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Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War Paperback – February 1, 2005
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“A pungently written combat narrative and a close-range study of a bunch of twentysomething warriors trying to get a handle on who they are.”—Time
“Nuanced and grounded in details often overlooked in daily journalistic accounts...A complex portrait of able young men raised on video games and trained as killers.”—The New York Times
“A stellar reporting achievement...Think Black Hawk Down or Michael Herr's Dispatches.”—ottawa Citizen
“Shockingly honest.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Visceral, sometimes shocking...a brutally honest acount of America's latest generation to experiencethe stark, horrifying realities of warfare.”—Boston Herald
“Sidesteps Greatest Generation clichés to find the unexpected—a self-described ‘Marine Corps killer’ who listens to Barry Manilow, a corporal who compares a gunfight to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.”—The Washington Post
Wright wrote about [his] experience in a three-part series in Rolling Stone that was hailed for its evocative, accurate war reporting. This book, a greatly expanded version of that series, matches its accomplishment. Wright is a perceptive reporter...a personality-driven, readable and insightful look at the Iraq war's first month from the Marine grunt's point of view...compelling portraits...a vivid, well-drawn picture.”—Publishers Weekly
“The language is blue, the blood red, and the action explosive. This may be the book of the Iraqi engagement.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
About the Author
Evan Wright is the author of Hella Nation and Generation Kill, the basis of the HBO® miniseries for which he served as co-writer. Wright earned his degree in medieval and Renaissance studies from Vassar College, an education he soon put work at Hustler magazine, where he served as “Entertainment Editor.” In the late 1990's he began writing feature articles for Rolling Stone focused on youth subcultures, from radical environmentalists to skinheads to sorority girls. His work is characterized by immersion in his subjects' worlds, detailed reporting and dark humor.
After 9/ll he pitched his editor on the idea that since the US military was “basically another youth subculture,” he ought to be writing about it. Generation Kill received numerous awards, including the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Los Angeles Times book award, a PEN USA literary prize and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's award for “Best History of the Marine Corps.”
Wright has covered the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards, one for reporting on the war in Iraq in Rolling Stone and the other for a profile published in Vanity Fair.
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First Recon is an elite Marine battalion, lightly armored, trained to move fast out front of heavier and stronger troop concentrations.
What they aren’t told is the nature of their mission: with the Marines responsible for moving from Kuwait towards Baghdad through Mesopotamia, Major General James Mattis decides to use First Recon in a separate, parallel thrust – to draw fire and flush out the enemy that can then be pounded by the heavier forces.
Wright portrays young fighting men in all their complexity and contradiction. Many can’t wait to go into battle. That’s understandable. It’s what they’ve trained for, and they’ve been waiting in isolation in a desert holding area for weeks.
But they will have to learn battle’s realities, which few have yet experienced: Seeing bodies blown apart. Confronting civilian casualties, which strike them harder than they expect – particular when the victim is a child. Living with their own errors when that happens. Dealing with their army’s errors, such as incompetent officers failing to procure necessary supplies. Officers who are martinets. Others who are deskers, suddenly called up but ignorant of basic combat procedure. Orders changed and changed again. It seems like every night the men dig in after an exhausting day, only to get late orders to change their position, forcing them to move and then dig in once more for the night.
Wright explores the personalities of the men he moves with most closely. Colbert, a sergeant nicknamed The Iceman for his unflappable cool, whose men have complete confidence in him. And who really, really likes Barry Manilow. Persons, Colbert’s driver, with a wacky sense of humor and a mouth he loves to run. Trombley, young, a new transfer in, wanting to prove himself but annoying his new comrades instead. Wright delves into their often dysfunctional family backgrounds. It’s the rare one who comes from a happy family with married parents.
They are a reasonably slick fighting machine. You see their uncut conversations, and how they get on each other’s nerves. You see unwavering loyalties that develop among combat comrades. You see men’s intense feelings towards the officers who hold their lives in their hands: positive towards those who have earned it, and contemptuous to those who fail to. Wright spares the officers the men most hate by using only their nicknames, not their real ones. And you see the wisdom in the military, since Vietnam, forcing journalists to commit to and stay with a single unit, rather than flit around the combat zone. Those like Wright who do so get to know them, get to know the realities they face, and are less likely to do hit-and-run journalism on soldiers whose life in the field and in combat most civilians can’t begin to imagine.
Wright walks a fine line here. Part of him wants to be a liberal journalist, the type who vomits discontent on Bush's Iraq war, which he does in an afterword. The main book, though, much of it published as Rolling Stone articles in 2003 and 2004 – before liberals got that particular bit in their mouth – is nearly devoid of it.
The other part of him wants to describe accurately the Iraq invasion as seen by those who fought it, with more than a little sympathy for their viewpoint. Mostly, this second part wins.
The book focuses on the killing of civilians. The men of First Recon rarely fight pitched battles in an open field against a regular army. Far more often they can't tell who's shooting at them, although they try their best to make informed judgments about who’s hostile. And they can't see clearly who's approaching them, particularly at night, or discern whether they are hostile or not. Escaping Iraqi soldiers? Jihadis in plain clothes trying to get close for an attack? Or just civilians too scared to stop at a roadblock for anyone?
Our guys are variously exhausted, adrenaline rushed, numbed to combat, wired on stimulants, terrified, or on the receiving end of confusing and conflicting orders regarding their rules of engagement – who they may or should shoot at.
It’s a crapshoot every time they pull the trigger, Wright says, because there’s no telling how the deal will go down, how it will be interpreted later, what the situation that they saw through the fog of war, might really have been – and how they might be hung out to dry by Washington lawyers, the media and superior officers covering their own butts. (This situation has apparently got worse. There have been stories recently about officers in Iraq and Afghanistan having to wait during firefights for clearance from Washington lawyers before their troops can pull a trigger.)
Wright shows the damaging effects on morale when civilians are killed unnecessarily, especially children. The military, institutionally, is seen here working hard to avoid it for many reasons. Not everyone is on board. Some troops and officers take no care to avoid shooting non-combatants; you can see the dissension on the front lines as enlisted men caution a trigger-happy superior officer. They shouldn’t have to do that.
Wright makes clear that there’s no indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. Too many of the officers and enlisted men in every unit are struggling to avoid it. But he also shows the general havoc cut loose that does take a lot of civilian lives – that plus air war and artillery strikes that don’t distinguish between civilians and hostiles – and understands that the locals may fail to make this fine distinction.
And he’s honest with himself. One incident raises dissension within the unit: a machine gunner takes out what later proves to be camels and two teenage shepherds in a firefight. The men push their superiors to medevac the more seriously wounded boy, which, ultimately, they do.
Wright isn’t a combatant but he’s exposed to nearly all the danger his military comrades are. And he realizes he’s conflicted in his feelings about Trombley, the young soldier who shot the shepherds – not yet identified as such – on Colbert’s order:
“Something’s been bothering me about Trombley for a day or two, and I can’t help thinking about it now. I was never quite sure if I should believe his claim that he cut up those Iraqis in Al Gharraf. But he hit those two shepherds, one of whom was extremely small, at more than 200 meters, from a Humvee bouncing down a rough road at forty miles per hour. However horrible the results, his work was textbook machine-gun shooting, and the fact is, from now on, every time I ride with Colbert’s team, I feel a lot better when Trombley is by my side with the SAW.”
There’s a lot here for armchair pacifists and generals alike to think about.
It's not about officers though. It's about the grunt Marines and their NCOs. While it details the experience of war, it also is a window into the tail end of Generation X and a strong look at military culture overall. Evan Wright rode along in a Humvee on the very front lines with 2nd platoon. He is a self-described liberal who wrote for Rolling Stone. Because he was willing to sleep, eat, ride, and experience the horror/thrill of combat with the Marines, they both opened up to him and grew to respect him (many have stayed in touch years later, which makes for an excellent Afterword). It seems like Wright is able to remain even keeled, but it is clear that he likes and deeply appreciates many of the Marines that he chronicles.
Some critics have said that this book (and the outstanding David Simon HBO mini-series) glorify war, while others say it is an over-the-top anti-war story. As an Army veteran (and current Army Medical Officer in mental health) that has counseled over 1000 veterans and service members, I am of the opinion that this is very accurate and quite nuanced. I am also of the opinion that almost every war book or movie, when done accurately, has a bit of an anti-war message. War is hell. Even if you survive it.
There is always going to be some subjectivity in reporting like this. So much of it is based on Wright's memory, etc. What I think this captures very well is the devastating nature of modern warfare and the logistical impossibilities of major military operations, especially when multiple branches are involved.
It is truly amazing that there weren't more friendly fire deaths during this operation, considering the many close calls First Recon seemed to have. This book does not glamorize war, nor does it place an unfair moral burden on the young men tasked with the invasion of Iraq. It's so difficult to generalize about a book like this. The enlisted marines come across as very brave, sometimes foolish, often conflicted, and very human. Officers get less coverage, and though the decisions of the higher-ups at times seem to border on the absurd, I feel that this book gives the reader the very real sense that the person giving the order is usually just the messenger, and that messenger may be at odds with what they're expected to do.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, this book really gives a sense of how random and tragic modern warfare is. Civilians get killed constantly. I don't see this as a reflection on the marines portrayed in the book - they are put in an impossible situation with regards to how to execute their orders while keeping themselves and their comrades safe, while accurately identifying military threats - but rather the nature of the modern war machine.
Politically, it doesn't matter where you sit. Regardless of the Rolling Stone byline, I don't think Evan Wright brought any particular agenda to the table with this book. It is not intended as 100% accurate history, but rather his perceptions of things as they happened. I found that I was in the position of rooting for the marines and for the safety of the innocents caught up in brutality, as well.