Jarhead

Directed by Sam Mendes, Jarhead is about Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who joins the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in 1989, goes to Saudi Arabia in 1990, sees combat in 1991 in Iraq, and returns home thereafter. Early, during one of the voiceovers in the movie, the title is explained to have two meanings. A “jarhead” is initially produced visually by headshaving of Marine recruits, but subsequently the head is first emptied of any individuality and then refilled during training. For example, when reporters come to the Marines in Iraq, the commanding officer tells them what to say to the cameras; one Marine remarks “Censorship!” and another objects that America is a free country; but when cameras roll, the comments are mostly hellos to friends and family back home. Whereas such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now(1979) demonstrate the dehumanizing aspects of combat in Vietnam, with the latter explicitly used as a training film in Jarhead, the focus here is on the training and the waiting before the combat. The plot focuses on several Marines in addition to Swoff, who evidently joined to impress a father who got a medal in Vietnam. Troy (played by Peter Sarsgaard) admits that he joined to escape imprisonment, and his criminal instincts sometimes come to the fore. Many of the rest may have joined because they wanted to enjoy the camaraderie of other young men, though their gay tendencies are closeted not only from one another but also from themselves. When Swoff first joins as a new recruit, he is subjected to on-screen bondage, leaving filmviewers to imagine that what follows is gang rape. Soon, Swoff admits in a voiceover that his mouth has become a “cum receptacle.” On two occasions, several Marines are nude (in the showers, at a victory celebration). Swoff celebrates Christmas eve with a thong; the front is covered with a Santa cap that is pointing, not hanging. For visiting journalists, the Marines simulate gang rape, whereupon the press officer whisks the reporters away. Sadistic, pointless orders are given at several intervals, and punishments are sometimes meted out just for the sadomasochistic pleasure of officers as well as noncoms. Swoff’s immediate superior, Staff Sergeant Sykes (played by Jamie Foxx), admits that he enjoys his job, which involves giving orders and playing daddy. The tagline is “Welcome to the suck.” The combat in Iraq consists of holding a position for “four days, four hours, one minute,” after which the war is over without so much as a firing of a rifle. What is the point of the film, which strangely lacks a “based on a true story” title, though the movie is based on a real Anthony Swofford, who wrote A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (2003), wherein he frankly admits that one of ways of passing the time is to masturbate? One reading of Jarhead is that the plot is an exposé about how Marines were trained in 1989, and the death of one during a simple exercise is a clue about the Darwinism that pervades the Marine Corps despite the fact that the training is irrelevant to modern warfare wherein precision firepower wins battles, not hand-to-hand combat. A second purpose, similar to Steven Zeeland’s Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the U.S. Marine Corps (1996), is to document how the Marine experience is a lot of fun for latent homosexuals. A third insight is that the Marines appeal to those in small towns with no other employable options who are prepared to go to war without knowing why; as Swoff says to the camera, “I’m 20 years old, and I was dumb enough to sign a contract.” If a purely political statement is found in Jarhead, similar to how Three Kings (1999) portrayed the same war, the message is that the Marines are ill equipped and obsolete. An eloquent scene is the Marine unit’s tour of corpses, human and nonhuman, of a military unit that was bombed to smithereens, presumably by friendly fire, on the third day of the war. The final voiceover perhaps provides the best clue, saying that former Marines will never forget the experience and will remain jarheads, with a rifle always a part of their bodies; in other words, military training is a trauma that is unnecessarily dehumanizing and thereafter afflicts the families of former Marines. Accordingly, the Political Film Society nominates Jarhead as best film demonstrating the inferiority of violent forms of conflict resolution and by inference the superiority of peaceful methods. MH