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Men at War

An embedded Rolling Stone reporter keeps his focus where it should be: on the Marines he covered in Iraq.

By 3.15.05

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Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War
by Evan Wright
(Putnam, 354 pages, $24.95)

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.

One Marine tells Wright that being together with his comrades is the best part about the war. Their elite fraternity is hyper-male and joyously profane. Generation Kill's Marines will make you laugh out loud many times, sometimes against your better nature. A camp chaplain remarks at some point that the men are among the most crude and foul-mouthed he has ever ministered to. Colbert and Person supply some of the most amusing moments. Both men detest country music, and at one point Person says that when Baghdad falls, "Lee Greenwood is going to parachute in, singing 'I'm Proud to be an American.'" When the two turn to mocking Aaron Tippin's "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagles Fly," Colbert says, "That song is straight homosexual country music, Special Olympics-gay." This is some of their more family-friendly dialogue.

IF WRIGHT'S INSTINCTS AS A REPORTER seldom fail, his insights as a writer sometimes do. At the end of the book, he suggests that the Marines lack moral qualms about the people they have killed. Yet his book, which features numerous incidents in which the Marines kill unarmed Iraqi civilians in the fog of war or confusion about the military's changing rules of engagement, also contains numerous expressions from those Marines of remorse and reflection.

"That dude I saw crawling last night, I shot him in the grape," [the head], says one Marine. "Saw the top of his head bust off. That didn't feel good. It makes me sick." Another continues to question his killing of three Iraqis who turned out to be unarmed, and a third rages over the numbers of civilians they have killed, and at George Bush "for getting us into this bitch." And many members of First Recon get involved in efforts to save a Bedouin boy they shoot accidentally. For all of the bravado the men display, maimed or dead civilians arouse consistent expressions of regret. It's odd to read Wright's suggestion that there is no remorse; it seems almost as if he wrote that sentence after he had been away from the men awhile, after his identification with them had dissipated. The civilian world has a fog of its own.

Another odd note is Wright's title, which seems to promise a book about a group of Americans unlike any other, fighting a war unlike any that preceded it. In this, and fortunately only in this, the book is reminiscent of the worst tendencies of the Vietnam literature. But what resonates again and again in Generation Kill is that the Marines are not so different from the men who have preceded them: more cynical, perhaps, more attuned to the impersonal machinations of governments, as Wright notes. Yet underneath their updated slang and hip irony, the voices of these Marines are familiar. Generation Kill sets a high standard for the growing Iraq literature, but like any worthwhile account it speaks beyond its moment to the larger theme of men in war -- any men, any war.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.