History in the Movies / By Cathy Schultz
The Few. The Proud.
The really, really foul-mouthed.
Okay, that last line isn’t part of the Marine slogan. But it did cross my mind while watching “Jarhead,” the searing, often savagely funny look at Marines during Operation Desert Storm.
Based on Anthony Swofford’s fierce memoir, “Jarhead” is not so much a study of Desert Storm as it is a study of Marine culture and the men who embrace it-sometimes reveling in it, sometimes despising it.
And always, always cursing their way through it.
Q. Oh, come on, do Marines really curse any more than those serving in the Army, Navy or Air Force?
A. I watched this film, read Swofford’s memoir and spoke with a number of Marine veterans.
The consensus among Marines?
Yes, they are the crudest and most foul-mouthed of the bunch. And they’re *bleeping* proud of it. Hoo-ah.
Q. ‘Hoo-ah’ is heard a lot in the film. What does it mean?
A. It apparently derived from the acronym HUA, which was used over the radio to mean, “Heard, Understood, Acknowledged.” It’s evolved into the all-purpose Marine response, denoting a “yes,” a cheer, a greeting, a grunt. It can apparently signify just about everything except “no.”
Q. Why “Jarhead?”
A. It’s the self-derogatory nickname Marines have for themselves. The high and tight haircuts they sport make their heads look like jars, especially when observed from behind. “Grunt” is another common nickname.
Q. Discussion of sex is constant among these characters. Isn’t this a bit over the top?
A. Well, never having been in the military, I can’t say. But it certainly was the reality for Swofford, and the men with whom he served. An early scene in the film shows a 17-year-old Swofford being regaled by a Marine recruiter with stories of all the foreign prostitutes he could score as a Marine.
And apparently, that was just the beginning.
The film suggests that the thoughts and conversations of Marines-at least those in Swofford’s platoon-revolve around sex, all the time. They obsess over various things they’d like to do to women, and obsess even more on the various things their wives and girlfriends might be doing with other men.
Q. Were Vietnam War movies really their favorite films to watch?
A. Apparently so, and I found this detail fascinating, if unnerving. The film shows Marines stationed in Saudi Arabia, gleefully cheering scenes while watching supposedly antiwar films like “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now.” Scenes that directors Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola intended to cause revulsion in their viewers are instead met with raucous, rowdy cheers by Marine audiences.
In the film, Marines cheer the loudest during one of “Apocalypse Now’s” most chilling scenes-the helicopters dropping napalm on villagers while booming out Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on speakers.
Defying the films’ antiwar message, the Marines instead celebrate the macabre exhilaration of fighting and killing. One has to wonder if a generation from now, Marines on their way to war will cheer wildly while watching “Jarhead.”
Q. At one point, Swofford puts a gun to the head of another Marine, and then to his own head. Was that just the filmmaker’s dramatic license?
A. Swofford pulls no punches in his memoir, especially not in his description of the young man he was then. Both these chilling events happened. He neither justifies them, nor adequately explains them.
Q. How accurately is the Persian Gulf War depicted?
A. This is an unusual war movie, in that there are no real battles, and in fact little actual combat depicted.
But then again, the Persian Gulf War was an unusual war, which is perhaps more apparent now, two years into a far more difficult military conflict in Iraq.
The Persian Gulf War was fast-the ground war lasted only four days and four hours from start to finish. It was an air war, dominated by overwhelming American firepower. A war in which the traditional American foot soldiers literally couldn’t keep pace with the rapidly moving front line.
This film is not so much a study of the war, but more a study of a handful of the Marines who slogged through it. Men who came under both friendly and unfriendly fire. Who worried lest the war pass them by too quickly. Who encountered charred Iraqi corpses, and the burning oil wells of Kuwait.
But who never found a living, breathing enemy whom they could shoot.
Q. What’s a good book for more information?
A. Read Swofford’s own best-selling book of the same name. It’s not the definitive war memoir, but it’s a compelling one.
In the same way, the film “Jarhead” isn’t the definitive film about Desert Storm, much less the definitive war film. And it certainly won’t entice anyone to join the Marines.
But it will create in viewers a grudging respect for Marines, and for all the men and women we send off to fight for us. Which is, I think, exactly the kind of reaction author Swofford and director Sam Mendes would have hoped for.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her website at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies