He's no longer wearing a 'high and tight' haircut, but Anthony Swofford still possesses the disciplined demeanor of a Marine, an experience he documents in his best-selling book, 'Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles.'
'Jarhead' is as much a story about the making of a young man as it is a wartime tale of a Marine sniper. With a narrative that veers between brash and vulnerable, Swofford tells of the gut-wrenching fear that war generates and calls up his own past conflicts with family and lovers.
Moments of dark humor and sharp emotion punctuate the book as Swofford recounts high-testosterone tensions within his unit and challenges the media's spin of the Gulf War as one composed of smart weapons and minimal bloodshed.
Since its March release, 'Jarhead' already is in its eighth hardcover printing, with more than 200,000 copies in print. The book's success has put Swofford, 33, on the literary front line.
The Northwest Portland resident recently took a break from working on his second book to talk about Operation Iraqi Freedom, embedded journalists and the possibility of 'Jarhead: The Movie.'
Tribune: Granted, the war in Iraq is a horrible event, but could it have come at a better time for your book?
Swofford: Well, the book's reviews certainly aren't affected by the war. But the public interest is there now, and fortunately the book can be part of the discussion.
Tribune: In 'Jarhead,' you tell stories about soldiers making fools of naive Gulf War correspondents by feeding them misinformation. What do you think of the idea of embedded journalists in this war?
Swofford: I feel like they're doing grave, important work, and that it's fine that they're there. But the television coverage does put a different kind of pressure on viewers. They have to understand that what they're seeing is produced, and it's actually only a small part of what the battle is like Ñ it's not battle.
The most interesting thing about the embedded journalists and that kind of instant access is that it amplifies the misunderstandings. If a reporter says, 'One hundred tanks are coming,' and then corrects himself by saying,'Oh, wait, it's only three tanks and a trail of dust,' people don't remember the correction.
Tribune: What were your thoughts when you learned we were taking another shot at Saddam Hussein?
Swofford: I wasn't surprised that we were back there. I think we were able to kind of put the Gulf War behind us Ñ and forget about it, to a degree Ñ because of the extreme wealth that was floating all over the place at that time. And compared to this war, the Gulf War was kind of a small footprint: It was like a size 7 shoe then, compared to a size 14 now.
I understand the impulse to want to bring Saddam Hussein in line with the U.N. resolution, but as a citizen, I'm still kind of confused and disappointed in what happened in Congress last fall, when, with the exception of dear old Sen. Byrd, people let (the process) roll over them.
Tribune: What was your take on how the United States executed the first days of the war? The criticism was that we were unprepared.
Swofford: I think our troops were ready and hadn't underestimated the Iraqis. But I do think that they were unprepared for the Fedayeen and the holdouts in the towns. I was also surprised that our ground troops went in so quickly.
Tribune: Do you think that there's a different attitude toward prisoners of war than there was in the Vietnam War?
Swofford: I think the impact is greater because the prisoners' names and images are out there immediately, and CNN is on the phone with their mothers. There were also more deaths and prisoners then. Because there were fewer this time, it was easier to single them out.
Tribune: The subject of female POWs, such as Jessica Lynch, is especially tricky.
Swofford: I think the idea of a female prisoner of war is a problem for us; it affects the national psyche differently. I think women should be allowed to go to war, but the Marine Corps will never allow women in fighting holes with men.
Tribune: Have these two wars changed what it means to be a Marine?
Swofford: I think the Marines fight the way that they always have. But Marines have always been very savvy with the media. In the Gulf War, we were the first to get reporters out of the battle and back to Riyadh, so the first tape that the world saw was of Marines fighting.
Tribune: You don't have children, but if you had a son, would you encourage him to join the service?
Swofford: No, I wouldn't want him to join the Marine Corps. But I guess if for some reason he decided to join, I'd have to support him.
Tribune: What do you think you'd be doing now if you hadn't joined the Marines?
Swofford: I'd still be writing. I started writing in college right after the war and then attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where I got to spend my days writing and reading. I'm a professor at Lewis & Clark College now and will start teaching at Saint Mary's College of California (in the Bay Area) this fall.
Tribune: You're working on a novel now. What's tougher: fiction or an autobiography?
Swofford: They're both hard; making a good sentence is hard. It took me a year to write 'Jarhead,' and it was like living the experience again. It took longer to write it than to fight the war.
Tribune: What's your favorite war movie?
Swofford: I like a 1960 movie 'Hell to Eternity.' It's based on a true story about a Caucasian boy raised by a Japanese family, who's called up to fight in World War II.
Tribune: What are the chances that 'Jarhead' will be made into a movie?
Swofford: I've already turned one offer down; it needs to be the right person (to direct).
Tribune: Oliver Stone Ñ and a Baldwin brother to star?
Swofford: (Laughing) It could happen.