Aug. 12, 2010
To My Wife
when we grab an hour of love
luxuriously in the late afternoon,
the growly baby snoring in the next room,v her sisters at the mall,
I feel as if I'm robbing the gods, who have,
some say, all the time in the world.
It's the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton, (books by this author) born in Dresden, Germany (1867). For many years, most American children first learned about Hercules and Medusa and Odysseus from her book Mythology (1942), which was an illustrated retelling of all the important Greek myths.
It's the 40th birthday of writer Anthony Swofford, (books by this author) born in Fairfield, California (1970). He's the author of the Gulf War memoir Jarhead (2003), which was later turned into an award-winning Hollywood movie directed by Sam Mendes.
The term "jarhead" is military jargon for a member of the Marines; it comes from the traditional haircut given to Marines, where the head is shaved high and tight and a small amount of hair is left at the top of the head — it resembles a jar.
Swofford said he was "seduced" by the Marines at a very early age. He hung out with teenagers concerned about SATs and getting into elite colleges, and they didn't think joining the military was cool. His dad, a Vietnam vet, really discouraged him from joining, and even escorted recruiters out of the family house when he was 17. But Swofford said that he was so afraid of failing in a normal life that he was determined to join the Marines.
So he did join, at the age of 18. He trained as a sniper. When he was 20, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the United States decided to send troops over. Swofford's unit was deployed to the Gulf to help defend Kuwait. On deployment he brought books like Homer's The Iliad and Camus's The Stranger, which he would read in an armored Humvee in between sniper drills. He wrote love letters to a Japanese woman he'd shared a passionate love affair with while stationed in Okinawa. But he didn't really keep notes about his combat experiences there. He had no plans to write about it.
When he got back from his tour of the Gulf and got out of the Marines, he was unprepared for civilian life. As far as work experience, his was mainly that he'd been trained to kill people — he'd joined the Marines straight from high school and trained as a sniper. Back in civilian life, he felt lost and unsure of himself.
He said that he felt like there was always a gun pointed at the back of his head and he was just waiting for it to go off. And then, in his first job in civilian life, he worked as a bank teller. He got robbed at gunpoint at work. He quit the job.
He worked as a waiter and got fired. He was angry, unsettled, uncomfortable with the violent experiences he'd been through, mad at himself for putting himself in that position. He worked at a warehouse and decided to go back to school, taking classes at a community college in Sacramento, not too far from where he'd grown up. He began writing for the campus literary magazine and soon became its editor-in-chief.
Around that time, he decided he was going to be a writer, that he would devote his life to it. He majored in English at nearby UC Davis and got accepted at Iowa Writers' Workshop.
He wasn't planning to write about his experience as a young sniper. He wanted to put it behind him, not revisit it. But a different novel he was trying to work on was not going very well, and he decided to spend time writing about what was gnawing at him and haunting him — his experiences in the Gulf War. And so in the spring of 2001, he began Jarhead. Within a couple years, he'd finished the memoir, and when it was released in March 2003, the U.S. was just beginning a second Gulf War.
In the beginning of Jarhead, he writes that "after hearing the news of imminent war in the Middle East" his platoon gets jarhead haircuts, then buys a bunch of beer and rents "all of the war movies they can get their hands on," Apocalypse Now and others. "Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended." He continues: marines everywhere "watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®