Marine Corps sniper Anthony Swofford could kill a man a thousand meters away with a single shot and out-swear anyone in his platoon. Yet when Iraqi artillery started falling during Desert Storm, he urinated down his legs right into his boots.
John Wayne he wasn't.
Just in time for America's encore in Iraq, Swofford offers a boot's-eye view of the last war there, stripped of any romance or glory. Swofford takes a cynical look back at his time as a 20-year-old "jarhead," the self-deprecating way Marines describe themselves.
"I was dumb enough to sign a contract and here I sit," he writes, though it's hard to tell whether such skepticism sprang up in the Saudi desert or grew later with hindsight.
A military brat who ironed a Marines decal onto his T-shirt as a boy, he joined the Corps at age 17-1/2. Swofford sought in his new brotherhood the acceptance absent after his Air Force father walked out on the family. He learned to shoot, shout, and spit right.
Still, he's never completely of the Corps. He read Homer's Iliad in the back seat of a Humvee while fellow soldiers wrestled in the dust.
His platoon began its odyssey in Saudi Arabia only weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait. American commanders feared Saddam Hussein might launch further attacks, easily rolling past the small US force then deployed. But instead of a tense standoff, Swofford and his platoon mates became trapped in a long, boring purgatory between home and war.
They spend sleepless nights waiting for air-raid sirens. They're ordered to play football in 112-degree heat in full biological-chemical protective gear to impress visiting newspaper reporters. His girlfriend leaves him. For a moment, he puts his rifle to his head, perhaps contemplating suicide.
Swofford portrays his fellow soldiers as foul-mouthed, girl crazy, and barely out of high school. They may be trained killers and tough talkers, but they're still mostly lovelorn, lonely kids. Before getting to the fighting, he skips back to boot camp and jumps forward to the war's aftermath when some of his platoon mates die senseless deaths or descend into paranoia.
Theirs was an oddly detached war. They dug foxholes and marched through clouds of oily rain but found little combat. Like the armchair generals who watched the war from home via smart-bomb scopes, they never saw some of the most gruesome images.
Breaching the Kuwaiti border as Iraqis surrendered in droves, Swofford witnessed only a taste of destruction. He saw rotting corpses struck by bombs so large the concussion alone killed them. Some in his units seem disappointed that they never got the chance to kill, making up for it by defiling the dead.
He came under fire only three times - the most serious attack from an American tank. That wasn't unusual: "The horribly sublime" reality of friendly fire he describes accounted for 17 percent of America's 148 fatalities. Curiously, he also makes no mention of Gulf War syndrome, the odd mix of ailments veterans report suffering since returning home.
Swofford's unit celebrates the war's end by chewing tobacco and listening to music from Vietnam: The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones. For American hawks, victory in the Gulf War helped exorcise that defeat, but Swofford vomits up the tobacco, writing, "It feels like I'm regurgitating the last seven months of my life."
Some 60,000 jarheads are again massed along the Iraqi border. Unlike Swofford, they may not enjoy the luxury of pitying a hapless enemy. If troops wind up battling house to house through the streets of Baghdad, they may long for the disappointment of missing out on combat.
Swofford concludes on an untriumphant note: "More bombs are coming. Dig your holes with the hands God gave you."
• Seth Stern is on the Monitor's staff.