Marine writers sound off on the new Iraq war

"Jarhead" author Anthony Swofford and two other Marine Corps chroniclers of Desert Storm direct some not-so-friendly fire at the Bush administration.

Published March 20, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

The first Gulf War was over in weeks, a spasm of fire and death known more for its awesome display of American technological superiority than for the dog-soldier heroism of World War II or the tragic futility of the Vietnam War. So it's no surprise that Desert Storm did not inspire the stacks of combat literature those two earlier wars did. But now, on the eve of a new war against Saddam Hussein, we have two decidedly unromantic memoirs of the first Gulf War by Marine veterans, Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" and Joel Turnipseed's "Baghdad Express," as well as "Dear Mr. President," a floridly violent and hallucinatory collection of short stories inspired by the Gulf War and its aftermath, by former Marine rifleman Gabe Hudson. And the message of all three books is the same: The Gulf War might have been brief and -- at least to the American public -- glorious, but the reality on the ground, or sand, was ugly, and it had haunting effects on many of the soldiers who fought it.

As a quarter of a million uniformed Americans again await their marching orders against Saddam's forces, Salon spoke to these three soldiers-turned-authors about their memories of Gulf War I and their feelings about Gulf War II. Swofford, whose sniper platoon was one of the first American military units to cross into Kuwait from Saudi Arabia when the war began, is not as sanguine as some observers about how "surgical" the upcoming war will be. "No doubt we'll prevail -- we have the most powerful military in the history of the world," says Swofford, speaking by phone from a hotel room in Sacramento, Calif., where he is promoting his lavishly praised new book. (Click here to read Laura Miller's review in Salon.) "But if we go into Baghdad and the Iraqi military is willing to fight, it will be messy. Last time they were exposed in the open desert and they were fighting in a country not their own. But, God, I hope we don't spend six weeks trying to take Baghdad. My real fears are what happens after the war. If we do end up bombing Baghdad for several weeks, the survivors might not be that happy with the American occupation; it might not be as easy as some people say. The idea that we step in and everything goes cleanly is ludicrous."

Swofford's account of the smoking aftermath of a U.S bombing raid on Iraqi troops in Kuwait is one of the most unshakably graphic passages in modern war literature:

"Two large bomb depressions on either side of the circle of [Iraqi] vehicles look like the marks a fist would make in a block of clay ... The corpses are badly burned and decaying, and when the wind shifts up the rise, I smell and taste their death, like a moist rotten sponge shoved into my mouth. I vomit into my mouth, I swish the vomit around before expelling it, as though it will cover the stink and taste of the dead men ... The men's boots are cooked to their feet. The man to my right has no head. To my left, the man's head is between his legs, and his arms hang at his sides like the burnt flags of defeated countries. The insects of the dead are swarming. Though I can make out no insignia, I imagine that the man across from me commanded the unit, and that when the bombs landed, he was in the middle of issuing a patrol order, Tomorrow we will kick some American ass.

"It would be silly to speak, but I'd like to. I want to ask the dead their names and identification numbers and tell them this will soon end. They must have questions for me. But the distance between the living and dead is too immense to breach."

Turnipseed, who drove a tractor-trailer loaded with 155mm shells across the desert battlefield as part of the greatest logistical operation in Marine Corps history, has similar concerns about the new war looming in the Gulf. "As a veteran, I'm not a big fan of this one coming up," he says, on the phone from his home in Minneapolis. "Once a Marine, always a Marine, you have to respect your fellow soldiers, even love them. But in a war they can do stupid or evil things. Bullets and bombs go astray and kill people's daughters. You can topple a hated dictator like Saddam and have his people cheering you in the streets, they can be putting flowers in your rifle. But that doesn't stop a stray round from penetrating an apartment building and killing someone's daughter. And that round says, 'Made in the USA' -- and that's what people remember.

"Anyone who's worked on a software project knows how hard it is to get everything right," adds the 34-year-old Turnipseed, who founded and sold a software company called Archemedia before publishing his memoir. "Modeling human processes -- even the simplest of them -- is amazingly difficult. To think you're going to do anything as chaotic as fighting a war and having it follow your plans, it's idiotic."

Turnipseed knows from his own Gulf War experience how badly things can go wrong. A self-described "smartass" punk who, after being kicked out of his college's philosophy program, was whiling away his hours "expanding my Clash and Replacement and Husker Du record collection," Turnipseed suddenly found himself behind the wheel of a commandeered 1960s-era Mercedes truck, "overloaded with bombs and driving off-road through the desert without any training." Three of the 30 men in his unit died in truck accidents during the war. "We had no training. They asked us, 'Do you know how to drive a stick? Then get in that truck and go.'"

Both Turnipseed and Swofford think the Bush administration should have worked harder on a diplomatic solution. "This war is certainly more complex than the first one, whose mission was simply to drive Iraq out of Kuwait," says Swofford. "We definitely shouldn't be going in without U.N. support. Because of the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism, some of that is being used to keep troops in the game. It's kind of a dishonest use of the 9/11 tragedy. There's no evidence to prove Saddam was connected to 9/11."

While some antiwar critics of the Bush administration deride the president and many of his bellicose advisors and cheering squad -- including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton and William Kristol -- as "chicken hawks" for dodging the opportunity to serve their country in battle as young men, Swofford says he does not hold these men in contempt. "I'm not offended by that as much as I am by the general state of American politics, the money and the corruption. Ideally, the men and women leading the country would be people who had experience on the battlefield, because it would make you think twice before sending other people's sons and daughters into fire. But Vietnam shattered that leadership requirement."

Turnipseed, who describes his political views as wide-ranging ("from center to absolute anarchist"), is no fan of the Bush presidency. "This administration is ridiculous, it gets my blood up," says the ex-Marine, who recently marched with his wife against the war ("silently -- I recoil from crowds on instinct"). "We say we're going in to enforce U.N. regulations -- no we're not, we're going to unleash industrial slaughter on a people. They say that the majority of Americans are for the war. But if the polls asked people, 'Should we kill 10,000 innocent Iraqi citizens, 50,000 conscripted Iraqi soldiers and 1,000 GIs -- or should we wait for the inspections to work? -- I bet you'd get different poll results.

"Afghanistan was a fairly successful mission, but there are still warlords over there declaring that they're going on the offensive again in the spring," he adds. "We're not finished there, but we're going on to Baghdad. And then you hear the administration's bellicose talk about North Korea, a country with an unstable dictator who will soon really have a nuclear capability, and you have to say forget whether or not Bush is stupid, he's clearly dangerous."

All three authors are also worried about the upcoming war's medical and psychological aftershocks on returning American soldiers. "I think it's worth our time to consider John Allen Muhammad, the sniper who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area, and the guy who shot his three professors at the University of Arizona [Robert Stewart Flores], and Timothy McVeigh, when we consider the potential psychological toll of serving in modern war," says Hudson. "Now it's not for me to say there's a direct correlation between their horrible acts and their service in Desert Storm, but I do think it's a connection that deserves serious consideration. There's a huge psychological toll that modern warfare takes on soldiers, despite the fact that the media and the White House try to gloss over these wars as sterile and 'clean.' There are many Gulf War vets who saw and participated in horrible acts, or witnessed their aftermath, and the lingering psychological effects have still not been addressed by the Veterans Administration."

Hudson joined the Marines in 1992, too late to see action in the Gulf, but says the stories he heard about the war from the many men in his unit who served there inspired him to write his book. Grotesque and phantasmagorical events befall the soldiers in "Dear Mr. President" during and after their Gulf War service -- one suddenly loses all his hair and then his bones as well, disintegrating one by one until he fears he's becoming a "human blob"; another sprouts a third ear from his chest after a bloody bout of hand-to-hand combat with an Iraqi soldier.

Hudson is convinced that the mysterious complex of maladies known as Gulf War syndrome really exists, despite the government's denials, and that thousands of veterans suffer from it, along with post-traumatic stress disorder. "If I was still in the Marines and facing this new war with Iraq, I'd probably be really scared, not only because of the absurdity of the mission, the moral conundrum of it, but because Bush Sr. did nearly the same thing 12 years ago and there are thousands of vets who are still suffering, medically and psychologically. Bush Sr. refused to acknowledge that these soldiers' conditions were connected to their service in the war. He basically swept these soldiers under the rug. I've never really gotten over this. I mean, these soldiers, in large part, are Republicans; on some level they believed in what they were doing and they believed in Bush, as is evidenced by their willingness to do his dirty work for him. And then he repaid them with disrespect and disregard. So not only do today's soldiers have to worry about the dangers implicit in engaging in combat, but they also have to worry about the government's willingness to care for them after the war."

And yet, agree these ex-Marine scribes, they are certain that the young soldiers now amassed in the Kuwait desert will throw themselves into battle. In their experience, soldiers fight mainly for their brothers (and sisters) beside them, not for the lofty but vague rhetoric floating out of Washington. "The bond between guys in the military is stronger than anything in the world -- sometimes even more than family," says Turnipseed, who says he hasn't talked to his own father, an Army deserter during the Vietnam War, in more than a decade. "Even if you think the war is wrong, you're still ready to go. The moral sphere in the military is small -- it's you and your unit. The protests here -- or even the justness of the war -- probably don't amount to much as compared to the behavior and feelings of your immediate command and the men in your unit. In the Marine Corps especially, there is such an engrained, almost [Knights] Templar feeling of separateness from the slack, shit-bird world of the civilians that public opinion doesn't count for much.

"I think the real morale problems will come if this war and occupation gets protracted and ugly and fraught with small acts of terrorism and frequent kills of civilians in messy urban fighting. It's a small probability, but if that's the way it goes, I think you'll start to hear some pretty nasty shit coming from the mouths of the Marines concerning the Bush administration."

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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