Jarhead is a film about the other harsh reality of war, the tens of thousands of soldiers who endure endless days and weeks of crushing boredom, loneliness and deprivation, only to never get the chance to use the skills that they’ve often spent years honing. Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Jake Gyllenhall) was a Marine Scout-Sniper during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He lives and breathes for that one perfect head-shot during a shooting war. “I want the pink mist,” he tells us, referring to the blood spray that results from a 7.62mm slug passing through a human cranium.
We pick up Swoff’s story as he enters the Marine Corps and is subjected to the sadistic, profane drill instructor Fitch (Scott MacDonald), who could give R. Lee Ermey’s legendary Gunny Hartman a run for his money if he had enough screen time. Things don’t get any easier as Swoff joins his platoon, under the leadership of Staff Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx), a no-nonsense veteran who seems mild and pleasant, but only when placed next to D.I. Fitch.
The film portrays the life of a Marine as a college fraternity, magnified by about six levels of debauchery and jolly, brotherly sadism. A lot of what I’ve seen from Abu Gharib is tame compared to what Marines inflict on each other in this film. I don’t think anyone at the notorious prison ever got branded, did they? The film never condemns nor endorses this kind of conduct, but simply portrays it as the reality of the profanely macho existence of a Marine.
When Iraq invades Kuwait in August of 1990, Swoff and his unit are among the first few thousand U.S. troops dispatched to Saudi Arabia as part of Desert Shield. That means that Swoff and his platoon have to spend close to six months waiting in the middle of the desert fighting boredom, sand flies and news of cheating girlfriends before getting their chance at the action. Even when the war starts for real, the ground troops are left on the sidelines, wondering if the flyboys are going to win the war without their help.
When the ground war starts, Swoff’s platoon seems to spend the entire 100 hours one step behind it. They witness a deadly friendly-fire incident, stumble across the “highway of death” and later discover the oil wells set afire by Iraqi troops, but never once get to fire their weapons in anger. Finally, Swoff and his spotter, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are tasked with killing the Iraqi commander of a heavily defended airfield. They eagerly embark on the mission, knowing it may be their only chance at the “pink mist” and a piece of the action.
I’m not certain, but I have my doubts that all of the incidents portrayed in the film and Swofford’s book happened to one Marine and his platoon. It seems unlikely that one small unit would be witness to all that happens in the course of the movie. That some of the stories may be anecdotal is indicated by the scene in which one of the Marines receives a homemade porn film starring his wife. This is a well-known urban legend that predates the Gulf War, so it’s likely that Swofford heard about it rather than witnessed it himself.
Jarhead neither celebrates nor condemns the military or the First Gulf War. Swoff’s superiors are not portrayed as clueless martinets but as more refined examples of the coarse machismo within the ranks. Jamie Foxx’s Sgt Siek is tough and demanding in the extreme, but the film understands that it’s his job. Same goes for Lt. Colonel Kazinski (Chris Cooper), Swoff’s battalion commander, who revels in and encourages the bloodthirsty impulses of his Marines, which is graphically illustrated when they are shown cheering the helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now like it was a football game.
Those looking for either rah-rah flag waving or a politically-correct condemnation of militarism will be disappointed by this film, which understands that these men are trained to kill and manages to empathize when they are denied their only chance to use their skills.