There is a scene in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead from 2005, where a helicopter flies over a group of US Marines busy digging into the hard, oil-covered desert earth, blasting through a set of speakers Break On Through (to the Other Side) by The Doors. Our protagonist, Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks up and says, irritated: ”That’s Vietnam music, man. Can’t we get our own fucking music?”
In that very scene we get to the core of the issue that Jarhead, a movie that upon its initial release in 2005 was deemed pointless and boring, wants us to think about. Jarhead in fact reinvented the cinematic depiction of war as we know it. Few people realized this, with Roger Ebert being one of the few critics who liked the movie and got its message. ”Jarhead sees the big picture entirely in terms of small details,” he wrote. And he was right. Indeed, Jarhead, in my opinion, did to the war genre what Goodfellas did to the gangster genre. It changed the formula for years to come, and by doing so, it made other filmmakers steer away from the genre.
Think about it, how many war movies about modern day conflict can you think of that have been made in the last fifteen years? I can only think of a few, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper and The Lone Surviver. The quality of these is arguable, sure, their agenda and the message they send even more so. Jarhead, however, was different. It talked about a new generation of soldiers. A new generation of men. It questioned and put a lot of themes into perspective.
The core of the issue, as mentioned above, is Jarhead’s persisting question of why can’t we have our own war? Its protagonists, being the sons and nephews of Vietnam veterans, arrive in Kuwait in the summer of 1990 to prove everyone that they too can write their own history. They too can make their families proud by fighting their own little war. But, to their surprise, and the viewers’ surprise as well, the war they will be part of is going to be different. It is going to be a new type of war, one we hadn’t seen up to that point.
After 9/11, Hollywood engaged in the production of extremely patriotic movies. It had to, after all, an entire nation was in mourning, and people wanted to see bravery and sacrifice. Thus, movies like Black Hawk Down, which looked at the failed US military intervention in Somalia by showing young, brave Americans fighting against a whole town of faceless Somali demons, came out, made a lot of money and went back into hiding, after having satisfied the audience’s needs.
It would take another four years for Jarhead to be released. By that time America was already engaged in its second Gulf War, having invaded Iraq two years prior. One might say that Jarhead was more relevant than ever, as questions regarding the nature of the first Gulf War in Kuwait resurfaced and awaited necessary answers. Answers that men like George Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney did not deliver.
First, let’s talk about the most important aspect of Jarhead, and namely the soldiers that are depicted in it. In the movie, a new breed of soldiers is introduced. Unlike the boys in Full Metal Jacket, who had no idea what they were getting into once they entered boot camp, the boys in Jarhead, are more than ready to go. They cannot wait to be part of a war that might just happen to define an entire generation of people. Their generation. After having had to sit through endless stories told by their grandparents about D-Day, the Pacific theater, Korea, and their fathers’ stories about Vietnam, Jarhead‘s boys want to fight their own battles and tell their sons and daughters how they went to some shithole country and fought a war to protect and serve the nation. Well, did they?
In Sam Mendes’ film, oddly enough, the Marines quite frankly don’t give a fuck about ideals. That’s the surprising aspect of it. Because, as awful, robotic and soulless as they were, Full Metal Jacket’s Marines had signed up because something deep down had spurred them to do so. After all, Joker (played by Matthew Modine), Kubrick’s protagonist, was a politically engaged pacifist.
In Jarhead, however, the ideals are gone; this is a generation that witnessed first-hand the effects of Vietnam and Watergate, and thus saw where ideals get you (answer: in a worse place than before). No, the soldiers in Jarhead, although nicknamed jarheads because of their supposedly bald skulls resembling empty jars, are pretty smart boys, aware of the circumstances and of the war America had gotten itself into this time. In fact, one of the Marines, a young Texas kid named Kruger is the first one to question their motives going into Kuwait: ”You think we’re here for what? They got their fat hands in Arab oil. That’s why we’re here, to protect their profits.” Everyone around him stays silent, but the looks are of men who know the reality of the situation; they’ve seen it before, on TV, in newspapers, hell, their own president, Bush Sr., addressed these concerns when he publicly stated ”In our country, I know that there are fears of another Vietnam. This will not be another Vietnam.”
But words don’t matter to these kids. These kids want to fight. They’ve seen death before unlike any other generation before them. Death in video-games, movies, shows. Death is everywhere. Their reference points are The Terminator and Rambo, for crying out loud. Their idols are Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. During training camp, they spend entire afternoons rewatching Apocalypse Now and the Ride of the Valkyries sequence, cheering ”Get some! Fuck yeah!” and pumping their fists in excitement as the choppers riddle the Vietnamese village with missiles and machine-gun fire. They, too, want to experience that rush, that adrenaline everyone’s been talking about; they want to experience it first-hand by squeezing the trigger themselves.
And so off they go. After months of excruciating training, after, similarly to Full Metal Jacket, having been turned into machines and experts in the art of taking someone’s life be it from long range, like our protagonist Swofford who’s an elite sniper, or from up close with a knife or even a fucking helmet, the boys are off to fight their war. However, unlike in Full Metal Jacket, where as soon as Marines hit the ground in ‘Nam they find themselves engaged with the enemy, the skills they’ve learned being put to an immediate test, in Jarhead training continues even on the front lines.
They dig, they go on patrol, they throw hang grenades and learn to detect mines beneath the rocky surface of the Kuwaiti desert. They clean their weapons, learn about the effects of nerve gas and train some more. And as they do so, the testosterone builds up, their thirst for blood increases. Some will be so desperate for some sort of conflict that they will go off to shoot some poor farmer’s camel. Just for the pleasure of it. Just because this war is unlike anything they imagined it to be and they need that rush. They need to feel accomplished.
And yes, it would have been tempting for Mendes, the director, to steer away from the source material that is Swofford’s book of the same title. It would have been a perfect example of Hollywood messing with reality, had Mendes included some sort of action sequence in this movie. And yet he doesn’t. Jarhead sticks to the tyranny of a soldier’s routine. Jarhead‘s war, as described best by Swofford himself in a voice-over narration, is one long masturbating session. You follow the motions in the hope that eventually, something will happen. But that something is a long way away. The soldiers keep masturbating. They masturbate, play football, go on patrol, masturbate, sleep, dig, go on patrol, and yes, masturbate some more. Meanwhile, their war is coming to a slow, predictable end, slipping through their fingers like the sand they have to wade through day in and day out.
Finally, let’s talk about war itself. Kubrick’s war in Paths of Glory was the first instance of realization in the cinematic world, unlike its predecessors such as John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima and Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York that glamorized a soldier’s sacrifice, that perhaps governments act in their own interest, often inflicting pain and suffering on the people that serve the country’s cause. Coppola followed suit by making Apocalypse Now, where for the first time soldiers were portrayed as confused lunatics sent on suicide missions by their superiors just to come back with a couple of medals and an enemy death ratio that would satisfy the officials in Washington and give the country something to cheer about.
And then there is Jarhead and a war that, despite being known for having introduced live news coverage from CNN, went on to become the epitome of a faceless war against a faceless enemy. Swofford’s breakdown at the sound of the Doors’ song is a testament to a war that passed by somewhat unnoticed by the public. Nobody was there to give it an identity, a sound, a visual cue, anything. It was just a war in a nameless desert, in a nameless country, in a nameless region of the world.
One could say that Mendes’ film is focused on man’s inherent quest for meaning. Stripped of ideals and values, these titular jarheads go off into the desert to find out, more than anything else, if they have what it takes to make their families proud. Having been raised by fathers with PTSD, they march across no man’s land just so that they can come back home and break that silence, and say ”Yeah, I felt it, too. Now, I understand.” And that’s where the tragedy of Jarhead lies. These boys left everything behind, including their girlfriends, new-born sons and daughters, pregnant wives, just to experience war, because for them, war, the most primitive act of all along with fucking, is what makes a man. But unfortunately, their war is different. Like Swofford narrates in his voice-over: ”Every war is different. Every war is the same.”
Sure, at the core of it the idea is the same; to kill and come out alive. Fight to defeat the enemy and prevail. But Swofford’s war is unlike any other war. The Gulf War is nowadays otherwise known for Operation Desert Storm, a military operation entirely based on air raids and aerial bombing. Ground soldiers meant nothing in this war. Covering the same territory that in World War I took three months to cover and in Vietnam three weeks, here took less than ten seconds. That’s the tragedy of Jarhead. This war was not meant to be fought the way these boys had imagined.
Mendes, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins paint a vivid, nightmarish desert setting; oil fields covered in molasses-like substance, rocky dust patches and dry, hallucination-induced flat landscapes. As our protagonists go out on patrol, we are reminded of the final scene in Full Metal Jacket, when the platoon marches down the burning ruins of Hue City, cheerfully singing the Mickey Mouse song. Out here, however, instead of the Mickey Mouse song, there is a deafening silence. There is no reference cue. There is no trademark sound. It’s all so colorless, bland. These Jarheads have suffered mental breakdowns, have been physically tested in an arid environment where, on a lucky day, you can fry an egg out in the open, have been betrayed and left hanging by their loved ones back home, and what do they have to show for it?
This is the futility of war, one can argue. It doesn’t matter if you fight to the death or you sit at the rear, gripping the barrel of your rifle with all your strength, you will still return a different person, a shattered soul. A has been, more than anything else.
Because every war is different, every war is the same.