As we approach the anniversary of the Persian Gulf War’s Operation Desert Storm (January 15, 1991), I cannot help but remember men and women of my generation who deployed to the Middle East to stop Saddam Hussein.

A Persian Gulf War veteran and prophetic writer, Anthony Swofford, has inspired me to process the meanings of my war experience via his writing and his expansive narratological life.

Swofford was an Operation Desert Storm Marine Scout Sniper and wrote the widely acclaimed book, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles. He and other veterans of the Persian Gulf War have helped me understand that it is natural to resist society’s conforming ways playing out in a war and back home.

War can be neatly edited on television and in newspapers. There are some, like Swofford, who resist pretty words and a similar writing style. There are some who have been great friends on my journey, but served in the first Gulf War. Do not get lost in the present barrage of real and fake media reports; there was a first Gulf War.  

The less-than-heroic life of a war zone

Anthony Swofford showed the courage to write about home with great authenticity. In his book, Jarhead, Swofford describes the untidy aspects of veteran readjustment and society’s ironic impressions following the first Gulf War.

Presently, there is a war in the Middle East, but this other war unfolded after 9/11. In my opinion, unlike the post-war silence during the 1990s about the Persian Gulf, many now focus on a hyperreality tied to post-war veterans.

We spend a lot of time talking and writing about veteran health care and veteran suicides. We enjoy the patriotic music videos by Toby Keith. We obsess over not just the neocons, but the latest political figures who are targeting new areas to create future war zones.

These days, there is a caste of anointed war writers. Many of these writers have squandered their publishing privileges to describe people, events and situations that are tightly matched with mass media’s views and fantasies of war. 

What is the message? I am lost. I just notice pretty sentences that describe the profane with smooth style. Yes, this can be a part of war, but there is more. Anthony Swofford is a voice from a previous war who was not afraid to present the less-than-heroic life of a war zone. Swofford’s voice is less romantic than Hemingway’s.

I remember returning from war and finding a bunch of folks from MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs pushing an evangelical approach to writing for the veteran community. These authors needed to understand that the impact of war on the soul goes beyond the pages of books. They and certain illuminati-like publishing houses failed to see the diverse voices coming from those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The new war writers and their fans have the right to write and dwell on the images of war. What are they doing with the collection of war images written in the trendy books? Many war writers (not all) of this era describe war to fit into the book reviews of The New York Times. What is the impact of the present war writing? For many of the new younger war writers, it was a race to publish a book much like it was a race towards Baghdad. Buzzell, Reyes and Gallagher and some others did not join the war writing race to Bantam House.

Interestingly, the American Civil War provided one veteran war writer, Ambrose Bierce. Bierce never wrote a book about his war. Back to Jarhead and Anthony Swofford!

“Bartleby, the Scrivener”

There is a lot to be said about home. This is the power of Anthony Swofford. From his war, he was able to point out how war changed him. And he was observant to point out how war had changed his fellow Marines.

When I hear veteran programs mention wellness without providing a clear path to it, I am spiritually and emotionally brought to the unique authenticity of Swofford.    

Anthony Swofford mirrors a character from a great American short story. This character is the rebel of rebels: Bartleby. Bartleby is from Herman Melville’s story titled “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street.”

Like Bartleby, Swofford has his own particular heavy resistance towards society. Bartleby, the fictional character, is constantly telling those representing society’s rigid standards and norms, “I prefer not to… .” This is a way to manage the societal demand to conform.

Swofford has his own way of resisting society. He doesn’t have Bartleby’s constant robotic response to the conformists. Swofford is like Bartleby in being authentic when describing the ironies of war and home.

Reading this helps me find wellness. Who needs a John Wayne movie about war? Swofford contests the myths of war in the Middle East, at a time of confusion and hyperbolic patriotism. He does not conform to society. He does not overvalue nice interviewers or the nice gestures of readers. The yellow ribbons that society offered to Swofford do not mean much.  

I am not a sellout

While Herman Melville’s Bartleby lives by a mysterious credo, Swofford also has found and lives by a credo, though it is a warrior credo. Like Bartleby, he does not conform and he does not give up. Both Bartleby and Swofford do not seek mercy from society.

Swofford offers himself to other veterans with his writing. This is his gift to society.

As I try to understand Melville’s character and Anthony Swofford, I am taken to a place of resistance: “I prefer not to… .” I am not a sellout. This was my credo in the war, and remains so now, as I am challenged by home. 

Swofford offers himself to other veterans with his writing. This is his gift to society. From his words, we see the many stages of warrior life: pre-war, war and post-war. He does not hide from his critics, and he valiantly engages society with the harshness of war and the harshness of home.

To those who were in the first Gulf War, I remember your service. Thanks to those who served in that war and support my writing and efforts to help veterans in need: Bobby Oles, Blish, Murph, Buddy Hackett and others. I appreciate your efforts in the readjustment process, for there were limited services for you when you returned from war.

May we pay attention to Gulf War Syndrome as we become more aware of Vietnam War Agent Orange Exposure and Post-9/11 Burn Pit Exposure. I thank you for not treating your lives like a New York Times book review.

This article is part of a weekly column exploring spiritual transformation for veterans. To read the previous article in the series, visit VICE THE MOVIE: Contemplations on Dick Cheney and the Draft»

1 USAF_F-16A_F-15C_F-15E_Desert_Storm_edit2A by Airman Magazine via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) 2 Pixabay 3 Vietnam War, 1967 – War Zone D by manhhai via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)