Jarhead's Empty War

By Jesse Sawyer

There’s a telling scene near the end of Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” in which an army helicopter flies over our squadron, blaring the music of The Doors. Our protagonist (we won’t call him a hero, as that would be problematic within the logic of a Gulf War that had little potential for heroism), played by Jake Gylenhaal, shouts out loud to no one in particular: “That’s Vietnam music–Why can’t we have our own fucking music?!” The line is humourous, as is much of the film’s expertly-crafted dialogue, but it is also self-referential. The film is self-consciously a failed attempt to fit the Kuwaiti conflict into the culturally constructed ideology of previous wars. Jake Gylenhaal is neither Charlie Sheen in “Platoon” nor Steve Mcqueen in “The Great Escape.” The film’s only American casualty dies in training. Not a single soldier fires a single shot at a single enemy. “The jarhead is an empty vessel,” Gylenhaal narrates. And the jarhead’s war is an empty war, portrayed in this film as an extended homosocial circle jerk underscored not by the dread of an impending military clash, but with the maddening frustration of a war without conflict and the constant paranoia that the “girls we left behind” haven’t remained true. Does this, then, make the film an empty film?

This is the question I wrestle with an hour or so after leaving the theater. I walked home from the Grandview constructing and deconstructing the various ways I would villainize or lionize the film’s vacuous ideology, all of my arguments eventually subsumed by the black hole at the center of Sam Mendes’ seemingly apolitical Gulf War exploration. Just as in Mendes’ breakout hit “American Beauty,” every frame bleeds profundity and every scene smacks of a Hitchcockian deeper conflict. And yet, when all the parts are added up, why do I still feel the sum is zero?

Perhaps this is the point. “Jarhead” is explicity a re-telling of existing Hollywood war narratives, divorced from their dogmas. It echoes the male-bonding mythic heroism of World War Two filmmaking (right down to silhouetted echoes of Iwa Jima and drunken brothers-in-arm bonding sessions) as well as the seventies anti-war cinema exemplified in such films as “Full Metal Jacket,” “Jarhead’s” clearest cinematic reference. The film takes these formal references and robs them of their original narrative positivism. While “Full Metal Jacket’s” first act climaxes and concludes with sniper Private Pile’s cracked suicide in the platoon bathroom, Jarhead’s protagonist cannot pull the trigger, even while reciting the same mantra, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine…” Instead he is left unfulfilled and frustrated, the nightmarish reality of “traditional” war replaced by actual nightmares in which our hero can only look at his tortured reflection and vomit up sand.

What is most interesting about Mendes’ work (including his previous films, “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition”) is its ability to interpellate viewers from all across the socio-political spectrum. At the Grandview, I sat behind three crew-cut men, almost certainly military men themselves, whose views of American ideology are no doubt miles away from my own. I could imagine that with every enthusiastic “Hoo-rah!” blasting through the theater, their eyes glinted with patriotic fervor, whereas mine lit up with the sensation of an ironic take on grunt' mentality. And yet we all left the film satisfied in our own ways. This returns us to our first question. Does "Jarhead" affect its viewer in any meaningful way, or is it merely a mirror, reflecting the opinions we already carrying into the theater, validating them in the process?<br /><br /> My temptation is to answer yes, if only for the sake of critical provocation. And yet, I do feel affected. And I think I know why. By distancing itself from any positive statement regarding the Gulf War (and by implication, the current war in Iraq), "Jarhead" resists the war-film tendency to make its characters into "empty vessels" to be filled with political symbolism. Instead, the film achieves a level of humanism that allows it to explore the consciousness and context of the soldiers themselves, as humans rather than as polarized symbols in thepatriotic hero / circumstantial victim’ binary. It is due to this resistance that Mendes is able to explore the truely human aspects of a war that is widely percieved as a technological one. “I got lost on the way to college,” Gylenhaal deadpans, explaining his reason for enlisting. The soldiers’ reasons for fighting have little to do with any abstract impetus (“It was the marines or jail,” another soldier remarks). The war is portrayed neither negatively nor positively in any symbolic sense, and yet its ideological emptiness reproduces itself as the emotional emptiness of our soldiers, one which they must carry with them into the civilian world. As Gylenhaal narrates over a closing montage of the soldiers’ post-war civilian lives: “We will always remain jarheads…and we are still in the desert.