Reading War: Anthony Swofford’s JARHEAD

Reading War: Anthony Swofford’s JARHEAD

The first time I spoke with an agent, he asked about my memoir manuscript.

“It’s a lot like Jarhead,” I said.

He shook his head. “Every one says that about their war memoir. Don’t say that.”

I don’t use the comparison much anymore, but it’s always on the back of my mind. Probably because Jarhead essentially broke the mold for literary war memoir. Others might be quick to raise their hand and point at Tim O’ Brien’s little-known Vietnam memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zoneas the genre-breaking prototype for contemporary war memoir. And I agree: it was the first to attempt essay collection as memoir. But it was still half-baked in my opinion. I don’t know enough, but my gut tells me it had something to do with not having any contemporaries from which to draw inspiration. It’s usually the first question I ask an author regarding their books: what were you reading when you wrote this book? In O’Brien’s day, creative nonfiction and its stepchild, literary memoir, was still busy being born. There were no Boys of My Youth (Jo Ann Beard) or even In Pharoah’s Army (Wolff, which pushes the form along) from which to draw inspiration. By way of example, consider contemporaries Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War and Herr’s Dispatches: Caputo’s is very much a chronological story, while Herr’s is wild and all over the place. In the time in which O’Brien wrote his war memoir, writers are still stuck on the idea that memoir translates better as fiction (interesting note, Jo Ann Beard’s story “The Fourth State of Matter”, which gave birth to Boys of My Youth, originally ran in the The New Yorker  as short story – it was the only way they could fit that brilliant piece within their strictures of genre.) Point being: O’Brien’s series of linked, memoirist essays, still feels disjointed enough to feel like memoir, but not quite.

Twenty five-odd years later, enter Swofford. Creative nonfiction is booming, memoir is selling like hotcakes. There are plenty of examples to follow, as noted above. And what’s more, Swofford is studying at the most prestigious MFA program in the country, The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he’s surely being exposed to a litany of cutting-edge nonfiction.

Jarhead is Swofford’s account of his time as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm, but the book is much larger than that. Each chapter functions like a stand-alone essay, linked by experience, voice, and easy transition in order to allow the narrator to dwell on one particular aspect of that time of his life without regard for chronology or the expectation that one should begin at the beginning and end at the end.

It’s “THE war memoir,” according to the agent I spoke to that day: the one all other contemporary war memoirs are measured against. I’ve read a lot of them — nearly all of the literary ones — and the book deserves the honor it gets. It sold well, its release date concurrent with the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and what’s more, it’s a remarkable telling of a screwed up human on the edge of the empire that teeters between raw emotion and gut-piercingly beautiful prose. The balance is remarkable, really. So good, some say, that Swofford will have a hard time surpassing it.

I try not to think of the comparisons too much, especially since I’m still working my way through the second draft of my own manuscript. But I’m always keen on drawing at least one lesson from each book I read. A lesson I can explicitly apply in my own work. And I’m not ashamed to say that Jarhead is my standard when it comes to translating war experience into an essay collection as memoir. It taught me a strong lesson in the idea that an essay can disguise itself as chapter, and that because a reader will recognize the comforting and familiar shape of such a thing, it offers a naturally occurring structure for the full exploration of an idea, thought, or theme.


Reading War: Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In A Combat Zone

IfIDieInACombatZoneIn full disclosure, I’ve actually read (and own) every book Tim O’Brien has written. Which is not to say that I’m some kind of expert, just a big fan. His books got me back into the game of thinking about my wartime experiences as writing material.  If I Die is O’Brien’s war memoir, an account of his time with the ill-fated Americal Division in Vietnam shortly after My Lai occurred, and during the period of time the information went public.

I read all his fiction before I got to If I Die, so my expectations were fairly high. After all The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato have emerged as some of the defining literature of Vietnam. After finishing If I Die, I recall disappointment. Not that it was a bad book, because it isn’t. O’Brien’s command of language and the written word is remarkable, but I simply expected more. Reading it again last year, the feeling was the same. Not bad, not great. And I might be in the minority opinion on the book, but here’s why…

There’s this idea in writing, that what finds its way to the page must be fully-formed by the author. And it’s this idea that is the achilles heel of the memoir. Produced hard (1973) on the heels of his deployment  from 1969-1970, I got the sense that the ideas put forth in the book were not fully grappled into submission. There’s this, which might be the most quoted line from the book: “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Yet the book reaches far beyond merely telling war stories, and this creates a narrative conflict between reader and narrator because we’re asked to disbelieve that the narrator has anything important to say, even as he conveys things that are obviously important to him. Then there’s the fact that I completely disagree with the statement. You will too if you believe that any story is worth telling, and is important if only as a representation of the human struggle to understand our world.

O’Brien wrestles various topics into varying levels of submission within the memoir, but in the end, the book overall felt as much a stalemate as the war itself during that period of time. You might disagree with this adversarial take on memoir, but don’t confuse my take as a condemnation of ambiguity. In fact, ambiguity is an important issue for any memoirist and indeed the writing of memoir itself emerges from question: Does what I have to say matter? That being said, a reader must feel the importance of the narrator’s stance, regardless of whether he agrees with the stance itself. The reader should have an idea of the story means.

In the end, the memoir has a cast-off air to it, and I’m not sure O’Brien ever answers the other ambiguous question that must be answered in the writing: what’s this story about? Which leads me to wonder whether, if he’d have given himself more time to write the memoir, if it would have looked different.