Evan Wright, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, was embedded in Iraq with the Marines of First Recon, an elite unit that came to call itself “First Suicide Battalion.” Generation Kill chronicles Wright’s two months with the unit, a period that saw the invasion of the country, the fall of Baghdad, and the beginnings of the chaos that would follow.
What makes Generation Kill special is the way the writer keeps his focus on the Marines and not on himself and his reactions to the Marines. One of the most celebrated Vietnam books, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, was as often about Herr as it was about the men in Vietnam; Herr often seemed like a kid in a creative writing class, excited by his latest metaphor. Generation Kill is written in a plain-spoken, often pungent style that well suits the material. It is as if Wright took to heart something one of the Marines tells him: “Everything in life is overrated except death,” journalists certainly included.
There are only a few points where Wright injects himself into the book. Most are near the beginning, when he arrives for his assignment at Camp Mathilda in Kuwait. Wright mentions that another reporter had been scheduled to join him on the assignment, but suffered “an acute attack of sanity” after hearing the Marines’ warnings about what might happen if you had to vomit inside your chemical warfare suit, known as a MOPP. But the anecdote is not a prelude to Wright’s celebration of his own daring; he describes in darkly comic detail his first experience wearing the MOPP, in which he needs to enlist a corporal to cut off the strap nearly strangling his crotch. The corporal quickly announces to the rest of the platoon, “I just performed testicle surgery on the reporter.”
To Wright, the First Recon Marines are “young Americans, unplugged,” willingly foregoing the comforts of American consumer society for a chance to tempt death. He does not lavish obsequious praise on the men, but he does acknowledge the gulf that exists between them and most of their fellow citizens in the States. “In my civilian world at home in Los Angeles,” he writes, “half the people I know are on anti-depressants or anti-panic attack drugs because they can’t handle the stress of a mean boss or a crowd at the 7-Eleven when buying a Slurpee.”
GENERATION KILL MANAGES TO BUILD considerable suspense throughout, owing to Wright’s skill with narrative and the special role of First Recon as shock troops for the invasion. Unlike most other Marine units that were storming Iraq by highway, theirs was taking a hellish alternate route through some of the deadliest parts of the country, seeking out ambushes and drawing enemy fire so that the larger forces could go in with less opposition. Not only is their mission more dangerous, most of them know nothing about it. Throughout the book, battle plans and orders are shrouded in mystery and subject to change. No matter what they encounter along the way — gun-blasted children, bodies on the side of the road, elderly Iraqis eager to be taken into custody, civilians whom they shoot accidentally — the Marines maintain their composure through generous helpings of black humor, camaraderie, and professionalism. Even when some commanders make foolish decisions or lose the respect of their units, the Marines seem to take it all in stride. One commander who does have his men’s respect sums up his view of the military: “The incompetent leading the unwilling to do the unnecessary.”
The book’s characters make clear that the Marine Corps is a much more complicated mix of human beings than is commonly believed. From the unflappable Sergeant Brad Colbert, who is known as the Iceman, to the cocky young Corporals Trombley and Person (“When I become a pop star,” Person says, “I’m going to make pro-war songs”), to a Marx-quoting Communist, a radical Indian who fulminates about the sins of the White Man, a chronically discontented camp medic, and many memorable others, First Recon is truly a platoon that looks like America.
Whatever Wright’s political views may be — he quotes Marines both critical and supportive of the war, but does not opine — there is little question of his affection for these Marines, his concern for their welfare, and his quiet admiration of their ability to fight and yes, to kill. He never loses sight of that one thing that cannot be overrated:
Everyone is side by side, facing the same big fear: death. Usually death is pushed to the fringes in the civilian world. Most people face their end pretty much alone, with a few family members if they are lucky. Here, the Marines face death together, in their youth. If anyone dies, he will do so surrounded by the very best friends he believes he will ever have.
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