The Odd, Acidic Boredom Of War

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - November 16, 2005

Tim O’Brien was in Honolulu last week, attending a conference on the Vietnam war at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. I wanted very much to hear him talk or to interview him for PBS-Hawaii. Somehow neither happened.

Too bad. I think I’ve read everything O’Brien has ever written: Going after Cacciato, If I Die in a Combat Zone, The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, July, July - a couple of them, several times. O’Brien is a splendid writer.

The clarity of his prose has made The Things They Carried the most read fiction to come out of the Vietnam war; teachers from high school to graduate school use it to teach good writing and the war. The complex, highly evocative plot of Going After Cacciato won O’Brien the National Book Award for fiction in 1979.

O’Brien writes of young men who, like himself, served in the most difficult war in American history - of their loneliness, their fears, their horror at the death they see and wreak, of the scars that will never fade.

And of their boredom: “I remember the waiting,” O’Brien writes in The Things They Carried. “I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and the heat and the endless paddies. Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring.

“But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach ulcers. You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at your important organs.

“You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.”

The movie version of Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead came to Honolulu last week as well. It too is about the boredom of war.

But Swofford’s war was America’s first military foray into the Gulf under President George H.W. Bush. The objective was to drive Saddam Hussein’s million-man Republican Guard out of Kuwait, and Swofford’s Marine sniper unit was part of the 550,000-person force sent to do it.

It was one of the first outfits to arrive in the Gulf, and it waited in the 120 degree sun. Marines passed time training, putting on their gas masks, taking off their gas masks, thinking about home, breathing sand, and getting on each other’s nerves by every conceivable means known to man. And they talked endlessly, of course, about sex and the women they’d left behind.

As the weeks passed, in Swofford’s telling, nerves grew more frayed and discipline sometimes failed. But worse, when the fighting finally started his superbly trained sniper unit saw burning oil wells and charred Iraqi bodies, but no combat to call their own. Never did they fire their rifles in anger.

Jarhead is a brilliant war movie, one of the best I’ve ever seen. The writing is smart, alternately funny and profoundly moving. The acting is also first rate; Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx shine, respectively, as Swofford’s character and the company’s sergeant. Sam Mendes’ direction is almost flawless. The only false notes come at the end of the film where Mendes, like so many directors, can’t seem to find his final scene - so he fumbles through several of them.

Swofford’s company sees no combat in this war because it is eclipsed by helicopter gunships, Navy fighter bombers, and racing tanks. Marines on foot can’t reach the action before it is over.

That was the first Gulf War. We are now engaged in the second, and the shock and awe stage of that war - all air power and racing tanks - left George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier off the California coast proclaiming victory.

In the two-and-a-half years since that announcement, American Marines and foot soldiers have experienced the Vietnam variety of boredom that causes “stomach ulcers” - that anticipates a roadside bomb or a suicide bomber, that comes from any direction at any time. Victory in this war, as in Vietnam, has proven far more elusive.

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