US Navy cadets pay their monumental respects.
The mythology, the rituals, the dogma, the cult of masculinity and most of all the haircut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson takes a look at a memoir of the First Gulf War.
(Independent on Sunday 23/03/2003)
It may seem odd that the United States Marine Corps, the elite fourth branch of the US Armed Services, larger and better equipped than the whole British Army, heroic victors of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, spearhead of the last and current Gulf War, should be best known for, and most proud of, its hairdo. But then, the USMC is a peculiar institution. Magnificent, but very peculiar.
“Jarhead”, the moniker US marines give one another, derives from the distinctive “high and tight” buzzcut that Marine Corps barbers dispense, leaving perhaps a quarter of an inch of personality on top and plenty of naked, anonymous scalp on the sides. Like circumcision and the Hebrews, the jarhead barnet has historically set US marines apart, marking them as the chosen and the damned: monkish warriors. Or as one of the Corps’ mottos has it: “The Few, The Proud”.
Image is important for US marines, perhaps because of the burden of symbolism – for many, the USMC is America. Or perhaps more particularly because the USMC is John Wayne. Jarheads, or rather, actors in high-and-tight haircuts, are invariably the stars of Hollywood war movies; the other services just don’t have the glamour and the grit of the devildogs. As a result, the mythology, the rituals and the dogtag dogma of the Marine Corps cult of masculinity – boot camp, the DI, sounding-off, cussing and hazing, tearful graduation, test-of-manhood deployment, and that haircut – are probably more familiar to British boys than, say, those of the Royal Marines.
The relationship of real jarheads to their actress impersonators is confusingly close. When 20-year-old Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford and his buddies in a scout/sniper platoon get the order to prepare to ship out to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they spend three days drinking beer and watching war movies. Ironically, their favourite films, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are ostensibly “anti-war” liberal pleas to “end this madness”, but for fighting men they only serve to get them hot: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” explains Swofford, “with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his First Fuck.” Take note, Oliver Stone, you pink feather dick-tickler: “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”
In fact, Swofford’s ”Jarhead: A Marine’s chronicle of the Gulf War’’ is an avowedly “anti-war” memoir, powerfully written (pink feathers aside) and well-crafted, by someone who was clearly embittered, not to say damaged, by his experience of the USMC and his participation in the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, it isn’t clear whether Swofford, for all his reflectiveness, and of course his authenticity, is much more successful in demystifying war in general or the Corps. Telling us that war is hell (again) is rather counterproductive: hell is after all a rather interesting place, certainly more interesting than heaven, or civilian “normality”. Moreover, the quasi-religious, dramatic tone Swofford strikes of despair and ecstasy, loneliness and camaraderie, and the awful- but-fascinating baseness of war is not so different from that of Stone or Coppola (or for that matter, of Mailer). And while there are not quite so many explosions, there’s no shortage of pornography.
When sweating in Saudi in 1990 waiting for the war to start, Swofford’s unit find themselves being ordered to perform for the media, playing football in rubber NBC suits in 100-degree heat. To sabotage the hated propaganda op, they start a favourite ritual of theirs, a “Field fuck”, a simulated gang rape, “wherein marines violate one member of the unit,” Swofford tells us. “The victim is held fast in the doggie position and his fellow marines take turns from behind.”
Getting into the spirit of things, the jarheads shout out helpful remarks such as: “Get that virgin Texas ass! It’s free!” The victim himself screams: “I’m the prettiest girl any of you has ever had! I’ve seen the whores you’ve bought, you sick bastards!” The press stop taking notes.
Swofford reassures us that this practice “wasn’t sexual” but was instead “communal” – however, even in his own terms it seems that the distinction is almost superfluous: it’s the hallmark of military life that what’s sexual becomes communal. Elsewhere he tells us about the “Wall of Shame” on base: hundreds of photos of ex-girlfriends who proved unfaithful – frequently with other marines.
Swofford’s obsession with the marines had a media origin, beginning in 1984 when the USMC barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 US servicemen. He recounts watching the news bulletins on the TV and how he “stood at attention and hummed the national anthem as the rough-hewn jarheads… carried their comrades from the rubble. The marines were all sizes and all colours, all dirty and exhausted and hurt, and they were men, and I was a boy falling in love with manhood…”. Manhood in Swofford’s family was intimately linked to the military: his father served in Vietnam, while his grandfather fought in the Second World War. The desirability of manliness was the desirability of war.
It is probably not so strange that his obsession should have begun with an almost masochistic image of suffering and death: taking it like a man is an even more important part of the military experience than giving it. Sure enough, at boot camp Swofford finds his Drill Instructor to be a fully-fledged sadist of the kind that civilian masochists can only fantasise about: “I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your nightmare and your wet dream! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will forge you into part of the iron fist with which our great United States fights oppression and injustice!” Like many recruits, Swofford signed up to get away from a disintegrating home life and the flawed reality of his father and found that he had married his superego made barking, spitting, apoplectic flesh.
The DI’s job, as we all know from the movies, is to humiliate and break down the recruit, shame him, strip away his civilian personality and weaknesses and build him up into a marine. The DI is obsessed with inauthenticity: finding out who is not “really” a marine. He asks Swofford if he’s “a faggot… you sure have pretty blue eyes”. During one of these hazings, Swofford pisses his pants – an understandable reaction, but intriguingly it happens to be the same one that he mentions earlier in the book, when, as a young boy living in Japan (his father had a tour of duty there), he received “confusing and arousing” compliments on his blue eyes from Japanese women.
For good measure the DI also smashes Swofford’s confused shaved head through a chalkboard. Later, when this DI is under investigation for his violent excesses, Swofford shops him. However, he feels guilty about this and daydreams about running into the DI and “letting him beat on me some more”. Like I said, the USMC, God bless it, is a peculiar organisation.
Of course, Swofford isn’t your average jarhead. “I sat in the back of the Humvee and read the Iliad” is a memorable line. Other days might see him buried in The Portable Nietzsche or The Myth of Sisyphus. Swofford also seems a little highly-strung: he attempts suicide, Full Metal Jacket- style, fellating the muzzle of his rifle after receiving a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. He’s saved by his returning roommate, who takes him on a run “that lasts all night”. More physical pain to salve the existential variety. By the book’s end, we are left with an image of Swofford, long discharged, wrestling with despair, not least over the sights he saw in action in Kuwait, but now without the distraction of physical suffering and discipline. Sisyphus without the rock.
Mind you, “jarhead” does suggest something that can be unscrewed: brains that can be easily spooned out. It may be true that some men become soldiers to kill; but it may equally be the case that some join to be killed, or at least escape the burden of consciousness. Swofford appears to feel cheated that life not only went on after the Gulf War (like most U.S. ground combatants he was a largely a spectator of the massacring potency of American air power) but in fact became more complicated and burdensome.
Under these circumstances, I think most of us would miss our DI.
© Mark Simpson
Mark Simpson visits a Russian sauna or ‘banya’ in Tallinn, Estonia and gets an eye-wateringly good seeing to.
(Out magazine, Feb 2007)
“YOU LIKE TO GET BEAT AGAIN?” asks the gruff, naked former Red Army soldier. ‘I do very gently this time.’ Sweating profusely, I turn my back to him and he begins expertly working me over.
I visited my first Russian bath-house, in Tallinn, Estonia, capital of the rapidly Westernizing Baltic country and I nearly didn’t leave. By the time I finally did, I was a wraith of wrinkles and covered in an alarming, stinging, if cleansing rash – from being whipped with a Christmas tree by totally starkers Russians high on beer and pigs ears.
I was also covered with a conviction that we in the West have forgotten how to be comfortable in our own naked skin.
The banya, or Russian sauna, is as central to Russian culture as vodka, poetry and passionate friendship. Nearly half the population of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is Russian descent and speaking. Independent since the early 90s, Estonia still has a strong Russian legacy, though one that is rapidly being erased in the rush to embrace the West and forget the immediate past. Tallinn is a popular destination for cruise liners and British stag parties looking for cheap booze and leggy strippers and the simple, purifying pleasures of the banya are fading fast – there is now only one banya left in Tallinn.
I however was looking for naked sweaty backslapping Russians – though only for comradely, purifying purposes you understand. And I found them at Tallinn’s last banya.
I was taken there by my buddy and banya enthusiast Steve Kokker, a Canadian turned Tallinn resident (director of a remarkable and touching film about Russian military cadets called ‘Kameraden’), After undressing and showering in the (open, non-compartmentalised) wet area, we encountered a group of bollock-naked shaven-headed middle-aged Russians, most of whom looked as if they’d had a hard if quietly dignified life. They were instantly welcoming and friendly despite the language barrier and despite – or perhaps because of – the total lack of clothing.
One, a 69-year-old wounded infantry veteran of the 1956 Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary who looked twenty years younger, showed me the shrapnel scars on his legs: ‘We all disagreed with it, but we had no choice’. Steve translated for me the low, impressively butch Russian sounds. Many patrons were replete with what looked like homemade, borstal tattoos. Learning that I was a newbie, they extolled the benefits of the banya: ‘It will keep you young.’ ‘It will keep you fit.’ ‘You will not lose your strength in bed.’ Their lean, rangy bodies were the most persuasive argument.
Sharing their smoked pigs ears and warm Russian beer with us, they began arguing vehemently over how long I, as a Banya ‘virgin’, should spend in the steam room and what I should be whipped with first, the white birch twigs? or the juniper? or perhaps the nettle bush? (whipping with forestry is part of the banya experience – it is thought to cleanse the skin, and perhaps also the soul).
They finally agreed on the correct procedure and led me into the steam room – much hotter than any of the Nordic or Turkish saunas I’d experienced. The heat was almost solid. I tried to hold my breath rather than risk scorching my lungs. About twenty naked men were seated on the tiers of benches. Several of them were being whipped with branches by other men, their sweat spraying everywhere. Including, before I could close it, my mouth. Some were talking animatedly, some staring grimly ahead, mutely enduring the heat. Occasionally someone ladled water onto the hot stones, which instantly vaporised into hissing heat.
Trying to impress, I sat about half way up – after having been advised to sit near the bottom. After about five minutes shifting uncomfortably on the scalding wooden bench, (many banya regulars sit on special ‘padjopnik’, or ass-pads) I was dripping like a spatchocked chicken. Then I was led me to the ice-cold plunge pool and more or less pushed in . ‘It is good for circulation!’ they laughed. ‘If it doesn’t stop it altogether!’ I gasped.
Back in the steam room initiators decided I was ready to be whipped. It was agreed that I would first be lashed with white birch tree branches (the birch is sacred in Russia – once a country of forest-dwellers). I turned my back, leant forwards a little and thought of England. I don’t know whether being whipped is purifying, but I can tell you it certainly clears your sinuses. It’s a little like being dragged through a hedge backwards, but more fun. After the onslaught stopped and I hadn’t flinched I felt that I had passed some test.
A little later, I let someone whip me with juniper leaves. This did hurt – like being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. Actually, it was being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. After less than a minute of this the Hungary invasion vet intervened and called a halt: “This is too much for first time,” he said. I didn’t argue.
At this point a stag party of ten or so young British males turned up at the banya, obviously a ‘real Russian banya’ was on their heavily programmed itinerary, squeezed between lap dancing clubs and driving a rusty T34 ex-Soviet tank. They looked pallid and puny and ill at ease in their own bodies next to the Russian regulars – and terrified by the nudity and the whipping, keeping their towels tightly wrapped around them, eyeing the swinging Russian dicks with alarm. This was altogether too real and, ironically, male for the stag party. I stuck close to my new Russian buddies, hoping to be mistaken for a Russian myself.
I noted with some pleasure that none of them endured the heat of the sauna for more than a few seconds, even sitting on the lowest bench, and none of them submitted to the ritual of the birch. No more than about 20 minutes after they arrived they were shepherded out and onto the next stop on their itinerary. Then no doubt back to the safety of the UK and corporate gyms with their changing rooms within changing rooms, cubicle showers and ‘Swimwear Must be Worn At All Times’ signs.
A well-preserved 50 year-old Russian with piercing blue eyes, who sported the most heavily tattooed and most formidable body there, and whom Steve and I both very much wanted to believe was an ex-con, was determined to use a large nettle bush on me. Repeatedly and eagerly he enquired, eyes shining, if I was ‘ready’.
“He’s very keen to have you bend over and make you feel that stinging sensation,” translated Steve, almost without smiling.
Eventually the Hungary vet intervened again, announcing that I’d had enough for my first visit, and that besides, the nettles would stop me sleeping (apparently they stimulate the nervous system, like a Russian peasant version of crystal-meth).
Nettle Man looked dejected, and muttered something before sloping off.
“What did he say?” I asked Steve.
“He said he will be here ready for you next time.”
This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story