By David D'Arcy
November 8, 2005 - 2:40 AM PST
Watching the film and then watching television coverage of the war, to the extent that there is much television coverage of the war, do you see this as a substitute for or an addition to journalism about the war? What does your book, or the film, give us that we're not getting in the press?
We get character. We get actual lives, and not just snippets and edited moments. And I do think the interiority of the book does survive as much as it can on-screen. And that interiority is not offered elsewhere in the popular perception, or in how the war is popularly received.
I was thirty when I started writing Jarhead. I had just finished graduate school. I was living this radically different life than the one I'd had as a twenty-year-old. I wanted to understand that guy. It was May of 2001. People weren't really worrying too much about the military. There was that little Kosovo thing, and in Somalia it was kind of rough, and the Gulf War had been perceived and received solely through television. I knew that a different story had occurred on the ground. And I was also wanting to open up this privatized and specialized world. One of the first lessons you learn upon joining the Marine Corps, one of the first lessons they want to teach you is that you're on this side of the fence now, and you're going to fight, kill, possibly die in the Marine Corps. That makes you different, and it also makes you better than everyone else on the other side. I never really believed that, and I wanted to bust open that world. I wanted to be honest about what happens there.
There's a scene in Jarhead the film in which Marines watching Apocalypse Now roar with approval when helicopters make a strike on a Vietnamese village. How did the Marines in your unit relate to war films?
Vietnam was still very much a part of the culture of the military. Today you couldn't walk around a military base, certainly not an army or Marine base, without hearing some guy pop off and quote Robert Duvall, you know, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," or "Charlie, don't surf." The military culture is peppered with the language of those films.
What other films besides Apocalypse Now did the Marines tend to know and like?
Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, which was really popular in the Marine Corps because of the great first half of the film, which captures the chaos and madness of boot camp; Platoon which is one of my favorites, because Willem Dafoe's character, Sergeant Elias, is that truly moral figure who is a casualty of the madness of war. He's as much the bad soldier as he is a casualty of the system and the superstructure that brought him there.
What sort of war books, war novels, war memoirs did you read?
I really loved Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. He was a Marine lieutenant in about 1965. It's a great book. There's a line early on where he says, "You're about to discover that the most brutal thing on Earth is your average 18-year-old American boy."
I love Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and Tim O'Brien's Vietnam novel, Going After Cacciato. From World War II, I like Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones's The Thin Red Line as well.
How long did it take you to write Jarhead?
I wrote Jarhead in a year. I'd been working on a novel and moving around the terrain for a year prior.
Back to the film - one scene that really struck me was when they were crawling under barbed wire with live ammunition being fired above them. Did that actually happen?
No, that scene did not actually happen, but that happens. When I was at Camp Hansen, training, a guy was walking around with a 50-caliber rifle. It comes in three pieces, and some fucking knucklehead was carrying it around on his back, and he forgot to take the round out of the chamber. He pulled the trigger and blew the head off the guy who was walking behind him.
Being in the military is very dangerous. When I go around, giving talks, often some older Marine will come up to me and tell me a crazy story. A guy who served in Korea came up and told me, after he says he's read the book and loved it: "Those fucking Marines, they don't ever change, do they?" There was this guy who walked into a tent, he has one fake grenade and one real one, and he's going to play a joke on these guys, so he decides to throw the fake one into the tent, but he throws the real one, and he kills four guys. This is 1950 in Pusan - that same crazy shit still goes on.
Memories of the Vietnam War and novels about the Vietnam War are full of drug use. I had my own experience with the military right after the Vietnam War, and this was in Germany. Believe me, this army was running on marijuana. The most heavy drug use was during maneuvers. You can imagine what that was like, fighting the Soviet enemy, or preparing to fight them. Yet the only hint in Jarhead the film that these guys are getting intoxicated is when he buys five gallons of homemade hooch, and then the place burns up when all the guys get drunk. Were the Marines so drug-free?
Yeah, but not by choice. And that's one the great jokes they played on us. We had watched these films about war where soldiers were intoxicated, and where there were women, and we were going to this place where we were neither going to get intoxicated, nor would there be women. People tried, and there was this lie that out in the middle of the desert there was this hospital, and there was also this brothel, and guys would always be looking for this place.
How crazy did these kinds of fantasies get, when you were just sitting there waiting?
At some point the sexual thing is kind of obliterated, because you know it's not going to happen. Certainly there were fantasies of getting to war and being able to fight. We felt it was our only way home. They told us that when we landed there would be rifles blaring, and it didn't happen. Then we'd be on patrols in the desert, and we'd just be training and training. We sort of wanted war to happen, if for no other reason than to get us home.
Did the guys in your unit read Jarhead? Did you hear from them?
I've heard from roughly half of the guys, maybe a few more. Before I published the book, I tracked three guys down, because I just wanted to confirm some events, to determine that this actually happened. John, who was our corpsman, said he had some difficulty with the book. I think he was having trouble with the honesty and the opening up of our private space. There's a line that's directly from the book, which Jake says in the film: "Inside of our circus, we cannot be injured. Inside of our circus, we cannot be touched. But we were insane to believe this."
Toward the end of the book, you write that the fog of war is not so much a fog but a buzz.
For us it was this flurry of noise, of confusion, our own buzz of wanting to fight, wanting to go to war.
Are you really sorry that you never got to kill anyone in war?
That was something that I did battle with for many years. I write in the book that in dark periods I would have been willing to give up anything to go back and pull that trigger. It took the writing of the book to realize that this was no longer true and that I was beyond this desire. It's not normal at 18 to want to do this. I call this a psychosis. It's taught, and it's consensus. I was very good at being a Marine from age 18 to 22. It marked me. It altered me. It took the writing of the book for me to spend time with that history, to realize that if I had pulled the trigger, I would have been altered even further, and I probably wouldn't have been sitting there writing this book.
How do you relate the book to the current war in Iraq?
I started writing the book before this war started, and there are so many obfuscations that were going on for starting this war, or for being at war. My book came out in March 2003, and I was able to enter the cultural conversation about starting the war, and now that we're still there, I think the film can do the same thing. People should leave the theater and discuss what's happening now. This is not commentary or op-ed on the politics, but it is a keen-eyed view on what occurs on the ground and what happens to the people who are doing the fighting, and a view into the long-term reverberations.
Most of us, thank God, will never have this experience, but wherever our politics land, I think it's important culturally to understand what this process is like.
The nature of the war is so different now. In this film, you in the desert, you're wandering around, rarely in contact with anyone shooting besides Americans. Now you've got an entirely different situation, where the US military are acting as policemen, where you've got a huge civilian population, and it's so dangerous that troops can barely drive down the street, much less to the airport, without coming under fire. What's common to the two wars?
What's common is the making of the person who fights, the psychological space. Orwell has a great line in an essay on the Spanish Civil War. He says that the misery and horror is not really affected by the intensity, that there's something about being in that war that reverberates from generation to generation.
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"The look, the feel, the sound, the training, the desert."
"Military culture is peppered with the language of those films."
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Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.
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