Anthony Swofford is the author of the memoirs Jarhead and Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails and the novel Exit A. In 2014 he served as the judge of TIR’s Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans, naming Katherine Schifani the first-place winner and awarding second place to Brian Van Reet. In April 2015 he visited Iowa City for a screening of the film made from Jarhead and a reading alongside Schifani and Van Reet. TIR managing editor Lynne Nugent caught up with him between events.
LN: Your memoir Jarhead begins in 1990. Brian Van Reet’s story is set in 2003, and Katherine Schifani’s essay takes place in 2010. Given that all three narratives concern U.S. conflicts in the Middle East, but yours are separated from theirs by thirteen to twenty years, what did you find to be the similarities and differences in how these stories were recounted either in form or in content?
AS: Reading all of the finalists for the contest, the thing I was struck by was the feeling that, as the character of me says in that movie we just watched, “All wars are different; all wars are the same.” The people who end up in the army, especially in our all-volunteer army, are usually the same kinds of people: they’re often from lower socio-economic classes, often it’s a step toward college, and they’re often very athletic and very determined and very hard workers. To be a writer you have to be a hard worker because you have to sit alone in that room and do this thing that is ridiculous and crazy and self-indulgent. And so I think that as far as those qualities, compared to the writer I was when I first started writing Jarhead, the individuals writing now are kind of the same.
The culture has changed, however. I felt like I was reading about a more professional military, especially in Katherine’s piece. There was a kind of Catch-22 nature of her world and the female service person who’s in these support jobs. What I loved about her piece was how in chilling detail she rendered the danger for a woman in combat, which is often not the enemy, but people you’re working with, your coworkers, and sexual trauma. She did it in a really thoughtful, complex, nuanced way that made me feel for the writer and know the writer. Both her and Brian’s pieces stayed with me story-wise and style-wise. Brian’s piece was a little more like the knuckleheads that I served with, the knucklehead that I was—grunts on a mission.
Overall, I felt old! [Laughs.] I felt like an old man who has told his war story and should now be put out to pasture.
LN: The world of Jarhead is a very male world, just to take Katherine’s story in comparison to that.
AS: Yeah. I was in the Marine Corps infantry twenty-something years ago, and I could go months without seeing a female Marine. They just weren’t in my world. The thing that shocked me about watching the film just now, having not seen it in a decade, was just how sexist and homophobic the world was. I’m pretty sure my book isn’t that sexist and homophobic, though we were a bunch of horny little bastards! There’s something about seeing the rendering of it on film that felt kind of dangerous and unsavory.
LN: What are you reading now?
AW: I’m reading a great book right now that just came out: American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer. It’s his first book. It’s about the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor’s American-born son, Chucky Taylor. Chucky was raised in Massachusetts and Florida, and when he was seventeen he was getting into trouble, and his mother shipped him to Liberia to be with his father. It’s a fascinating book about West Africa in general, the politics, the atrocities. And then this American kid who ran the anti-terror unit for his father’s government, which meant, really, that they were the terrorists.
I also just read a book by Lucas Mann, who previously wrote a book called Class A about minor league baseball. He has a new memoir called Lord Fear, which is about the death of an older brother. A really beautiful book.
I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction. I don’t really read much fiction these days.
LN: Because that’s what you’re currently writing?
AW: That’s what I’m writing, and fiction kind of bores me sometimes. My life is pretty interesting because I’m father to a child. [Laughs.] The most fascinating thing that happens to me any day is some interaction I have with my daughter, because she’s three and a half, she’s growing, and her mind is doing incredible things. Fiction is kind of boring when I compare it.
LN: Can you tell us about any of your current projects?
AW: I’m writing a book of general nonfiction, a biography of Carlos Arredondo, who became known internationally because he saved a young kid’s life at the Boston Marathon bombing. But I first knew of him because his eldest son Alex died in Najaf, Iraq, in 2004. When this news was delivered to Carlos, he self-immolated in the Marines’ van who had come to notify him. So I knew of him as a persona and as a peace activist throughout the Iraq War, and then the Boston bombing happened. I’d been looking for a general nonfiction title for a while, and this was the kind of story that I could be in for a few years. I tracked Carlos down. He knew Jarhead, and it was really important to him that someone write the story who knew the Marine Corps, because Alex’s story is essential to his story, and will be a major section in the middle of the book.
I also want to write a book-length essay called On Being Fat: A Philosophical Inquiry. So I’m going to eat. A lot. I’m going to eat more than I do now, if that’s possible. [Laughs.] People are doing such interesting work in nonfiction right now: books about a general topic, but that bleed over into memoir; the general topic gets distilled into a personal moment. That fascinates me as a form. I may dig in to that book, so to speak.
Anthony Swofford, Katherine Schifani, and Brian Van Reet at The Iowa Review's Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award 2014 veterans reading event in Iowa City