We screwed each other in her flat: proxy war repackaged as love’, he writes. ‘I wanted to bite her, scratch her, hurt her, fuck her, love her.’ (3) Various reviewers have noted the close relationship between sex and death (or more accurately wanking and wanting to kill) in Jarhead, but journalists seem just as capable of seeing their dicks as an extension of their wartime egos. (The penis is mightier than the pen, perhaps?)

What these jarheads and journalists reveal (aside from the fact that reporters today can make everything, even someone else’s horrible bloody war, all about themselves) is that contemporary war is less the pursuit of politics by other means than it is simply the pursuit of meaning. It is a vacuum in the West, a sense that our lives have become ‘empty’ and ‘futile’, that can make other people’s wars seem attractive to both wide-eyed wannabe marines and the cheerleaders of war in the media. In this sense, the jarheads’ search for something bigger than themselves in Iraq is a microcosm of what Western military intervention itself has become over the past 15 years, from the first Gulf War to the current Gulf war. These sporadic interventions are driven less by the quest for profit or territory than they are by a desire for moral renovation on the part of confused and crisis-ridden elites. At a time when our leaders struggle to create even a minimal consensus at home the appeal of intervening abroad is that they can pose as morally serious actors in some far-off foreign field. They, too, like Swofford and his fellow jarheads, go tripping to various deserts to fill a gap, looking for that something which seems to be missing from the everyday. They intervene, not with a mission, but in search of one.

One of the freakier scenes in Jarhead shows Swofford stumbling upon an Iraqi family burnt to death while sitting around a campfire. Their bodies are blackened to a crisp. He doesn’t know what to make of them, just as he doesn’t know what to make of the war itself: are they the enemy, civilian casualties, collateral damage, what? Really they are none of these things; they are props in Swofford’s and the American military’s morality play in the desert. It’s a stark reminder that trying to find yourself by fighting in someone else’s backyard can have deadly consequences for those who live there.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

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