Monday, March 27, 2006

“Generation Kill” by Evan Wright – A Window Into The Soul of Our Marines in Iraq

Much like David Lipsky, his colleague from Rolling Stone Magazine, Evan Wright managed to overcome all the inherent obstacles that face an embedded reporter so that he was able to tell a story that radiates authenticity, understanding and insight. David Lipsky accomplished similar success a couple of years ago in writing the book, “Absolutely American,” after embedding himself for four years with West Point’s Class of 2002. Wright, author of “Generation Kill,” made himself the eyes, ears and mouth of the U.S. Marines Corps First Recon Battalion as they fought and slogged their way from Camp Mathilda in Kuwait to Baghdad and beyond to Baqubah. In the course of becoming the eyes, ears and mouth for First Recon, Wright also managed to open a window into the soul of the unit and its very brave and very human dramatis personae. The skills and strength of character that allowed him to win the confidence of a group of Marines who did not initially welcome his intrusive presence into their fraternity are the same traits that allow him to gain the confidence of open-minded readers of his book.

As I was reading this extraordinarily well-written volume, I began to fantasize about Robert Altman buying the movie rights, and making a film from this book and its companion piece, “One Bullet Away,” by Nate Fick. Both books recount essentially the same story about the same people. “One Bullet Away” tells the story through the eyes of a Marine Corps officer with an Ivy League degree in Classics; Wright's book tells a similar story from the vantage point of the grunts – the enlisted Marines who are the heart and soul of any Marine Corps unit. The result of reading both books is a composite picture that recounts a tale told on two levels – much like Altman’s movie, “Gosford Park.” In “Gosford Park,” the Lord of the manor, his family and guests represent one population, while the resident staff of this country estate constitute the “downstairs” inhabitants. The two worlds often intertwine, but remain essential isolated and segregated from each other. The divergent worldviews of the two groups could not be more different.

The parallel holds in comparing these two recent books about First Recon. While Fick takes us through an honest, reasoned, strategic level tour of First Recon’s pilgrimage, with plenty of stories about the enlisted troops and their heroics, it remains essentially an officer’s view of the war and of the world. Wright drags use through an equally honest trek through the mud and dust as he limns a picture that accurately projects the more limited and foreshortened view the grunts have of the war – and of the world – from their vantage point looking over the edge of the “Ranger graves” they dig as their sleeping quarters each night out in the dessert.

As seen through Wright’s lens and pen, the early days of the war in Iraq included a lot of “hurry up and wait,” tactical confusion, and officers making questionable decisions that placed their troops in needless jeopardy. When I asked Nate Fick what to expect in reading “Generation Kill,” his response was to say that Evan Wright had done an excellent job portraying the way the war must have looked to the grunts in First Recon. “From the limited perspective of the troops, it must have often felt like the senior officers were trying hard to get them killed.”

Most regular readers of The White Rhino Report are aware that I am not a military veteran - much less a veteran of combat, so I do not have first-hand knowledge of what it means to be on the battlefield. Through Wright’s attention to detail and his ability to paint realistic and vivid pictures, I could almost smell the putrifaction of decaying bodies, and was able to imagine hearing the sounds and feeling the concussion of shells exploding as First Recon made their way north in fits and starts through the empty barrenness of the countryside and the sprinking of hamlets that dotted the Iraqi desert and the Fertile Crescent that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates River.

I will let Wright speak for himself as he draws us into the world that First Recon inhabited in Iraq:

“When they about this shooting later, the Marines have mixed reactions. Graves is devastated. ‘This is the event that is going to get to me when I get home,’ he says. Prior to this shooting, when his team had passed by all those shot-up corpses on the road, Graves says, ‘I felt good about it, like, “Yeah, Marines have been fucking shit up!”’ He adds, ‘I cruised into this war thinking my buddy’s going to take a bullet, and I’m hoping to be the fucking hero pulling him out of harm’s way. Instead, I end up pulling out this little girl we shot, hiding in the backseat of her dad’s car.’”

“Graves’s buddy, twenty-two year-old Corporal Ryan Jeschke, who was with him at the car, says, ‘War is either glamorized – like we kick their ass – of the opposite – look how horrible, we kill all those civilians. None of these people know what it’s like the be there holding that weapon. After Graves and I went up to that dead girl, I was surprised, because honestly, I was indifferent. It’s kind of disturbed me. Now, sometimes, I think, “Am I a bad person for feeling nothing?” (Page 219)

Wright does a remarkable job capturing the inherent internal conflict of the warrior in battle:

“He sounds tired. I think this war has lost its allure for him. It’s not that he can’t take it. During the past hour or so of shooting, he still seemed excited by the action. But I think after morning the loss of his friend Horsehead, trying to care for dehydrated, sick babies among the refugees the other day, the shot-up kids by the airfield before that, and having seen so many civilians blown apart, he’s connected the dots between the pleasure he takes in participating in this invasion and its consequences. He hasn’t turned against the aims of the war; he still supports the idea of regime change. But the side of him that loves war – his inner warrior – keeps bumping up against the part of him that is basically a decent, average suburban guy who likes bad eighties music and Barry Manilow and believes in the American Way.”
(Pages 294-295)

In the final excerpt I will share, Wright is able to bring us inside the transformation that occurs in each man as he faces the real possibility of death on the battlefield:

“When Fick passes the word that the men in Second Platoon are to remain in place, Espera turns to his men in the next Humvee over from ours and says, ’Stand by to die, gents.’”

“The twenty-two Marines in the platoon sit in their vehicles, engines running, as per their orders, while blasts shake the ground beneath them. Everyone watches the sky. A mortar lands ten meters from Espera’s open-top Humvee, blowing a four-foot-wide hole in the ground. It’s so close, I see the column of black smoke jetting up from the blast area before I hear the boom. I look out and see Espera hunched over his weapon, his eyes darting beneath the brim of his helmet, watching for the next hit. His men appear frozen in the vehicle as the smoke rises beside them.”

“Before leaving on this mission, many of the men in Colbert’s platoon had said good-bye to one another by shaking hands or even by hugging. The formal farewells seemed odd considering that everyone was going to be shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped Humvees. The good-byes almost seemed an acknowledgement of the transformations that take place in combat. Friends who lolled around together during free time talking about bands, stupid Marines Corps rules and girlfriends’ fine asses aren’t really the same people anymore once they enter the battlefield.

“In combat, the change seems physical at first. Adrenaline begins to flood your system the moment the first bullet is fired. . . In time, your body seems to burn out from it . . . you begin to lose your capacity for fear. Explosions go off. You cease to jump or flinch. In this moment now, everyone sits still, numbly watching the mortars thump down nearby. The only things moving are the pupils of their eyes.”

“This is not to say that terror goes away. It simply moves out from the twitching muscles and nerves in your body and takes up residence in your mind. If you feed it with morbid thoughts of all the terrible ways you could be maimed or die, it gets worse. It also gets worse of you think about pleasant things. Good memories or plans for the future only remind you how much you don’t want to die or get hurt. It’s best to shut down, to block everything out. But to reach that state, you have to almost give up being yourself. This is why, I believe, everyone said good-bye to each other yesterday before leaving on this mission. They would still be together, but they wouldn’t really be seeing one another for awhile, since each man would, in his own way, be sort of gone.”
(Pages 300-301)

As my list of friends continues to grow of those who have served as Marines or are current members of the USMC, my esteem for The Corps and its men and women continues to swell. Evan Wright’s latest offering only adds to that sense of awe and wonder I feel for those who have chosen to serve under duress and hardship to be able to be called “The few – The proud – The Marines.”

I consider this book another “must read” for anyone wanting to gain some insight into what our nation has asked members of “Generation Kills” to do and to be when they have chosen to put on the uniform.


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