Jarhead is based on Anthony Swofford’s book of the same name, a first-person account of his time in the Marines, including a stint in the first Persian Gulf War. Third-generation enlistee Swofford joins the Corps to escape his dysfunctional family. But he brings a lot of that dysfunction with him.
After a harrowing journey through Marine boot camp, Swofford gets a rough reception upon reporting in to his first unit. Then he soon finds himself in Marine Corps sniper school under the tutelage of a tough lifer, Staff Sgt. Sykes, and he quickly becomes adept at placing three rounds in a dime-sized group at 1,000 yards. When word comes down that the nation is going to war in Iraq, Swofford and his fellow scout-snipers are eager to test their skills in the crucible of combat.
Instead of instant action, though, Swofford’s unit, the STA (Surveillance and Target-Acquisition) Platoon, find themselves with thousands of other American troops sitting in the hot Saudi desert killing time, cleaning weapons, drilling and patrolling, worrying about what their women back home are doing and, well, killing time.
Finally, the Marines get word that Desert Shield has become Desert Storm, and they are to be prepared to attack that night. Swofford and his comrades are about to learn what countless generations of warriors before them have also learned: Nothing can prepare you for the reality of war.
Despite a lot of antagonism among some Marines, they look out for each other as the unit goes into combat. And with one notable exception (which I'll detail in "Violent Content"), they’re willing to overlook each other’s foibles. Many of the Marines are obsessed with sex and pornography, but one Marine remains loyal to his wife and family, proudly showing a photo of his pregnant wife and, later, of his newborn son. Staff Sgt. Sykes denounces a Marine who desecrates the body of a dead Iraqi soldier and promises punishment for the act.
A Marine sergeant says, “You’ve all been taught ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Well, f--- that ...!” Likewise, a partial recitation of Psalm 23 is corrupted with obscenities and braggadocio. Swofford is upset that, even though he wants “no preference” listed for his religion on his dog tags, they keep coming back with “Protestant.” Another Marine counters, “At least they got your blood type right. If you were wounded, what would you be more upset about, getting the wrong prayer or the wrong blood?”
Sykes is shown reading a Bible and tells Swofford, “I thank God for every day he gives me in the Corps.” He calls the American forces waiting to attack Saddam Hussein “the righteous hammer of God.” And as his unit prepares to move into combat, the staff sergeant tells the Marines to “use the heads God gave you.” A man kisses a religious devotional card and then places it on a mini-altar he’s set up in his tent. A fellow Marine hangs a cross over his cot.
How this movie escaped an NC-17 rating is a mystery. There are three scenes of explicit sex with full motion and breast, rear and side nudity. One of those instances is a malicious “Dear John” letter that comes in the form of a video showing a Marine’s wife having sex with his neighbor back home. After the cuckolded Marine stalks off in rage, his comrades call him a "homo" and clamor to watch the pornographic footage again.
Swofford is obsessed with masturbation, and one scene shows him masturbating while clutching a picture of his girlfriend dressed in a skimpy T-shirt and panties (the camera watches from behind him). The other Marines seem to always have sex on the brain, too, often discussing sexual encounters in their past and making obscene suggestions about what they’d like to do to various women. At the same time they construct a “wall of shame” with pictures of the wives and girlfriends back home who have had sex with other men in their absence.
In a bit of horseplay the Marines strip off their chemical-warfare oversuits (they're still wearing their trousers) and simulate an orgy of oral and anal sex, hamming it up for visiting reporters. During a drunken party Swofford dances while wearing nothing but a Santa Claus hat over his genitals. A group of Marines is shown showering, although the lighting prevents us from seeing anything explicit.
Obscene sexual slang is the rule here, not the exception. A slew of gay jokes are told, and references are made to sodomy. Obscene hand and mouth gestures are made.
An instructor tells the Marines a sniper should want to see “the pink mist, JFK-style.” And they do. These Marines want to kill. So much so that when some of them don't get the opportunity, one actually collapses into a fetal ball and begins to sob dejectedly. (It's a mentality that's twisted and wrong, one that's not shared by most active or retired military.)
In a fit of rage over a mistake made by a platoon-mate, Swofford places the barrel of a loaded rifle against the man's head and threatens to shoot him. He then grabs the barrel and jams it in his own face, telling the Marine to pull the trigger.
We see through a sniper’s sight as it zeros in on an Iraqi officer’s head. And we see a Marine shot in the head in a training accident. An artillery barrage sends Marines scrambling for cover. Swofford, however, just stands there as shells explode within feet of him. (In reality the explosive concussion would have turned his body to jelly and the shrapnel would have shredded him.)
Air Force A-10s thunder overhead, and their 30mm Gatling guns blast a Marine truck and Humvee in a mistaken act of friendly fire. The Marines come upon a grisly “highway of death” similar to that seen at the end of the Gulf War. They walk among blasted and burnt vehicles with smoking corpses scattered about. One Marine desecrates a corpse by picking at it with his knife. We see a grisly picture of a burnt-and-blistered boy who had been gassed by Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Early on, a drill instructor grabs Swofford by the throat and repeatedly raps him on the back of the head. The Marines enthusiastically watch a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now where U.S. Army helicopters attack a Vietnamese village, and we see rocket and machine-gun fire kill people on the ground. (It’s a great irony that an anti-war film has been appropriated by Marines and soldiers seeking to gin up their courage for a coming fight.) The Marines play a pick-up football game and engage in some pretty vicious hits and tackles. And they brand each other with a blowtorch and a metal bar that reads “USMC.” A Marine accidentally sets a truck on fire, which ignites the flares in its bed. At the end of the war the Marines fire their weapons en masse into the air.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word has a special place in this script. It is used as a noun, verb, gerund, adjective, adverb and a mysterious part of speech in which it appears in the middle of a word. As for quantity, the number is in the hundreds, many in a sexual context. The film's long string of profanities and obscenities also includes about 50 uses of the s-word and lewd slang for male and female sexual organs (among them, the c-word).
A Marine makes a crude sexual reference to Mary the mother of Jesus, and God's and Jesus’ names are abused well over a dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Marines get drunk on moonshine. One was a drug dealer in civilian life, and when told he’s going to be discharged for lying about his criminal background, he jokes that he’ll go back to selling drugs.
Staff Sgt. Sykes smokes a large stogie. Several Marines smoke cigarettes. All are ordered to take special pills that will protect them from nerve gas. (One Marine balks at having to take the untested drug.)
Other Negative Elements
Swofford is put on a punishment detail that entails having to burn the contents of the toilets. (We see him drag the large barrels from beneath the wooden facilities with the contents sloshing about.) Also, Marines stand atop a large berm and urinate in unison.
Americans refer to Iraqis with crude racial epithets. And their charred bodies are verbally and physically (as mentioned in "Violent Content") disrespected. Swofford vomits twice while awake and once in a dream (a mound of sand comes out in the dream). The Marines keep pet scorpions and set them upon each other in fights; we see a large scorpion kill another with its stinger.
I served in three different infantry units over seven years in the Marine Corps, and I never encountered a unit remotely as dysfunctional or undisciplined as the platoon portrayed in this film. Moreover, it’s unfortunate that many people have recently gotten their impression of Marines from Swofford’s book, Jarhead, or will now do so through this film.
Bing West, an author and Marine Vietnam vet, writes that Swofford’s book is “about arrested development: part dysfunctional family, part boot-camp ritual, part sex and booze, part existential angst, part high jinks and part antiwar cant—e.g., Desert Storm was fought to protect ‘the profits of companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House.’”
This movie is no better. And director Sam Mendes (who shot to the top of Hollywood's A-list with his 1999 film American Beauty) is already getting a bit defensive about it. He told Entertainment Weekly, “Our intention, above and beyond any specific narrative about the Gulf War, was to give human shape to these numbers you read about every day. Everyone thinks somehow that Marines are all the same. Which is, of course, nonsense.”
But Mendes is trying to have it both ways, as did Oliver Stone with Platoon. Many people throughout the world will come away from Jarhead with the unmistakable impression that American fighting men are foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, homicidal maniacs and that their wives and girlfriends back home are unfaithful harlots just itching to hop into the nearest bed. After all, they have the “word” of an actual former Marine.
As he did with American Beauty, Mendes has taken a few specific truths and extrapolated them to the whole. Sure, there are some Marines who curse a blue streak, and some are obsessed with sex. Some of the immoral goings-on in this movie ring true, and I’ve known a few guys—emphasis on few—who would have been at home in Swofford’s herd. (To call it a platoon implies some semblance of order and control.) But the overall picture painted by Swofford and Mendes is a large, deeply dishonest lie.
West wrote about Swofford's account, "Far from telling the story of The Universal Soldier, the grunt’s unadorned truth, as reviewers have intimated, Jarhead is the over-written memoir of someone who ... either told tall tales or committed criminal acts under oblivious leaders whom he does not name. Either way, this is not how combat soldiers behave. Jarhead is to nonfiction what Platoon was to the movies: an insult to the American infantryman.” Again, the movie is no better.