Jarhead

A few months ago This American Life devoted a segment to a soldier who wanted to discuss his decision to join the military so he could fulfill his desire to kill another human being. On the one hand, the fact that he was actively interested in committing murder made him seem like a sociopath, and that was chilling. On the other hand, he was honestly wrestling with the emotional consequences of that desire, and he was channeling his desire in a socially acceptable way, so he wasn't completely a monster. It was a story that challenged the ethics of soldiering in a way that I had never heard before.

I kept thinking about that soldier when I was rewatching Jarhead. Jarhead is about a sniper named Anthony Swofford in the first Gulf War, and he has a similarly complicated relationship to his job. There are times when Swofford talks about shooting someone with black humor - the holy grail for a sniper is to see "the pink mist" coming out of the back of a target's head, a jokey term which utterly undermines the darkness of what it describes. There are times when Swofford is completely gripped by his need to prove himself, and he approaches his task with the intensity of a fanatic. There are times he's completely disgusted with himself for being on the path that he's picked, which he suspects is morally wrong. He never quite figures out how he feels about what he's doing, so the audience never does, either.

That indecision is a big part of what gives Jarhead it's feeling of verisimilitude. There are a lot of war movies that are implicitly pro-war (treating armed combat as the tool that magically solves the problem at hand), and there are a lot of war movies that are implicitly anti-war (as it is the thing that turns men into beasts), but it's rare to find a movie that covers both sides of the story. Some of the soldiers that Swofford serves with love the service and make good arguments in it's favor. Some of them are bored and disgusted by the long days in barren hellholes and make good arguments against it. But nobody can convince Swofford one way or the other whether he's providing a service to the world or merely being a hired killer. His fear and his desire for success on the battlefield are the proverbial unstoppable force and immovable object that govern his time at war.

Swofford is young enough that he lacks a complete sense of self, and he needs the reassurance that proving himself in combat would give him. But what if killing a human being undermines his sense of self worth by proving him to be a monster? Is he doing this for vanity, because he wants to be manly, or is he doing this because he's committed to serving the greater food? The moral issues at play in Jarhead are more complex than they first appear: it's skeptical of war, of course, but it's also asking what cost is worth paying for self actualization?

I don't know what's happened to Swofford in the years since he wrote his autobiography, or in the years since the movie came out. I don't know if he has any closure with these questions now. But after listening to that This American Life interview I suspect that there are times when he's still haunted by the desires that live in the darkest corners of his heart; once you've opened that Pandora's box up, you can't bottle up all the demons again. That might be the hardest ethical question of them all: do we really want to be honest about what demons lurk in the hearts of men?

Winner: Me

Jarhead on IMDB