You are not you, the soldiers are told. You are camouflage. You are dirt. You are the sand beneath your feet, which is all you have to disappear into when, caught in the middle of the desert, you stumble across your enemy. Snipers, you are your rifle. You are the gallons of water that you are forced to drink, to drink until you are sick, because the army doesn't want dehydrated troops. When you misbehave, you are the outhouse shitbuckets, which, after everyone has finished his morning constitutional, you are responsible for mixing with gasoline and burning.
The term "jarhead" is used for two reasons. The first is that, with a marine haircut, one's head vaguely resembles the shape of a jar. Also, a jar is an empty vessel, a useful commodity with no personality or will of its own. Thus, jarhead: soldier. Anthony Swofford, a US Marine who served during the first Gulf War found himself in the middle of the desert wondering, like most of his fellow soldiers, what the hell he was doing there. His time in the desert led him to write a book, published in 2003. Williams Broyles Jr. translated Swofford's book into a screenplay, which acclaimed director Sam Mendes (American Beauty)
Starring Jake GyllenhaalDirected by Sam Mendes Rated R
turned into a feature film. Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the film as Swofford, a young guy who accidentally wandered into army life. At one point in the film, just before having his head smashed into a chalkboard, Swofford (Gyllenhaal) shouts, "Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!" after being brusquely asked why he had joined the army.
One of the most poignant aspects of Jarhead is the litany of ways in which the soldiers are stripped of their identities. Everything that they are, own, and feel is assigned a new name. Everything is translated into army lingo. The listing of these items in the early chapters of the film is reminiscent of the similar listing in the beginning of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. But what is not named and what has no room in the life of a soldier is the fear that he feels. And he is given absolutely no psychological or verbal space for the life that he has left behind and the things he worries about. Swofford cannot speak about the fact that his father, a Vietnam veteran, is not a very nice man who he has a poor relationship, that his mother can't make it through a batch of muffins without sobbing, that his sister spends her days walking barefoot through the corridors of a loony bin. Soldiers are not meant to have or give any thought to these features that identify them as individuals, that make them human.
Jarhead is a meditation on what happens to a person when there is absolutely nothing to do but wonder when something terrible is going to happen. Waiting and waiting for an explosion, an ambush, a sudden bullet in the chest or knife in the back. So there is only worry, especially worry focused on life back at home. Worrying about family and friends, especially worrying about who your girlfriend might be fucking. Jarhead is an especially powerful film because it focuses on what it is really like to be a solider fighting in a nonsense war, most powerful because it is all happening again: another Bush, another war in the Middle East.