It was only later -- hours, days, weeks; I don't recall -- that my mother said always to call softly in order to wake Dad. Never touch him. He had been in the infantry in the Pacific and had nightmares about Japanese soldiers sprinting toward his position. Getting to the truth of this is impossible. I have only my mother's sparse sentence. My father never spoke of the war.
It's pretty common, this silence from soldiers. The rest of us are left with another bald thought: War is unspeakable.
Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, his unsparing memoir of the first Gulf War, speaks the unspeakable. A Marine Corps scout and sniper, Swofford was among the few soldiers trained to kill deliberately -- one person at a time, with a high-powered, highly accurate, long-range rifle.
But he never fired the rifle at anybody; the Gulf War was over too fast. The beauty of Jarhead is letting people realize that the screaming forge of combat isn't the unspeakable part. No, that starts way earlier, when a teenage kid enlists for a variety of complicated reasons, or in the way the military runs on cruelty and lies, because that's what we call tradition. The unspeakable is in the training, the deployment, the waiting, because all the time there is combat between who you were, who you are and who you want to be.
With the shooting war over, Swofford's platoon is ordered to clear bodies and gear out of Iraqi bunkers. With a soldier's eye, he describes the gear that belonged to the dead, observing that they were front-line soldiers who didn't clean their rifles. It's an observation that packs a lot into a few words, and Jarhead is full of them. It takes time to get it all out and get it straight, something the film adaptation can't do as well. In Jarhead, Swofford does it one compelling sentence at a time.
For all the people who've lived with the silence of former soldiers, this book is like finally getting that good, long talk.