In March of 2003, Allied forces, lead overwhelmingly by the United States of America, invaded Iraq. There were two main thrusts into the heart of the country. They were coordinated in a classic pincer maneuver with the intent to seize Baghdad and cut off Saddam Husein's hold on power. The US Army lead the western thrust, and the eastern thrust was given to the United States Marine Corps. It was the the longest overland assault in Marine Corps history. The vanguard of that Marine assault was the elite special forces First Reconnaissance Battalion. In the backseat of the Humvee that proved to often be the northern most Marine unit in the entire country was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. He recorded his experience and wrote a book about it (and yes, HBO made a miniseries out of it and that might be what made you want to buy the book in the first place).
The Marine First Recon Battalion is more than just an elite unit. They are Special Forces on par with the Navy SEALS and Delta Force. There are fewer than 400 Marines in First Recon (and this book made it seem like more than half of them are from Texas), but in the spring of '03 and in the pages of "Generation Kill" the few and the proud lead the invasion of Iraq. Their forte is speed and infiltration. For this they sacrifice the protection of tanks and heavy weaponry. Since it is the invasion's first days and IEDs aren't yet a concern, the Humvees these men drive are not even armored. In fact many of them have no sides or tops at all. First Recon was used as human bait to trip the ambushes that everyone knew were coming along the Marine Corps' main invasion route.
It kept occurring to you as you were reading that First Recon is not designed for this job. They are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the Corps. The specialize in covert actions taking places far behind enemy lines or far below his sea lanes. They are a reconnaissance battalion steeped in a warrior spirit and trained to operate independently while cut off from command and surrounded by overwhelming enemy numbers. They are intended to be used like Robert E Lee's cavalry or Eisenhower's Rangers, but in the invasion of Iraq they are used more like Rommel's panzers. The biggest difference being that panzers had armor and devastating main guns. The men of First Recon were not asked to perform the jobs they had trained for. It could be argued that their talents and skills were squandered. No one asked them to parachute far behind enemy lines and melt into the countryside, or to perform deep sea dives beneath enemy naval emplacements. No one intended to utilize these Special Forces warriors in the way they had been trained to be used. Rather than wielded like a highly honed instrument, the men of First Recon were used as the battering ram of the United States military and they had a reporter riding shotgun with them.
"Generation Kill" alternates between hilarious moments from the Marines and poignant observations from the reporter himself. The driver of Wright's Humvee is a young Marine named Corporal Person. Throughout the story, he is sleep deprived and amped up on ephedrine and caffeine. Person's rambling brainstorms, random rantings, and sardonic commentary provide most of the story's punch lines. But there are moments when the dark realities of war are undeniable.
After the first few days of the invasion, the men are ordered to roll through a town in an obvious attempt to trip an ambush. Wright, unarmed and riding in an unarmored Humvee describes in great detail the extraordinary destruction a convoy of Marines can wreak on a town. You were reminded that it is not a good idea to set Marines loose in any setting unless you are absolutely certain that you want everything to be destroyed. It is what they do, and they do it very well. Presidents would do well to remember that before ordering them into combat.
Most of the Iraqi military had defected and surrendered by the thousands as soon as they could, but civilians from throughout the Middle East had flocked to Iraq and formed a guerrilla force, or Fedayeen, filled with the desire to fight the American invaders. Saddam had ordered them to hit the flanks of the invading American lines, wreak havoc on the American plans, and then fade into the civilian population. This made distinguishing fighters from civilians almost impossible. Of course many, if not most, of the enemy fighters were killed in their hopelessly one-sided battles against the finest fighting force the world has ever known. But it is a long-standing truth of war that when modern weapons are unleashed inside cities innocents are going to die. Tragically, in fighting off Fedayeen ambushes and in enforcing night time roadblocks, Marines of First Recon Battalion killed civilians. In the moment, in the fury of war, the realization that they had killed innocents was not as terrible a burden for the Marines to bear as was the constant fear that they would screw up and let their fellow Marines die. War is an awful thing and priorities are clarified in a way that you will hopefully never have to learn.
Throughout the story there emerges a major disconnect between the higher officers and the enlisted men and their direct commanders. At one point, the higher officers actually order an airstrike on an Iraqi hamlet thinking it will boost the morale of the fighting Marines. Those fighting Marines however, are furious that their bosses had just needlessly killed so many civilians. The efforts to boost morale had the opposite effect but likely succeeded in creating more enemies bent on revenge.
In fact, it impressed you that on more than one occasion, these Marines expressed empathy with the Iraqis. Over and over Wright quotes the men turning to one another and saying things like, "What would we do if an invading army did this kind of thing back home?" or, "What must these people think of us?" It would have been helpful in the atmosphere of international good will generated in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil, if the leaders of the United States had had anything like the same mind set as these warriors. If the leaders of the Free World had considered some of these simple soldiers' questions, a disastrous war might have been avoided.
The story of the invasion of Iraq is obviously the setting for "Generation Kill" but, as the title suggests, it is more of a story of the men in First Recon and how they handled the stresses and shocks of war. Wright makes it painfully obvious that even the toughest Marine can lose his shit when introduced to combat. When the bullets start flying, and lives are hanging in the balance, what makes all the chaos even remotely manageable is a clear-headed commander who can think logically in order to solve the problem at hand. Calm, professional Marines can handle almost any situation and work to mitigate their losses while still achieving clear objectives. Instead, men like 'Encino Man' and 'Captain America' (Wright withholds their names to protect them from embarrassment) would scream panicked orders into their radios when under fire. They would shoot blindly at perceived threats, mistreat prisoners, call down artillery barrages on targets that should have required one well positioned rifleman. Panic and overreactions are as much a Marine's adversary as any enemy soldier. This is a truism that is not reserved solely for the Marine Corps.
Maybe it's because he is a reporter for Rolling Stone, but Wright pays particular attention to the songs that the men sing throughout the invasion. Sergeant Colbert, arguably the story's main character, confides in Wright that he did not anticipate singing being one of the stress responses to intense combat. In the middle of firefights and ambushes, Wright can hear Colbert calmly singing Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown." It is a curiosity of war that one of the Marine Corps' most elite warriors kicked in Saddam Hussein's front door while singing "Sometimes, I think it's a sin, when I feel like I'm winning, but I'm losing again." Other Marines were heard singing Avril Lavigne or Tupac. When we humans find ourselves in the most intense situations of our lives, for some reason, we seem to be hard-wired to find sanity or solace in songs from our past, however incongruous they may be in the moment.
Few of the men in "Generation Kill" express any real interest in the politics of the war or in politics at all. Those who are overtly political or patriotic are inevitably the worst members of the unit when combat erupts. For most of them the war isn't about who is in the White House or maintaining some long standing Western power structure. Wright says,
"What unites them is an almost reckless drive to prove themselves in the most extreme circumstances. In many respects the life they have chosen is a complete rejection of the hyped, consumerist American dream as it is dished out on reality TV shows and pop song lyrics. They've chose asceticism over consumption. Instead of celebrating their individualism, they've subjugated theirs to the collective will of an institution. Their highest aspiration is self-sacrifice over self-preservation."
Many of these guys were inspired to enlist by one specific that you remember very vividly. A young man scales a series of bone crushing obstacles and grabs a sword only to be faced by a giant lava monster. When he defeats the beast, he is transformed into a Marine wearing the Corps dress blues. The Marines of First Recon saw that commercial and enlisted, you saw it and thought, "Hey! You forgot the part where you have to kill people! No way I'm signing up for that." Whatever that difference is between your reaction and theirs, whatever it is that makes your mind process things so differently form theirs, you are glad there are those who are willing to lay down their lives in defense of your country. Your country might not be here if there weren't.
When asked why he climbed Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Mallory famously replied, "Because it is there." When asked why he walked a tightrope strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Phillipe Petit pointed to his chest and simply replied, "Because it is in here." For the men of Marine First Recon, whatever the outcome of the war, whatever the legacy of the invasion, the reason they joined the Marines in the first place, the reason why they felt inspired to "Subjugate their will... for self-sacrifice over self-preservation," is the same as Phillipe Peitit's. Many of them could point to their own medal covered chests and repeat his answer, "Because it's in their."
At one point the men of First Recon backtrack into a town they have previously liberated. Greeted by grateful crowds of villagers, the cool and wry humored Sergeant Colbert waves and smiles saying, "You're free now. Good luck. Time for us to go home." If only that had been true. In the days following the fall of Baghdad it becomes clear that the country which was so effective at winning the war had no plans for wining the peace. As Iraqi society is breaking down and the opening acts of a future sectarian tragedy are being played out, a desperate elder in a neighborhood-turned-battlefield knowingly laments to a Marine commander, "The Americans have let Ali Baba into Baghdad." A decade afterwards, it is clear that the Americans have left Baghdad, but Ali Baba and his band of thieves may still be wreaking havoc in the heart of Iraq.
On to the next book!
P.S. Here is an interview with Evan Wright and many of the men in the book about their reactions to the HBO miniseries. They pay particular attention to the humor warriors use to relieve the stress of combat.
P.P.S. This is a scene from the show boiling down the reasons many of the men joined the Marines. Not Safe For Work!