Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Please Don't Cheat On My Hero Worship

As I often do after watching a movie I liked that was based on a book, I recently finished Anthony Swofford's NYT bestseller Jarhead. I'd really enjoyed the movie and wanted to dig deeper into Swofford's experiences during the First Gulf War. I did enjoy the read: Swofford's writing is alternately starkly realistic and dreamily poetic. I admire all he and his fellow soldiers did for our country during the FGW and thank him for sharing his experience with us in such an eloquent and thought-provoking way.

However, one thing about Swofford's outlook has me a bit puzzled. And at the risk of offending the Marines and servicemen out there who are nothing like the men Swofford served with and subsequently wrote about, it seems to me that the general attitude of Marines stationed overseas is seriously double standard-ized as far as fidelity to romantic relationships back at home.

To read (and thus believe) Swofford's account, a primary concern of Marines stationed overseas is what (and who) their wives and girlfriends might be "doing" back at home. They worried that out-of-sight meant free-for-all as far as their girls' sexual activity, that since they weren't around to defend their female territory, their women were running loose and wanton behind their backs. They even went so far as to maintain a Wall of Shame, advertising the evil deeds done to them by the unfaithfuls back on the homefront. Swofford himself talks about his girlfriend Kristina's affair with a coworker, and his bitterness about her infidelity is not disguised.

Thing is, while they were stationed in the Philipines or Japan or Korea, the men Swofford depicted seemed to spend a healthy portion of their free time chasing women and hookers and other gals of ill repute. He speaks of a Marine recruiter who could proudly quote to the seventeen-year-old pre-recruit Swofford the price of prostitutes in over half a dozen countries, and Swofford indicates that he founds this particular skill admirable. While Swofford was busy worrying and complaining about Kristina's lack of faithfulness, he carried on with a girlfriend in Japan not to mention the countless number of "bar girls" he encountered. It seemed not only normal but expected that these men would sleep around as often as possible and with as many women as possible, regardless of who might be waiting for them back home.

What I don't get is why these men feel it is perfectly fine for them to chase skirts across the Pacific, picking up who knows what kind of nasty diseases, and yet expect their women to remain paragons of devoted virtue back home. I'm not advocating the "tit for tat" ideology for fidelity. I don't think anyone should have the attitude that if he/she is doing it, I can, too, and, therefore, will. Two wrongs do not make a right in any sense.

But it irritates me no end that Marines (or any servicemember - I'm not picking on any particular branch) will call a woman back home a whore in the most disgusted, hateful meaning of the word while they feel free to engage in activities with the whores where they are. It's the whole do as I say, not as I do bullshit.

Some would argue that since these men are risking their lives for their country, that they've sacrificed so much in leaving their homes and families, and that they are under inordinate amounts of tension and stress, that they deserve whatever comforts they can find. Sex is an outlet that healthy, young, hormone-laden men need fairly regularly or they might just explode, or so we are led to believe. And since sleeping with a whore is 100% physical and 100% temporary, it doesn't really count as "cheating". It's recreation, blowing off steam, releasing some pent up frustrations. Same thing as booze or smoking.

Yeah, right. Would that mean a girlfriend back home who goes barhopping with her girlfriends and engages in quickie in the back of the car of a guy who picks her up at the bar is not cheating? That she was just blowing off steam, releasing some pent up frustration? Or are her stresses and burdens not worthy of such excuses?

Again, I don't advocate such behaviour. A vow is a vow, and whether or not it was made in a church or a judge's chamber or just after years/months/weeks/days of dating exclusively, breaking it is not cool.

I think my strong reaction to Swofford and the attitude he seemed to carry when he was a Marine is that, so often, cheating is used to vilify a person or character. Heroine is married when she meets her Soul Mate, and leaving her husband would be kind of anti-heroic. Oh, but he's a cheater, and therefore it's okay for her to dump his ass for Mr. Hardbody. In our world here at home, cheating doesn't get a pass just because it happens outside of the 50 mile faithfulness required perimeter. If you want to turn the reader against someone, make the character a cheater and the battle's half-way won.

I love stories about warriors, and mil roms offer the modern day warrior in the form of Navy SEALs and Delta Force operators and super duper secret agents. But research in the form of autobiographical works such as Swoffords (and others I've read such as Warrior Soul by Chuck Pfarrer) would leave me to believe that military guys are often on the make when they aren't at home. I'm not going to judge them; I don't walk in their shoes. It does, though, make it hard to see them as heroic, at least as far as relationships go. They may deserve all of our props on the battlefield and for what they do for our country, but as men who deserve true love, not so much.

And it also makes it hard for me to sacrifice heroines I've come to know and love, thinking that during the next deployment, SGT Hardbody might be taking advantage of the local talent.

Maybe this is a very good instance of when fantasy has to override reality. When what we know of the real world has to take a distant backseat and our powers to suspend our disbelief have to be employed liberally. The romance comes from converting the stereotypical oversexed Marine into a devoted man in love, one who would never look for bargain blowjobs or two-for-ones from the back alley girls who hover just off base.

I'm sure, no doubt - NO DOUBT - that most servicemen and women are very good people who have caring, loving relationships in which they behave honorably, and they deserve this in spades for all they sacrifice. I'm thinking that I need to read some of their stories so my faith in my heroes can be restored.

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