Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Commonplace, Swofford

Of late I've been reading, and growing ever more enamored of, the clipped, curt, sometimes adumbrated efficiency of Anthony Swofford's Jarhead. Notwithstanding I am reading the book after seeing -- and really quite liking -- Sam Mendes' movie based thereon, the prose is so vivid, so arresting, that I have given everyone new faces, recast and reconfigured those scenes plucked directly from the book and dropped into the movie, and just generally visited the book as though I encounter it entirely without foreknowledge or the taint of someone else's interpretation of the author's vision.

Speaking generally, I can't anticipate, or describe in advance, the sort of passages that appeal to me. While my own writing tends toward the florid and self-referential and discursive and my taste in authors reflects the same tendency, there are other things, unexpected things, that make my heart race and command rereading after rereading. I spent fully half of this morning's bus ride reading and rereading and pausing to reconsider and then rereading again one passage, a deceptively simple passage, trying to figure out why it so affected me.

Supposedly, and according to tradition and lore, the sniper needs only one bullet per kill. This is incorrect. The sniper requires thousands of bullets and thousands of hours of training per kill; he needs senior snipers on the deck beside him at the rifle range, telling him why he is not producing a dime group from a grand out. (A dime group is three shots that, when inspected on the target, can be covered with a dime.) There are reasons you're not hitting a dime group at a grand. Your spotter called the wind at five to eight but the wind is an eight to eleven. You hadn't completely expelled your breath when you shot. You are afraid of the rifle. Your spotter gave you the correct dope but you dialed the scope incorrectly. You are tired. You are stupid. You are bored. You are a bad shot. You drank the night before. You drank excessively the night before. You are worried about Suzi Rottencrotch and her man Jody back home, in the hay or in the alley or in a hotel bed. These are all unacceptable reasons for not achieving a dime group at a grand. A nickel group is occasionally acceptable. A quarter group and you are dead. You have missed the target but the target hasn't missed you. You must remember that you are always a target. Someone wants to kill you and their reasons are as sound as yours for killing them. This is why you must know the dime group like you once knew your mother's nipples. Quarters are cheap. On your corpse no one will check the group, not even your mother. Your enemy will be the last person to witness you as a living thing. He'll acquire you through his optics and he will not pause before pulling the trigger.

Where this book excels, I realize, is where the movie fails. The movie, resoundingly praised as capturing the hurry-up-and wait of war generally and the Gulf War in particular, doesn't really reflect (and in two hours, perhaps, could not reflect) the true beating heart of the book: its focus on what it is to be a marine, a jarhead, a single-minded human machine programmed to perform a relatively narrow array of tasks, and at that an elite marine, a scout/sniper, set apart by training and aptitude, drilled to work in murderous, self-reliant pairs.

Every word of this book is like a marine cadence, and its rhythm the synchronized thud of marines running in formation. I can never know what it is like to be a marine, no matter how many books I read. But to even offer a clear glass through which to view one marine, and that marine's value neutral but not unopinionated perspective on marine culture, is more than I ever expected, and precisely what Swofford provides.

In my many rereads of the excerpted passage, the only line that emerges as perhaps anchoring my attention so firmly to its page, was this: Someone wants to kill you and their reasons are as sound as yours for killing them. This is not a moral statement, not in the context of the passage or of the book in full. This is not a nihilistic rejection of all moral absolutes, or a comment on policy. This is the myopia of one soldier, one trained killer, the substance of a mantra designed to isolate and silence the critical faculties that one brings to bear on questions of morality and policy, to purify, render entirely amoral, transform flesh into machine.

In a million years I could never write that sentence or any like it. And if I accidentally happened upon a sentence so laced with potential, I could never set it in its due context. And perhaps more than any particular aesthetic predilection, that's what tends so to fix my attention on certain passages over others that seem like they ought to be more artistically pleasing: the appalling shock of an alien sentiment deftly communicated.


Blogger Meander Knot Press said...

"He'll acquire you through his optics"...I can see some poetic potential in this last line, and the concept of who might be the last to see us alive.

8:46 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker