Reviewed in the United States on January 20, 2004
My overall sense is that Anthony Swofford wasn't ready to write this book.
He writes that he had put the war out of his mind, and the people he knew from war out of his life, until 8 years later he came upon artifacts and reminders. At that point he revisits his experience emotionally and, in preparing to write the book, researches facts.
Putting a traumatic event out of one's mind for a period of time as a way to remain sane is common and valid. Revisiting it, to be whole or complete or to become more "sane," is valid and common too. However, in making the decision to write a book at that time, what Swofford did not have at his disposal were his [missing] 8 years of memories. He didn't first feel and re-examine, think about and conclude, then tell his story. These omissions of self-examination were too blatant throughout the book, a book of self-examination.
The story he told, though, is written as if he does have the decade-later perspective (he tells us that his memoir is from this hindsight). But, he doesn't, having spent the decade shutting out the experience. The result, therefore, is not a grown man writing about 10 years ago, but a man still in the throes of a similar confusion or way of thinking as he was during the war. This is evidenced, very simply, by his use of language. Swofford is now an adult, a writer, a teacher, yet the vocabulary of the narration switches erratically between adult (i.e. "correct") usage and "grunt," "jarhead" jargon. I'm talking about the narrative style of his current perspective, not his description *of* the 18-year-olds in the Desert.
So, he is not 18 yet he also does not quite have the distance to tell the story he set out to tell - his perspective today. Valid, as he didn't revisit his story for many years. Psychologically valid, but missing in important detail for the reader, details not yet uncovered, perhaps, by Swofford himself.
I did not find this to be the horrific or gruesome story others did. I was not surprised that 17- and 18-year-olds behave like 17- and 18-year-olds. I was dismayed, as another reviewer wrote, that his mates were indistinguishable from one another. All but one or two blend together as a mass of fellow "jarheads" without personality. To him they are individuals he feels deeply for, he tells us (and he dedicates the book to them), but he doesn't show them to us.
Sometimes Swofford tells us his emotions and sometimes he doesn't. My complaint here is not that the story-telling is uneven but that I read the book because I wanted to read a memoir - one man's experience. His emotional experience and his actual experience.
At times, in the book, we've got detail of actual events, without Swofford's emotional reaction to it. Sometimes they are details of dates or activity, and sometimes these details take up many pages. I wanted more from *him* - his _memoir_. I wanted more about him, and *his* experiences.
But, I don't think the author himself has fully uncovered them, as they'd been buried many years before he tackled this very tough thing. This is not his fault; the fact that he wrote the book before he was ready is. Writing the book, itself, may have been cathartic and eye-opening for the author and, as much as I did learn, he just didn't write enough substance. I didn't *see* the desert; I didn't *see* the other men (but for a couple of exceptions); I didn't feel his feelings.
That said, I know more than I did before I read the book, and I'm not sorry I did. It was worthwhile, but had someone told me of a more "complete" Gulf War memoir to read, I would have chosen the other.
Also, I don't want to be fully critical. Swofford wrote, quite honestly, about personal things.
It's the things omitted that this book lacks. Regarding the adult, time-past perspective: I would rather have seen either, 1. an acknowledgement that there's a gap in his knowledge, and fully professional writing, or 2. the "jarhead"-style writing that comes and goes throughout the book be the consistent/only style. The book goes back and forth haphazardly, teen to adult writer, and my own conclusion is that this is where Swofford is, psychologically, with the material. It's not great writing, but it tells a story - be it not the full story of Swofford I'd hoped it would. I want to hear from a guy who experienced the Gulf War and I want to hear all about it; to me, he had the guts to write it... but not quite.
I do, though, have to give Swofford kudos for his bravery and for telling us what he did. I do appreciate it, and I did learn from him.