Why Men Love War
Jarheads: Romancing the Brutes
The November 1984 issue of Esquire carried a long article by William Broyles Jr., a Vietnam veteran, entitled “Why Men Love War”—“why men in their sixties and seventies sit in their dens and recreation rooms around America and know that nothing in their life will equal the day they parachuted into St. Lo or charged the bunker on Okinawa,” why, despite the brutality (because of the brutality), war is a “deadly game, but a game, the best there is. And men love games. You can come back from war broken in mind or body, or not come back at all. But if you come back whole you bring with you the knowledge that you have explored regions of your soul that in most men will always remain uncharted. Nothing I had ever studied was as complex or as creative as the small-unit tactics of Vietnam. No sport I had ever played brought me to such deep awareness of my physical and emotional limits.” Broyles was describing what Philip Roth summed up in one line (in The Human Stain): “ape-shit guys who recognize the horror but know it is the very best moment of their lives.”
Only an American, then or now, would write like Broyles (whose wartime sensibilities, such as they were, translated into the melodramatic “ China Beach,” the television series he created in 1988, before he embraced inner-child melodrama wholeheartedly with screenplays to “Castaway,” “Unfaithful” and “The Polar Express”). Only an American would, despite the genocidal wars of the twentieth century and their simmering progenies in the twenty-first, still compare war to a game worth its exploratory atrocities, because Americans are still the only people on the planet who have no concept of total loss, of losing not only a war (and not merely a war in some alien landscape half way around the globe, like Vietnam), but of losing a war the way most countries experience the loss: as a loss of country, home, identity, soul, a loss of the very ability to plumb a couple of muscle-bound silver linings out of the hell that was—a total loss that, luckily, has never happened here. War is still a construct here, something experienced always at a remove, and for veterans, internalized at a remove: European veterans of the Somme and Normandy and the Bulge and the extermination camps fought where they lived, live where their comrades and families died. The closest an American can ever come to that experience is by walking around Civil War battlefields, and even then keeping out of the shadow of numbing visitors’ centers and McDonalds’ billboards is a battle in itself. That’s probably why Antietam, safeguarded from those irruptions, is as overwhelming an experience as it is, and as shocking, even to the contemporary visitor. But in Europe every other city is an Antietam, with this difference: there’s no room for commemorative battlefields where an entire continent has been a battlefield. There’s no heart (no sense) in calling any of it a game, either.
You can’t blame Broyles. He’s describing a state of mind, not condoning or applauding it, though his limitations as an essentially Heingwayesque American veteran (limitations defined by the American survivor’s luxury of stepping out of hell and back into a home country as virginal and unscathed as it was before he left) make him incapable of owning up to more than cosmetic, literary humility. Just enough humility and inner-child angst, in other words, to make the whole bit about exploring those uncharted regions of the soul palatable to those who might see in war less of a purpose than giving a few good men a chance at an extreme Outward Bound experience. This isn’t to deny the addictive lustiness of certain aspects of war, what Chris Hedges, the New York Times reporter, summed up in the title of his book three years ago: “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Hedges himself went through that addictive period of needing war more than life’s most peaceful bliss. War was his bliss. But the depths he plumbed went a bit deeper than your average veteran’s: “The vanquished,” he wrote more recently in the New York Review, “know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war—death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.”
In 1990 Anthony Swofford was a Marine sniper assigned, along with half a million soldiers, to defend the oil and sheikhdom of Saudi Arabia, then take back Kuwait’s sheikhdom from Saddam’s army once the first George Bush figured out that Kuwait was, in fact, Texas’s 255th county. As a fellow Marine put it to him: “All those white fuckers from Texas have their fat hands in Arab oil. The motherfuckers drink it like it’s beer.” And it was up to the Marines and the rest of Colin Powell’s coalition to protect the motherfuckers’ investments. Bombastic histories aside, Operation Desert Shield and its offspring, Desert Storm, was nothing more glamorous than that. Swofford had a hell of a time fighting his brief war and wrote a book about it, called Jarhead (the term refers to the Marines’ trademark, jar-like haircut). Every war eventually produces a few books that cut through the jingoistic crap and triumphalist idiocies and nostalgic atrocities that make most military histories so unreadable. Jarhead is the Gulf War’s best. It’s written by a guy who read his Illiad in the back his Humvee, parrots Camus, reduces the essence of frontline religion to dogtags, loathes himself, the war he’s involved in and what reasons he finds to be fighting it, and has no illusions about the universally dehumanizing enterprise he’s joined and “the blind stupidity and dumb loyalty that first led me into the Corps and helped carry me out alive.” And the reason he joined? “The recruiter guaranteed me I could book a threesome for forty American dollars in Olongapo, PI. I’d just turned seventeen. I’d had sex three times and been the recipient of five blow jobs and fourteen hand jobs. I was sold.”
Some examples: “The lettuce came from Jordanian fields where they use human feces as fertilizer. So here we are, defending a country none of us gives a shit about, eating its neighbors’ shit, and burying ours in the sand.” On the Marines: “The Corps always waits up for you. The Corps forgives your drunkenness and stupidity. The Corps encourages your brutality.” On American intentions: “If colonialism weren’t out of style, I’m sure we’d take over the entire Middle East.” On Desert Storm: “… the easy victory that just scraped the surface of war.” And most tellingly of all, on the self-delusion of war monuments: “The warrior becomes the hero, and the society celebrates the death and destruction of war, two things the warrior never celebrates. The warrior celebrates the fact of having survived, not of killing Japs or Krauts or gooks or Russkies or ragheads. That large and complex emotional mess called national victory holds no sway for the warrior. It is necessary to remind civilians of this fact, to make them hear the voice of the warrior.”
To say such things in Europe would be superfluous. To say such things to Americans sounds alien, like a foreign language. It’s not the warriors Americans like to listen to, it’s the war with its irresistible entertainments and, courtesy of our obliging medias, its black and white simplicities. Swofford isn’t much for war as a game, for war as anything redemptive, silver linish or inner childish. He’s not much for why men love war. He was spared death and mutilation, at least the physical sort. He was grateful. “Unfortunately,” he writes on the last pages of Jarhead, “many of the men who live through the war don’t understand why they were spared. They think they are still alive in order to return home and make money and fuck their wife and get drunk and wave the flag. These men spread what they call good news, the good news about war and warriors. Some of the men who spread good news have never fought—so what could they have to say about the purity of war and warriors? These men are liars and cheats and they gamble with your freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country.”
Last November, “Jarhead,” the movie, opened. It was directed by Sam Mendes of “The Road to Perdition” and “American Beauty.” It was more about the current war than about Gulf War I of course. But the revisionism has begun. The screenwriter was William Broyles Jr.