Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear
no evil, for I am the baddest mother f**ker in the valley
We begin with a voiceover from Swofford, who is then shown in a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp, being brutalized by a drill instructor in a scene reminiscent of FMJ. After finishing boot, "Swoff" is dispatched to Camp Pendleton in 1989, where he is subjected to a cruel joke by the senior Marines and faints. After regaining consciousness, he is greeted coolly by Troy, who says to him, "Welcome to the Suck."
Swofford comes across the charismatic Staff Sergeant Sykes, a Marine "lifer" who invites Swofford to his Scoiut Sniper course. After arduous training sessions that claims the life of one recruit, he becomes a sniper and is paired with Troy as his spotter. Shortly after, Kuwait is invaded by Iraq and Swofford's unit is dispatched to the Persian Gulf as a part of Operation Desert Shield. Although the Marines are very eager to see some combat action, they are forced to hydrate, wait, patrol the nearby area, hydrate some more and orient themselves to the arid environment. When some field reporters appear, Sykes forces his unit to demonstrate their NBC suits in a game of American Football even under the 112 degree heat.
During the long wait, some of the Marines fear their wives and girlfriends at home will be unfaithful. A public board displays the photos of women who have ended their relationships with members of the unit. Swofford himself begins to suspect that his girlfriend is, or will soon be, unfaithful. The most public and humiliating of these befalls Dettman, who discovers an innocent looking copy of "The Deer Hunter" VHS sent from his wife, which the men are all seated to watch, is actually a homemade porno tape of her having sex with their neighbour, apparently made as revenge for Dettman's own actions with another.
During an impromptu Christmas party, Fergus, a member of Swofford's unit, accidentally sets fire to a tent and a crate of flares. Swofford gets the blame because he was supposed to be on watch, but had Fergus sit in for him. As a consequence, Swofford is demoted from Lance Corporal to Private and is forced to undertake the degrading task of burning excrement. The punishments combined with suspicions of his girlfriend's infidelity temporarily drive Swofford to the point of mental breakdown.
After the long stand in the desert, Op Desert Storm, the coalition force's ground campaign, begins, and the Marines are dispatched to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. Briefly before the action begins, Swofford learns from Sykes that Troy concealed his criminal record when enlisting and will be discharged after the end of hostilities. Following an accidental artillery barrage from friendly forces, the Marines advance through the desert, facing no enemies on the ground. Casualties are taken when friendly fire from an A-10 close air support aircraft hits U.S. vehicles. The troops march through the Highway of Death, strewn with burnt vehicles and remains of charred bodies, a product of the bombing campaign. Later, the Marines encounter burning oil wells, lit by the retreating Iraqis, and they attempt to dig sleeping holes as a rain of crude oil falls from the sky.
After the long advance, Swofford and Troy are finally given a combat mission. Their order is to shoot two Iraqi officers, supposedly located in a control tower at a battle-damaged airport. The two take up positions in a deserted building, but moments after Swofford pinpoints one of the officers in his sights, another team of Marines appears and calls in an air strike. Troy, desperate to make a kill, pleads with the officer in charge to let them take the shot. When his pleas are denied, Troy breaks down in a fit of despair and weeps. Moments later the airport is bombed by U.S. warplanes. Swofford and Troy linger at the site in a daze, losing track of time and missing their pick-up. With night fallen, they try to navigate the desert but get lost. Distant cries in the darkness frighten them, and as they begin to sense that the sounds are coming from beyond a ridge, they ready their weapons and prepare to descend. They see an encampment in the distance, but on closer look they recognize it as their base camp, and the sounds as Marine voices. The war is over, they learn, and scores of soldiers celebrate this amidst a bonfire. In a climactic scene Swofford tells Troy he never fired his rifle, getting a response of "You can do it now". He then fires a round in the air from his sniper rifle and the other Marines, who also never had a chance to fire their weapons, follow suit, emptying magazines into the night sky.
On returning home the troops parade through the towns in a jovial celebration of victory. The mood is disturbed when a disheveled Vietnam veteran, possibly suffering from the memories of the conflict, jumps into their bus, and congratulates them all. Soon after their return home, Swofford and his comrades are discharged and go on with their separate lives. Swofford returns home to his girlfriend, but discovers her with a new boyfriend. Fowler is seen to be spending time with a girl at a bar, very likely a prostitute, Kruger is seen in a corporate boardroom, Escobar as a supermarket employee, Cortez as a father of three kids, and Sykes continuing his service as a Marine in Operation Iraqi Freedom. An unspecified amount of time later, Swofford learns of Troy's death during a surprise visit from Fergus. He attends the funeral, meets some of his old friends, and afterwards he reminisces about the effects of the war.
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