In 1987, Time magazine ran an infamous cover that consisted of a Marine in his dress blue uniform—with a blackened eye upon his face. The cover was intended to depict the shame befallen the Marines after the Clayton Lonetree spy scandal and it was met with outrage—how dare Time sucker-punch the entire Marine Corps because of the crimes of just one of its members? Yet after seeing the movie "Jarhead," Anthony Swofford’s autobiographical representation of the Marines during the first Gulf War, a black eye is the least of the Marines’ problems.
The fundamental theme of Jarhead’s portrayal of Marine life is that heroes do not exist. One cannot depict the Marine Corps accurately without noting that at least some of its members perform feats of strength, endurance and bravery, and that to build an entire institution of such men, certain virtues are required. Yet like Stanley Kubrick’s "Full Metal Jacket," a movie acclaimed for its supposed depiction of Viet Nam-era marines, none of these men and certainly none of these virtues are to be found.
Instead, what one finds in Jarhead are empty men who drift though life, denied of what they truly want, and who choose to make up for it in emotional outbursts and sadistic and debased pleasures. Again and again, this is what Hollywood sees when it looks at the Marines.
Yet as far as I can tell, there’s no massive backlash by Marines against this movie—in fact, I’m amazed at the positive reaction many Marines have had. Are these Marines so starved for heroes—so hungered for a portrait of their lives in uniform that they will find merit with those who portray the character of their commitment as utterly bereft of meaning or purpose, simply because the actors put on a Marine blouse or use a jargon that rings familiar?
I served five years in the Marine corps during the time Jarhead was set and I can certainly recount stories, both humorous and horrific. But overall, if I had to characterize my and my fellow Marines’ service, it would be the honorable commitment to the betterment of one’s self and the defense of the American nation. The men I worked with might not have talked about it everyday. There might have been the occasional breach of conduct or character, and some may have even failed miserably in achieving the standard of excellence that is the hallmark of the Corps. Yet overall, (and in the metaphysically significant sense—the only sense that matters in art) almost every Marine I knew was in the corps for a purpose and that purpose was good, noble, and just.
That’s why I, for one, was proud to wear the Marine uniform, and that’s what no Hollywood movie that I know of has ever been able to accurately capture in a film about the Marines. Given the freedoms the Marines have fought so valiantly over their history to preserve, it’s a tragedy they haven’t received better from Hollywood in return.