Of course Bardamu walks into the Western Front, while Swofford walks into a small colonial war where nobody's likely to get hurt -- on our side at least. His actual combat stories are modest: his unit was shelled once by Iraqi rocket fire. No one was hit. He and his unit then found the Iraqi outpost that had called in the rockets and passed its coordinates on to US artillery, which wiped it out.
This isn't much of a score, as body-counts go. What most annoys Swofford at the time is that an officer grabs the radio and calls in the coordinates of the target himself, because there's so little killing by ground forces that everybody's hungry to claim the few Iraqi scalps available. And Swofford is honest enough to admit that he didn't want to go home without an Iraqi scalp or two.
The only truly epic combat stories around are the lies told after the war by Fowler, a failed Marine. Fowler spent the war handing out toilet paper, earning the nickname "Huggies," but he's had time to construct more classical veteran's tales. Swofford meets Fowler "...telling a crowd of fifteen or twenty people, most of them women, about the time in the Gulf War when he'd fought hand to hand with four raghead bastards, how he'd run out of ammunition after killing a few of their comrades in a fucking fierce firefight and was now using his bayonet, he screamed, his fucking bayonet...thus saving a crowd of Kuwaiti women and girls, next up to be raped by the aggressors."
Swofford has a very pleasantly droll way of recounting soldiers' lies like this. He's a native Sacramentan, poor bastard, and I can testify that he has a perfect ear for dirthead California diction. There are little phrases like "next up to be raped" that are unobtrusive yet perfect.
And he keeps the bombast under control. For that alone he deserves several medals. Take the case of the toilet-paper clerk who's started making himself into a war hero in order to mate with as many females as possible. Swofford takes the fake hero's stories in stride, and describes his meetings with Fowler over the years, as their slow, ridiculous rivalry continues, without pretending that he's much more of a hero himself.
The only Oprah-style post-war trauma in the book is Fowler's, and he fakes it to get laid: "I saw Fowler lying on the couch, his head in a woman's lap, she patting his small, bald head and helping soothe his pain as he wept from the horrors that haunted his waking and sleeping hours."
Swofford, who moves through time more gracefully than most memoirists, tracks their occasional, casually hostile meetings over the years, culminating in Fowler's drunken boast that he's "...going to gay fucking Paree to join the French Fucking Foreign Legion!" Swofford tries to persuade Swofford to join him, adding, "Or maybe you don't have the balls." Swofford's reported reply shows how well he has learned one of the Celinean lessons American war memoirists find hardest to get: "I told [Fowler] he was correct, my balls had been used dry."
Celine showed the value of dropping all martial boasts in the superb war scenes at the beginning of Journey, describing himself as the only sane coward in a continent full of utterly mad brave people. This was a literary decision, not a fact. The facts were that Celine was one of the most celebrated heroes in France in the first year of the Great War. And he was by no means averse to braying out that fact when it suited him. But when it came time to write his war memoir, Celine realized martial courage reads badly. It's much better and much funnier to talk with balls that have been used dry.
So Swofford takes it mercifully easy with his family griefs and martial anecdotes, writing in the authentic fuck-it-anyway tone of a young white Californian from a hellhole like Sacramento. His father served in Nam, ended up a little crazy -- but just a little. Any other writer would have been sorely tempted to amplify and maybe even lie a little about just how crazy Dad was. Swofford won't. Dad was somewhat damaged, not a monster, and that's that.