ustxtxb_obs_2003_09_12_50_00031-00000_000.pdf

Page 32

by

Jarhead, continued from page 25 women, and the war between the younger generation and the older.” Because the Vietnam War and the narratives that emerged in its aftermath did not, of course, solve these conflicts, soldier-writers like Swofford and Turnipseed would have carried many of these with them to the desert as well. But they also would have carried the literary legacies of the Vietnam War generation of writers. What’s troubling about Swofford’s book is that he seems not to have read any of them. In a passage from Jarhead that both Bowden and Kakutani quote, Swofford explains that his motivation for enlisting had to do with his understanding “that manhood had to do with war, and war with manhood, and to no longer be just a son, I needed someday to fight.” And here’s Philip Caputo in A Rumor of War joining the Marines: “That is what I wanted, to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically. Having known nothing but security, comfort, and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges, and violence.” But the remainder of the 400-odd pages of Caputo’s book is, if nothing else, a troubled and troubling reconsideration of that ambition. And almost 20 years after Caputo, and seven years before Swofford,Tobias Wolff had already begun deconstructing this formulation in his memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army: “I’d always known I would wear the uniform. It was essential to my idea of legitimacy. The men I’d respected when I was growing up had all served, and most of the writers I looked up to Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Erich Maria Remarque, and of course, Hemingway, to whom I turned for guidance in all things:” Wolff isn’t finished dismantling his image of the warrior-writer: “I turned into a predator, and one of the things I became predatory about was experience. I fetishized it, collected it, kept strict inventory […] Experience was the clapper in the bell, the money in the bank, and of all experiences the most bankable was military service.” Reading this passage ‘ after reading Jarhead makes you instantly understand what it was that so often rubbed you the wrong way in Swofford’s stories: They seem to take place only for his own benefit, even the shameful ones. Again, Wolff provides the disconcerting gloss toward the end of his narrative: But isn’t there, in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it? And isn’t it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people’s houses apart. And in the end who gives a damn, who’s listening? What do you owe the listener, and which listener do you owe? We should accept the obligation of reading the Gulf War memoirs, as well as those that will emerge after the current war ends, \(and the one after that, and the one truth of them. Not just the literal, factual truth of them, to which few of us have any access, but rather the truth in the sense that O’Brien defines it in “How to Tell a True War Story”: A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, and then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. O’Brien goes on to explain the truth of a war story has little to do with literal truth, “because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Although Jarhead seduced most critics, it fails this truth test for me, and by the end of it I felt used. Interested readers should pick up Turnipseed’s Baghdad Express instead. Turnipseed’s experiences in the war don’t seem much different from Swofford’s, despite the fact that he’s a reservist truck driver rather than a sniper, but his reflection on his experience is much more fine-grained. Like Swofford, he relishes his status as bookreading intellectual among the brutes, but unlike Swofford, he’s willing to hold himself up to the ridicule of others and to consider the possibility that those who think he’s pretentious and squirrelly might have a point. Turnipseed’s also willing to grant his fellow marines their humanity, and his account of his gradual acceptance among men quite different from himself manages to say more about them than about him. And finally, Baghdad Express contains some truly wonderful sardonic cartoons and one ingenious chart from the “United States Marine Corps Philosophy Instruction School,” based on a chart \(also many inches of bunkers made of various materials will protect against which size bombs. The Philosophy chart takes dead aim at the trope at the center of most memoirs, recovery from childhood trauma or just plain bad luck, and stipulates the number of hours spent alone with the works of various philosophers in order to recover from “child abuse, drunk father, a shitty life, or Ayn Rand.”You’ll want to know that it’ll only take 30 hours of reading Plato’s Republic to erase the effects of child abuse, but you’ll need to devote a whopping 400 hours of your life to Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony to compensate for your exposure to Ayn Rand. Turnipseed’s war memoir isn’t perfect either. His bespectacled persona is a little cliched, as is his characterization of the jive-talking crew of African Americans with whom he shares a tent, but Baghdad Expressmore so than Jarheadpushes the limits of the genre and challenges the now-familiar conventions that have shaped the war memoir since the books about Vietnam began appearing in the 1970s. Elisabeth H. Piedmont-Marton is a writer who lives in Austin and an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University. 9/12/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 91