Jarhead Suffers Typical Military Movie Flaws

Donald Sensing and the Mrs. went out to see “Jarhead” yesterday and he has a review. He has the same lament I often do with military movies:

Perhaps as a retired Army officer I am at a disadvantage since I sat there mentally scoffing at some of the baloney.

I was only on active duty four years and have the same problem. Indeed, I can scarcely enjoy movies or television shows with military themes because they seldom get even basic things, like haircuts and uniforms, right. Don offers a ferinstance from “Jarhead.”

Example: sniper Swafford and his spotter, Troy, return at nighttime from a mission to find their entire unit blasting loud rock music in the night, whooping it up and dancing nearly naked around a huge bonfire of burning desert battle-dress uniforms. The four-day war had just ended and the Marines, including NCOs, are stripping their DBDUs and burning them. “Don’t need these no more! Ain’t never coming back!†one shouts. (Ah, the irony….) Then they all start firing their weapons on full automatic into the air.

Well, ‘scuse me, but that’s just crapola. In fact, there was no “end of the war†to celebrate in such a manner, there was only a cessation of offensive operations by US forces at the end of four days. Units remained on full combat readiness footing for weeks after the day the screen Marines go stupid. Fighting continued, some of it very fierce. In fact, the biggest battle of Desert Storm was fought by the 24th Inf. Div. (Mech.) the next month.

Sheesh. I was there and certainly recall no such festivities. For one thing, we still had our NATO woodland camouflage BDUs on. For another, soldiers don’t shoot off ammunition pointlessly (except at firing ranges to avoid the hassle of turning in excess) let alone in a war zone.

More than one reviewer has said that Jarhead is a Full Metal Jacket wannabe. Certainly it̢۪s profane enough. Are NCOs and junior ranks prone to use coarse profanity? Of course. My ears have heard it all. But these guys, star Jamie Foxx included, are so profane all the time that it becomes caricature. It makes them cardboard cutouts of what Hollywood movie-makers believe audiences think military types must be like.

There’s little doubt war movies would be more accurate if more people involved in making them had served in the military. Still, even movies and television shows from the 1950s and 1960s, when virtually every able bodied male had served, perpetuated idiotic stereotypes of fat, corrupt sergeants and 40-year-old lieutenants.

Probably, like any other profession, the real life of a soldier, even in wartime, isn’t exciting enough for a movie. Certainly, mine wasn’t.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Popular Culture, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    In your opinion, what was the most accurate betrayal of soldiers in a movie that you have seen?

  2. Jo says:

    This just confirms the bad feelings I’ve been getting watching the previews of this movie. I’m not even going to bother getting it from Netflix now.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Mark: Good question. Several movies get the initial entry training part pretty close to right. “Full Metal Jacket,” “No Time for Sergeants,” “Officer and a Gentlemen” and others come readily to mind. They embellish a bit but get it right spiritually. All those movies, and “Stripes,” go downhill quickly once leaving that enviroment.

    “Saving Private Ryan” is often cited for its realism but the dialogue, especially the use of blue language doesn’t strike me as true for the period. I’m rather sure the f-word, much in vogue in recent years, was not used so often in 1943.

    “Band of Brothers” did a pretty good job, I thought, of capturing the whole experience.

    Of course, all of them overemphasize the dramatic and humorous aspects of military life while deemphasing the ordinary drudgery and boredom. But that’s understandable; who’d want to watch that?

  4. BPSpeaks says:

    Folks, calm down. It’s hollywood and thats what hollywood does, or should i say attempts to do “make entertaining movies by playing loose and fancy with the truth”. But i understand the sentiment. As a black man, i remember being insulted and getting lumps in my throat while watching “Training Day”. My concern was that folks having little interaction with black folks beyond the superficial meeting on the street, or work environment, would think that Denzel Washingtons was on any level, playing a part that was truly representative of the attitudes of large numbers of Black Males. I concluded that it was simply what some white dude, having heard a rap song or two, thinks black folks act like; as such, the character was written on that basis. Speaking of dialouge…man how i cringed. So much of it was outdated. And to think that he won an award for that portrayal when he has had overwhelmingly superior performaces was really insulting. (Might i add, that many black folk, though pleased that Denzel finally was recognized for his enormous talent, didn’t find the movie or his role in it particularly moving. Might i also add that many white folk i came into contact with thought it to be a “very good movie” and his part in it “accurately portrayed”) It just so happens though, that i too serve in uniform, and have had those same feelings as well when watching Military themed movies. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that Hollywood has an agenda, and that agena has nothing at all to do with the truth…certainly not truthful representations of any individual or groups of people. They are interested only in “making money” so if they gotta sensationalize, they will do so. I say, kick back, understand that, and as best you can, be entertained. Barring the ability to do that, understand and accept that as hollywoods MO and stay away from the movies. Thats what i do. I don’t expect hollywood to truthfully depict anything.

  5. Bachbone says:

    BPSpeaks nailed it. Never go to a movie for other than entertainment. Hollowood is composed of mostly airheads, not jarheads, and a “military advisor” has little real power.

  6. DL says:

    What is needed to temper the left from their propagandistic anti-American junk like this, is a bias rating system based upon left/right… pro-America or…pro-defense or…pro-marriage or…pro religion ….or.
    This should be done, not to censor, but to expose! Just the tally alone will pressure them to provide some semblance of fairness.
    Someone like a Brent Bozell seems quite capable to do such!

  7. Rodney Dill says:

    I would hope Band of Brothers did a good job, as it was supposedly based on the real life experiences.

    How does We Were Soldiers stack up, if you’ve seen it. From a movie perspective, I thought it was one of the best military movies I’ve seen, but I don’t have a military background.

  8. I was a sailor floating around in the middle of the Arabian Gulf at the time, and the only celebration I experienced was a steel beach picnic after we’d be relieved and had chopped out of the area.

    After boot camp, during my year in school before I got shipped out to the fleet, the two most popular movies were “Top Gun” and “Full Metal Jacket”. The Marines we hung out with told us that “Jacket” got the boot camp sequences down cold. (Being 1988, the couldn’t speak to the accuracy of the Vietnam sequences, obviously.)

    I agree with BPSpeaks and Bachbone: military movies are already written by the time the military advisor comes on board, and by then it’s too late to insist on accuracy.

  9. Jarheads’ screenplay is even more baffling since it was written by a Vietnam vet Marine.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Rodney: I haven’t seen “We Were Soldiers” yet. It’s in my Netflix queue, though.

  11. Just Me says:

    Sometimes bad military movies are the left’s bias creeping in, other times I think it is just laziness, and a belief that the audience won’t know the difference or care.

    I was never in the military, but I my husband was in the Navy for the first 5 years of our marriage.

    One thing that bother’s him to no end is how much the officer’s “sir” each other in movies and similar little things. Oh, and he almost always notices when they screw the uniforms up.

  12. I like “We Were Soldiers” because it show events in both the States and Vietnam. It’s a bit misleading, I think, because you get the impression the battle was over in 2 days, and I doubt seriously it was.

  13. RPL says:

    Long time reader, first time poster.

    I can help out a little bit with the uniforms. The reason that they aren’t accurate is that it’s against the law to have an exact replica of the uniform.

    Regarding the entertainment industry, I recall a story about the costume designer for a film that starred Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson (sorry, I don’t remember the name of the film). It was a courtroom drama, with military incident flashbacks. The costume designer had given everyone in the film who was Jackson’s unit the Purple Heart ribbon. It was not done, as James Webb, the advisor on the film, said it was unrealistic to have an entire unit get wounded for the action they took part in. The designer said that he liked the color of the ribbon, and decided it would look good against the Marines’ uniforms. FWIW.

  14. Mark says:

    I liked “We Were Soldiers” too. The only movie I have seen that looks at what is may be like for a wife whose husband was off at war.

  15. catdude says:

    As a Navy vet, I can say that Top Gun and Officer and a Gentleman were not bad movies, even though most of the characters would have gotten courtmartialed or discharged in the real Navy…for a decent portrayal of sailors, I don’t know about wartime (sorry, didn’t see combat) but the Last Detail and a movie whose title escapes me, but is about a Navy man in Seattle who hooks up with a female pool hustler are both fairly accurate protrayals of Navy life… Men of Honor is outstanding as well and, please can we ban future broadcasting of a Few Good Men (great acting and writing, non-existent reality) and Navy SEALS (a joke)?

  16. Sgt Fluffy says:

    Charles Stricklan said:

    “I was a sailor floating around in the middle of the Arabian Gulf at the time, and the only celebration I experienced was a steel beach picnic after we’d be relieved and had chopped out of the area”

    The only thing close to the movie I say when we had our SBP was a civilian contractor hurling into the wind on the flight deck after he had too many beers (I traded both of mine to him for $50 apiece…I love alchaholics)

  17. Lee Bergee says:

    I am 81 years old, USMC combat veteran of several wars, holder of more than one Purple heart…and I have yet to see a Hollywood movie about combat that is like the real thing. One factor mostly missed is the actors are not dirty enough.I fully recognize the fact no one who has not been there will ever understand what combat is REALLY like.

  18. James kadas says:

    It’s hollywood. That should be all you have to know. If they told it the way it was, the movie would die on day one. As a Vietnam vet who has seen his share of the war movies, you have to see the movie for entertainment ONLY, or don’t go at all. Yes, I confess, I look for errors when it’s a Marine Corps movie, But, at the same time, I over look them, too. Yes, I notice that her hair was touching her collar, when in uniform. But, then that’s the JARHEAD in me. Semper Fi

  19. MSGT Nellis USMC(RET) says:

    Lee Bergee says it best,If you haven’t been there you can’t potray it correctly.

  20. dorkafork says:

    “Jarhead” was written by a Gulf War Marine vet. The first page starts a description of how he would steal MREs and other gear and sell them at Army surplus stores. To give you an idea of the trustworthiness of the author.

    I think the idea that it’s illegal to have perfectly correct uniforms in movies is an urban legend.

  21. James Joyner says:

    Dork: Yes. It’s illegal to “impersonate an officer” in the sense of actually presenting yourself as a military officer for fraudulent purposes. It’s not illegal to play one on TV or the movies.

  22. Brad Nyberg says:

    We were soldiers was an excellent movie, and having also read the book, I can say that for once they followed it extremely closely. This is a very good thing, because the primary character, LTC Moore, was the writer of the book. Both the book and the movie were written based on his memories of the events. It is important to remember that this book/movie was written from the perspective of leadership, rather than the common soldier.

    Another excellent, quite possibly the best, war movie is Blackhawk Down. This movie gives the best view of what todays military really is. These are young men. Today’s elite forces are not composed of 45 year old men. They are built upon the backs of young soldiers. The average soldier in a leadership position will be in his early to mid-twenties. These are not ‘boys’ however. This movies shows just how professional these young soldiers are.

    Pretty much every other military-based movie made in the last 50 years has been focused on soldiers misconduct, leadership failures, corruption, scandals, or plain insanity. We Were Soldiers and Blackhawk Down are the only two movies I can name off the top of my head that truly honor the military in all aspects. They do our country proud.

    An interesting article about this can be found at http://www.hillsdale.edu/imprimis/2005/may

  23. Jared Hedge says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    I would just like to start out by saying I am a United States Marine, and I am very interested to hear and read what non Marines thought of the Movie.

    I read Anthony Swoffords book after I returned from Iraq and many times I found myself either having flashbacks or thinking “man this kid is a S**tbird”. S**tbird being a term we use to describe a Marine that is a slacker.

    The movie does an excellent job of portraying what it is like being a young Marine growing up in the Corps and with dealing with the wait and then experience of war.

    With each character in the movie I found that I have either experienced something like what they were going through in the Corps or had met someone just like them. I find some of the comments posted hear very interesting, mainly because I honestly feel that to really appreciate this movie you have to be an enlisted Marine from a combat arms unit. For example when Swoffard stands in the mortar fire and says in the narration “my combat action had commenced” only a Marine will truly understand the deep meaning of this. Your first chance at Combat whether you hate the Marines or love it, is what you live for as a Marine.

    There were parts in this movie that literally gave me chills, especially toward the end when SSgt. Sieks, now 1st Sgt. Sieks is back in Iraq.

    My brother (also a Marine) said it best, “…from now on when ever someone asks me what it’s like to be a Marine, I’ll just tell them to watch Jarhead.” I have to agree.