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n one in the chest, but this antiquated metaphor of military praise hardly seems adequate for Anthony Swofford’s breakout autobiography “Jarhead.” The novel, written by a Californian and a New York Times bestseller in 2003, should have garnered a little more respect from its native hive, The Sacramento Bee.
Enter Sam Mendes, famed director of “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition.” Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. have produced a vivid, accurate representation of Swofford’s book, which opens this Friday—showing the life of this 18-year-old who joined the Marine Corps and ended up fighting in the Gulf War.
In an interview with The Crimson last Wednesday, Swofford said he “loved the film” and that “it’s a really smart and artful adaptation of [his] work and also [his] life.” A “reluctant memoirist,” he laughed about the first screening, when hearing a drill sergeant scream his name brought back uneasy memories. He also took questions about the project of writing an autobiography and how his book has been translated into film.
The Harvard Crimson: Could you describe the writing process for the book? Did you keep notes or a journal while serving?
Anthony Swofford: I had a journal that was not really in depth…but, I left the Marine Corps at 22 and really wanted to leave it…and then, as a writer, I had just finished my MFA at Iowa when I started writing “Jarhead.” I had for a few years avoided the subject all together in my work, and had written fictionally about the Gulf War and the Marine Corps. Eventually, I just kept bumping up against my autobiography.
THC: What are the limitations of literature and film in representing the war genre?
AS: Well, the bombs are never going to go off in your hand while you’re reading the book…[but] I don’t think there are limitations if the book is well written and the film is well made. All experience, when put into literature and film is moved through memory, and then through art.
THC: What about the cultural resonance of the war in which you fought, particularly with the three generations of servicemen in your family; what do you think can be passed on?
AS: I didn’t listen to the lesson my father tried to teach me, which was to not join the military…my father saw, as most men who served in Vietnam saw, rather brutal and heinous things and wisely, he didn’t want his sons to see the same things. So I failed to listen to lessons that could have been taught to me. What I’ve done with “Jarhead” is simply try to be honest about that version of me, which is not always an attractive young man; it’s a brutal and unforgiving space which he inhabits. And that’s something that should be taught, but when my father tried to teach me that lesson, it fell on deaf ears.
THC: Did you have any other autobiographies in mind when you were writing yours?
AS: I was writing my own book, and if I had any other writers in mind, it was to write something unlike the books they had written, even though I admired them.
THC: Any authors in particular?
AS: Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War” and George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” This isn’t a memoir, but Tim O’Brien’s novel “Going After Cacciato.”
THC: Do you think you’ll ever return to autobiography?
AS: I might, though not for a while. I will return to nonfiction, though. The book I’ll be researching this winter and will write next is about an aunt, my mother’s sister, who’s lived in Pakistan for 30 years. It’s nonfiction and it might be a novel. I’ve had enough explicit autobiography for awhile.
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