It's a sad twist of irony in Jarhead that Anthony Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal) says that he will never know himself as anything more than a soldier even though he has never killed anyone, and the only man he's ever watched die in front of his eyes was an accident that occurred during his basic training. He reminds you at the beginning and the end that no matter what a marine does, "love a woman, build a house, change your son's diaper" you'll always see the gun in your hands. It's a truth of battle that doesn't get portrayed in war films. While most movies are set up to portray injustice at the hands of violence and sentimental deaths of fallen friends, Jarhead presents another view; that no matter what, even without "seeing any action", the effects of War on a soldier penetrates deep.
Swofford (or "Swoff") doesn't embody the average "jarhead" marine, but rather he is a piece of an array of various kinds of men, many of whom we see in his platoon, that despite their differences all want something. It's what that something is that makes its themes so versatile. Swoff spends countless days "hydrating, masturbating, waiting, and hydrating some more" with his comrades in the middle of the desert with nothing to look at and nothing to do except anticipate their turn for a chance to fight and do something meaningful.
We watch as the small band of troops spend more time getting drunk and naked, talking about "fucking", and branding each other than we actually see them fight. From Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants nothing more but to be a great marine or Fowler, a "fuck-up" who can't take anything seriously (even the desecration of charred corpses) to Foster, a weakling who can't keep up or Cortez, who cheers for the deaths of the Iraqi's but dearly misses his pregnant wife, all of the men are denied their personal desires because of not only where they are, but what they are.
The men are taught to brand the mantra into their heads "I am nothing without my gun" but when they spend months out in the middle of nowhere in complete inactivity the gears turn. If I am nothing without my gun, and I never use my gun, what does that make me?
To pass the time the troops defy orders, dry hump each other in front of news reporters, and consistently discuss their need to "kick Iraqi ass". Their days become measured in their boredom and their losses. Gradually the troops come to expect their wives and girlfriends to cheat or leave them. The "Deer hunter" scene makes for a harsh realization for both the soldiers and audience. They attach pictures on an adulterous lover's tack-board while Swoff refuses to put his girlfriend's portrait up, using her faithfulness as an anchor for his sanity. And while she slowly becomes a memory for him, even masturbating to her picture (one of the few ways a marine can occupy their time he tells us) becomes impossible, and Swoff feels incapable of dealing with his feelings of uselessness.
His drinking and steady mental breakdowns during his duty are the emphases on the effect of warfare. We witness the act of War not from a viewpoint of governments and leaders but from the heart of the individuals. When Kruger (Lucas Black) asks "who do you think gave Saddam his weapsons?" Troy reminds everyone, including the audience, that in the midst of war it no longer becomes about anything but the people involved in it. "Fuck politics," he says, "We're here. All the rest is bullshit."
And we see that once out in the battlefield Swoff and the others are far removed from the debates of war. They are helpless to what exists around them. From burning oil fields that perpetually rain black to the leaving of white footprints over the miles of scorched sand they march on that harbor blackened bodies frozen in their natural positions, it's apparent, that, for them everything else really is bullshit.
In the end Swoff and his fellow snipers accomplish nothing and leave feeling as lost as when they went in, their indolence making them even more distraught than before. Their hopes of becoming something great by joining a military that promised to make them into the best are replaced by mediocre jobs, death, or the listless passivity of everyday life.
The men are immature, critical, emotional, and apathetic all at the same time, and when they return to normal life back home, nothing feels the same. They are changed although not from the same tragedies they see in the shell-shocked Vietnam Vet who greets them upon their return, but from another version of warfare that affects them in a similar way. Regardless of how many people one has or hasn't killed, the trauma runs deep. As Swoff tells us while he stares out his living room window, "the desert" is always in his head.
- Curtis LaCombe | 2005-11-07