Saturday, May 07, 2005

Book Review: Generation Kill (Part 2 of 2)

I recently posted an overview of Generation Kill by Evan Wright. This is my second installment.

Eight broad, not necessarily original, lessons from a book that does not tip its hand to any political agenda.

1. Civilians get killed. My own image of collateral damage involved errant smart bombs and other mishaps in aerial war. But during the ground battle, a huge number of civilians were killed. At times, the rules of engagement handed down were permissive at best. The book has some gruesome, vivid passages about civilians (children, men, women) maimed or killed, sometimes for no discernable reason. This is something I knew in the abstract, but the extent and the casualness were more than I expected. No doubt that the government is somewhat right in talking about efforts to limit civilian casualties, but it's kind of like bragging about the broken glass that shattered only into large pieces.

2. Even though civilians are being killed, it's tough to blame the soldiers. The soldiers have no way of knowing who's friendly and who's a threat. A teenager lighting a cigarette almost gets shot because his motions look like a rebel talking into a walkie talkie. Most of the time, the troops recognize that the rules of engagement are overbroad, and don't utilize the license that they're given. At times they are glib and callous; a few minutes later, they're devastated but try not to show it. With the exception of one or two guys, you end up pitying them as they commit sometimes gruesome acts.

3. Soldiers are incompetently led. The Marines' middle-management outdoes Robert Duvall's character in Apocalypse Now. My earlier post described this a little as to Captain America and Kasey Casem. The hard truth is that the people in charge need to be unsentimental about the death of their men. They fight to win, not to save their underlyings. But the harder truth is that much of the leadership is cavalier and irrational in their moment-to-moment decisions. (Easy for me to say lying on my couch with Conan O'Brien on TV, but don't take it from me, take it from the book.)

4. You hate the people responsible for starting this war. Not that you needed any new reasons. Wright builds up a lot of respect and affection for his subjects. By the end of the book they've gone through hell, and the futility of their efforts begins to come clear.

5. Everybody looted. The soldiers looted and the civilians looted. In one episode, the soldiers go into a modern office building hoping to lift some mementos. When they find that the interior is no different from any office in Kansas City, they smash some of the computers. The locals began the looting right away. A new, modern water treatment plant gets trashed. The U.S. military had no pretense of keeping order, and occasionally contributed to the disarray.

6. Iraqis want stability and wealth, not democracy. Almost all of the Iraqis hate Saddam, but not for his human rights violations or political oppression. As soon as the Marines scratch below the surface, the locals complain bitterly about the lack of work and economic opportunity. None of them talk about wanting to vote, or tortured family members. In not wanting to vote and mostly hoping for work and stability, they sound exactly like Americans.

7. We would have been better off making Iraq the 51st state. Counterintuitive, and I'm overstating a little. Still, in the first days of the war, they wanted more from America, not less. And by more, I don't mean Senate representation or UPN, but the sort of capital improvements and public works that come from direct public intervention. The mistake won't be exiting too late, but exiting too soon, and our biggest fuck-up might turn out to be giving them too much autonomy too quickly.

8. Press coverage of the war is a failure. A huge, wild failure, deeper and broader than I realized. Even when they've dropped the cheerleading, print and TV have failed to convey the brutality and ambiguity of what's happened in the war. It's uglier than the press has let on, which is why reading this book is essential.

Two other straightforward, non-polemical books on the Iraq War that I recommend: Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann (Viking 2004), a group biography and intellectual history of the neocons in the Bush cabinet; War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (Public Affairs 2002), a former war correspondent's views about the group psychology that encourages a nation to opt into war.

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