One of the novelties of the Invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was the “embedded reporter.” The media hyped this style of reporting as new and authoritative. Ironically the idea of the embed had been used in other wars. These war reporters were known as “war correspondents” and included such illustrious names as Stephen Crane, Walter Cronkite, and Erik Sevreid. Traditionally these reporters wrote of their experiences in long form after the war and the Invasion of Iraq is no exception. Generation Kill by Evan Wright falls in the tradition of war reporter’s long form accounts of their time in combat. What sets Wright’s book apart is his keen eye for what makes America’s fighting men everymen. Generation Kill does more than just recount battles and the toll they take on soldiers and civilians and the environment. It is full of rich, unforgettable characters who are not that much different from your average 20-something. It is an unflinching, often raw look at life as an enlisted Marine in combat and a brilliant illustration of the bond that these Marines share and the commonalities between the Marines and every other young man.
Generation Kill was one of the first books written by an embedded reporter about the Invasion of Iraq. First published in the Summer of 2004 it immediately became a best seller. Wright was working as a reporter for Rolling Stone in March 2003 when he was sent to Kuwait to spend the invasion with the 1st Marine Division. Upon his arrival in Kuwait he met up with an officer who introduced him to Lt. Col. Stephen Ferrando, the commanding officer of the 1st Recon Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Lt. Col. Ferrando told Wright he could ride with the battalion provided he turn his satellite phone and computer over to the battalion. Wright readily agreed and was told to ride with 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company under the command of Lt. Nate Fick.
Recon Marines are considered to be, though the Marines shun the term, the elite of the Marine Corps. They are highly trained to carry out small invisible missions behind enemy lines for long periods of time. They are trained to observe enemy movements and strength, report this information back to higher headquarters, and most of all avoid contact with the enemy. 1st Recon’s mission during the 2003 invasion was the opposite of this traditional role. 1st Recon acted as the “tippity-tip” of the spear for the American invasion. They raced north into Iraq often with vague orders acting as ambush bait to lure and pin massive Iraqi units in position east of the main US thrust towards Baghdad. This strategy worked and hundreds if not thousands of Iraqi soldiers and Fedyeen were killed by 1st Recon. But the psychological price the Marines paid was high. Not only were they operating as a battalion, something Recon had never done before, they were acting as bait for most of the invasion (something Marines are naturally averse to), and they had the added strain of not having clear mission objectives. As a result the friction between the officers and enlisted Marines grew throughout the invasion until it threatened the cohesion of the unit.
Wright spent most of his time with 1st Recon with the enlisted Marines of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company. As a result his book looks at the war through the eyes of the enlisted Marines. It is sometimes a brutal and raw portrayal of life as a modern enlisted Marine. His description of his first afternoon with Bravo reads more like an account of life with a bunch of drunk Animal House fraternity brothers than Marines. They are looking at porn, heatedly debating politics, swapping bawdy stories, beating each other silly, and poking each other with bayonets. As an initiation, Wright is given a spot to sleep that happens to be the only way to and from the latrine. As a result, he is constantly tripped over, kicked, and forced to stare at other men’s balls as they transit to and from the latrine all night. He bears these small humiliations without complaint and is able to break enough barriers by showing he can stand whatever is thrown his way. Eventually the Marines reluctantly accept him and begin to let him into their world.
Once the invasion kicks off, the personalities of the Marines really starts to come through. There are Marines from all walks of life, rich suburban kids who wanted to do something different with their lives, poor kids from the inner city who are trying to escape the poverty and cycle of crime that grips their communities, born again Christians, pot heads, and even a couple of token guys with criminal records who chose the Corps over jail. What makes these Marines memorable is what they share with the reader. Far from being raging patriots bleeding red, white, and blue who view their service as a crusade to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, these Marines are looking to make their lives better. They are doing their job, following orders, and griping about them all the way to Baghdad. They have the same fears, hopes, and interests as their fellow young adults. They love music, their families, booze, women, and video games. Many are just as mature as your average college student. The only difference is they’re given a rifle and tons of explosives instead of books and a laptop and told to go take over a country.
One of the most memorable characters is Cpl. Ray Person, the diver of the HMMWV that Wright rides in. He demonstrates a very wry sense of humor fueled in part by a love of Ripped Fuel, an ephedra based nutrition supplement, stress, and a high level of intelligence. Cpl. Person provides the comic relief for the crew of the HMMWV through some of the most harrowing times of the invasion. He also provides a hilarious, often highly offensive running commentary about the war, politics, life in the US, life in Iraq, Iraqis, and the “fucking retards” who are commanding 1st Recon. In his opinion, most every officer is retarded as are most of the other Marines he serves with. Despite these views, Person is popular with the other Marines. His tirades on Avril Levigne, pop culture, anti-war protesters, the war, and the condition of America would not be out-of-place in a college dorm.
Another memorable character is 2nd Platoon’s commanding officer, Lt. Nate Fick. Lt. Fick later wrote his own book about the war entitles One Bullet Away. Lt. Fick is a Dartmouth grad who joined the Marine Corps out of idealism and the desire to do something different from his fellow Dartmouth peers. He maintains his idealistic views throughout the invasion but remains popular with the Marines under his command for his no-nonsense approach to leadership and his common sense. He is not afraid to stand up to his superiors, who sometimes come across as overzealous and weak. This outspoken side of Lt. Fick’s personality serves to alienate him from some of the other officers in the battalion and ultimately becomes a major reason for him leaving the Marine Corps. Although Lt. Fick does take a stand, sometimes very publicly, against the seeming ineptitude of other officers, he is an aggressive combat leader himself. At one point he notes with pride that his Marines leveled a town full of Fedyeen fighters. His platoon also received more commendations and decorations for bravery and outstanding performance in combat than any other platoon in 1st Recon.
One of the biggest flaws of Generation Kill is its portrayal of the officers. Due in part to Wright spending a disproportionate amount of time with the enlisted Marines, he comes to see many officers as inept, overzealous, and even dangerous. While some officers may have been all of these things, Lt. Fick points out in his book and in subsequent lectures, that Wright did not do a good job of capturing the personalities of many of the officers. Certain officers are referred to only by their unofficial, derisive nicknames such as “Captain America,” “The Coward of Kahjafi,” or “Encino Man.” These officers are shown as brutal, inept, prone to taking unnecessary risks, and in the case of Captain America, downright idiotic. The reader has no idea how bad these particular officers really were since Wright only talks bout them when they are making bad choices or facing a virtual mutiny by the enlisted Marines. Lt. Fick remains relatively silent on some of the big negative episodes in his book meaning he either was unaware of them at the time or does not want to comment on them. Part of the reason many officers come across so negatively may be Wright’s own personal biases and influences. He has a style that is obviously based in the Gonzo Journalism tradition of Hunter S. Thompson and is writing at the time for Rolling Stone.
Overall, Generation Kill provides an excellent, readable account of life as a combat Marine. It does an excellent job of relating the reader to the characters and showing the characters in a very human light. It is highly recommended for students of the Iraq War and anyone thinking of enlisting in the Marines. It is often unflinching in its account of life on the battlefield. If you come away with the impression that for most of the invasion the Marines of 1st Recon were tired, hungry, and angry that would be pretty accurate. If you come away with the impression that the Marines of 1st Recon are just like your college student, well, that’s pretty close too. It shows us that the divide between Marine and civilian really isn’t that big. Until you begin to talk about experiences.