In his bestselling debut, Jarhead (Scribner), Anthony Swofford reflects on his experiences as a Marine scout and sniper fighting in the first Gulf War, and their emotional effects. Though other accounts have related Desert Storm heroics, such as Andy McNab's bestseller Bravo Two Zero (Island, 1993), most tend to focus on the lives of elite warriors and read like thrillers. In contrast, Jarhead captures the contradictions of modern warfare for the average soldier—the tedious days of waiting punctuated by moments of jolting terror, friendly fire and surreal encounters with the dead. The twist is that Swofford does it with a literary sensibility forged as much at the University of Iowa Writing Workshop as on the battlefield in Kuwait.

While Jarhead's publication coincided with the deployment of U.S. troops to the Gulf, critical praise of the book shot the title forward. Michiko Kakutani's rave review in the daily New York Times, several weeks ahead of the book's March 4 publication, and a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review by author Mark Bowden that hailed the book as an instant classic contributed significantly to its momentum, along with an appearance on Good Morning America.

After a first printing of 50,000 copies, Scribner has gone back to press seven times in three weeks, bringing the total in print to 202,500 copies. Michael Selleck, senior v-p of marketing for the S&S adult publishing group, said that sales of Jarhead have more than tripled in the past month: "It's strong everywhere: online, chains, indies." Though Scribner didn't elect to promote the book through the Book Sense program, the house did a pre-pub galley mailing to booksellers near military bases.

Swofford's hometown bookseller, Powell's in Portland, Ore., wasn't expecting the book to take off so quickly. "We have a shelf of Gulf War books in our store, but until recently, nothing sold," said purchasing manager Kathi Kirby. Following an author appearance, Jarhead is now one of Powell's bestselling titles, with sales of more than 350 copies.

Though Arsen Kashkashian, inventory manager at Boulder Book Store in Colorado, has also seen sales jump dramatically for Jarhead, he's not confident the market can bear more than one or two such memoirs. He's carrying Joel Turnipseed's Baghdad Express (March, Borealis; dist. by Minnesota Historical Society), an account of shuttling supplies in a big rig to Desert Storm's front lines that recently received national media coverage on Fox and Friends and 20/20, but won't stock up on older titles. "Some like the as-I-saw-it type things, while other people turn on the news to be connected to what's going on," said Kashkashian. "After 9/11, everything we were selling was an analysis of the Middle East—[books by Thomas] Friedman and [Noam] Chomsky. I've ordered 100 copies of Chomsky's new one, Middle East Illusions [Rowman & Littlefield]."

Saturation coverage of the fighting may already be provoking viewer burnout, and prompting some to turn to bookstores for relief. Sue Griepentrog, president of the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association and assistant manager and buyer for The Little Read Book in Wauwatosa, Wis., told PW that since the start of the second Gulf War, she's "seen an increase in fiction sales. Customers are telling us that they want to read something well written that will take their minds off the war."

Still, booksellers are bracing for the glut of instant and near-instant books that now accompanies any big international event. This time, the books may come at an even faster pace, given how many houses gained experience in crash publishing following September 11. And with some 500 journalists traveling along with combat units, there is likely to be a deluge of book proposals about Gulf War II as soon as it comes to a decisive resolution.

Last time around, in March 1991, it took just 45 days for the Iraqi army to surrender to U.S. and coalition forces. By May that year, the first high-profile book about the war had emerged, The Commanders (S&S) by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, with another 30 titles expected to land within a month. Because the Pentagon kept a tight clamp on the media, one of the few firsthand journalistic accounts came from Peter Arnett—the CNN correspondent who broadcast live reports from Baghdad. Though his memoir, Live from the Battlefield, reportedly landed an advance of about $1 million from Simon & Schuster, it didn't make major waves when it was finally published in 1994. The war's biggest books were Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's memoir, It Doesn't Take a Hero (1992), which was auctioned to Bantam for $5 million before he even left Saudi Arabia, and Gen. Colin Powell's autobiography, My American Journey (Random House, 1995), which coincided with his dalliance with a run for the presidency. Both became major bestsellers after the war, selling more than a million copies each in hardcover.

In the long term, journalistic accounts of the political and military action may prove less valuable to readers than books that can put a human face on the war and take the time to examine the emotional consequences. "The real question," said Colin Harrison, the former Harper's magazine editor who made Jarhead his first acquisition at Scribner, concerns "what books will be written far in the future by the people participating in the war now. Tony [Swofford] is a perfect example of how that works. You're talking about a man who had some buried psychic bombs coming to the surface, but they didn't destroy him, he turned them into art."