Jarhead Nation

If Matthews’ point is that screenwriters can write our present into representations of our past, and by that displacement, create the social and emotional distance we need for a more dispassionate perspective on where we are and where we’re going, he could have used another popular film, Jarhead, as a contrasting mirror image that represents our present as an extension of our past, but manages to do so in a way that obfuscates more than it illuminates. Although set in Persian Gulf war of 1991 and by implication the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the subtext of Jarhead is about the continuing domination of America’s Vietnam experience in the nation’s present. We see that in the scenes of Marines getting pumped for the Persian Gulf War by watching Apocalypse Now and later in Kuwait when they gather to see Deer Hunter. As the platoon trudges through the sand toward the Iraqi border, an aircraft passes overhead blasting The Doors’ song The End which prompts a Marine to wonder, "Can’t we even have our own music?" Indeed. And since the scene is clearly plagiarized from Apocalypse Now, film buffs throughout the theater were adding, ". . . and your own movie too."

Sometimes the medium is the message, and in this case nothing could make clearer than this film that American culture is still in a post-Vietnam phase. Given the power of film to construct new present(s) out of our past(s), Jarhead is a disappointing (re)packaging of Vietnam-film subjects-the brutality of boot camp from Full Metal Jacket, the Sergeant out of Hamburger Hill with Nietzschean-themed reasons for preferring the warfront to the home front, and Apocalypse Now whose influences run right to the jarheads’ exhibition of their own primal darkness in their farewell rave to the war. Take the riffs of those three films out of Jarhead and there isn’t much left.

But what is left is an even more troubling reminder of Vietnam’s legacy in American political culture. Like its progenitors, Jarhead turns the war into a solipsistic affair about Americans-literally, the only Iraqis we see here are the "crispy critters" left smoldering on the desert floor by the boys with The Doors. Oh yeah, and there are the shadowy figures of two Iraqi officers that we see in a guard tower hundreds of meters away just before they’re blown to smithereens by an air strike.

For its own finis, Jarhead cops one last cliché from the Coppola/Cimino generation, that being the transformation of the war per se into a coming-home story. Almost none of the first 100 Vietnam-war films made prior to 1990 had any discernable account of what the war was about; nor was there a healthy, wholesome veteran of the war portrayed. The historically grounded image of the veteran empowered and politicized by his Vietnam experience was totally AWOL from Hollywood productions, displaced by the strung-out, dysfunctional, and dangerous victim-veteran who brought the war home with him. That wigged-out stereotype makes a gratuitous reappearance in Jarhead as one more cheap-shot at the Vietnam generation of anti-war veterans who continue to work for peace and decent treatment of all veterans.

Political veterans thereby dismissed, we’re left with the film’s lesson that American wars are all about the Americans we send to fight the wars. It’s a lesson that collapses means-and-ends reasoning-support the troops even if you don’t support what they’re fighting for-and erases the political boundaries around which efficacious debate about the war should be waged-the Right uses the troops to rally support for the war, the anti-war Left uses the specter of damaged jarheads to oppose the war.

Vietnam-war film reconstructed the war as a coming-home narrative that displaced public memory of the war itself. One of consequences of that revisionism is an American public shorn of the kind of historical perspective that Chris Matthews applauds the Academy for valuing. Unfortunately, Jarhead, best-positioned by its subject matter, of all the 2005 films to reinvigorate the political culture, recycles themes and imagery that enervate rather than enliven.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA. He wrote about Vietnam-war films in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. His review essay Apocalypse Now Redux can be found at TomPaine.com/history/2001/08/07/index.html.

Jerry Lembcke can be reached at: 508-793-3050 jlembcke@holycross.edu