A bank robber persuaded Anthony Swofford, a Marine veteran of the first Gulf War, to take up writing in earnest. The studious loner who'd grown up on U.S. Air Force bases had a substantial stack of bad poems to his name, but he didn't seriously consider writing until the night he was held up in the Sacramento bank where he found work after leaving the armed services.
A teacher told him to stop writing and start reading William Gass, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf for inspiration. The advice paid off, and Swofford was accepted into the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where, he says, "all they ask of you is that you write."
At first, Swofford wrote a fictional account of his experiences in the Gulf War. But when he suddenly introduced a character named "Swofford" into the narrative, it struck him that he should, perhaps, tackle the subject as memoir. The result, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, is a decidedly personal and raw view of the last war in Iraq from the point of view of a sniper, a trained marksman who can hit a target 900 yards away with frightening accuracy. The book takes readers over the author's conflicted attitudes toward the war's aims, through the tedium of the desert and the burning landscape of oil fires, and past American soldiers desecrating the bodies of dead Iraqi combatants. That Jarhead is hitting stores on the eve of what seems sure to be another war in Iraq isn't hurting the book's momentum.
Swofford, 32, moved to Portland a little less than two years ago and wrote most of Jarhead here. Now a teacher at Portland's Lewis & Clark College, the Northwest Portland resident has toiled in relative anonymity, but that's all about to change. The New York Times says Jarhead is "some kind of classic, a bracing memoir that will go down...as one of the best books ever written about military life."
His opinion about the current state of affairs? "Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a bully," Swofford says. "He's also a convenient target right now. This war has very little to do with weapons of mass destruction. It has to do with the region and wanting to bring some stability to the region...25, 50, 100 years from now, not three, four or five years from now."
The passages that follow are excerpts from Jarhead.
Willamette Week was unable to secure web rights to any portion of Swofford's memoirs. To read the excerpts you will need to pick up a print edition of this week's paper.