Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Book Review: Generation Kill

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, by Evan Wright (Putnam 2004). Reporter Evan Wright was placed as an embed with the First Recon Battalion at the start of the Iraq War. He is nothing like the bloated, jingoistic embeds from cable news. Wright is a talented, balls-to-the-wall reporter whose articles on the war won him a National Magazine Award. His book eclipses everything else written about the war.

Wright spends most of his time with the recon battalion's Second Platoon, a group of 22 Marines who journey through Nasiriyah and Baqubah and ultimately end up camped out in a Baghdad cigarette factory. By the time the time these men departed Iraq, Wright had all the narrative material for a character study, a treatise on Marine leadership, and the nature of modern war.

This book covers everything -- what happens to human bowel movements during battle, the crises that arise when incompetent leadership fails to supply proper weapons lubricant, castes that arise from musical preferences, the smell of burning bodies (it's like barbecue chicken).

In one passage, the Second Platoon is ambushed on three sides, managing an exit with only one man felled by a bullet to the foot.

A trigger-happy nineteen-year-old sniper has a penchant for shooting unarmed children, earning him a nickname derived from "Baby Killer."

A 1,000-pound bomb vaporizes a friendly village. Leadership explains that the pyrotechnics are a morale booster.

Wright does not identify by name the real villains of the book -- the Marine middle-management whose often-manic pronouncements mostly shriek through the radio. Instead, Wright uses the nicknames adopted by the Platoon. Captain America is a trigger-happy hysteric who terrorizes civilians and wilts under pressure. He compensates for his uncertainty with bursts of violence. The Platoon members fantasize of his death. Captain America doesn't die, but is ultimately relieved of his position when a random group of reservists formally report his mistreatment of a battlefield POW.

Another target of their ire is Kasey Casem (so named because his voice reminds the men of the disc jockey) who fixates on videotaping the war and dreams of assembling his footage into a feature documentary.

The members of the Platoon themselves are profane, eclectic, ultimately noble guys, who grow to resent the incompetence of their commanders and the overall arc of the war. They're wild individualists -- including born-again Christians, a vocal Communist, a metrosexual Taoist, and a marine as left as Howard Zinn. They don't conform with the image of soldiers coming from a narrow, conservative cross-section of the country.

Two of the guys stand out in particular. Nathaniel Fick is a thoughtful, well-spoken Dartmouth grad who abandoned his pre-med studies after taking a class taught by a former special forces soldier and Vietnam veteran. Wright describes Fick as "something of a closet idealist," a classics major who spent time in East Timor where he was assigned to distributing donated ThighMasters to starving people. Despite his elite pedigree, Fick is at the middle of the group, universally respected, eager to stand up against orders he considers counterproductive and dangerous.

Rudy Reyes is the aforementioned Taoist, a yoga practitioner who waxes his legs, reads Oprah's magazine, and identifies with the The Color Purple. But Reyes comes from a miserable background. A close relative was a drug-addicted cop who brought home busted prostitutes to babysit for Rudy and his brother. "I was always the new guy in a shitty neighborhood in a shitty school," Reyes says. "I was inspired by Spider-Man, Speed Racer and Bruce Lee. I decided to become a warrior." Despite the quirks, Reyes is a great soldier, physically courageous and purpose-driven. (At the end of the book, Fick enrolls at Harvard Business School and Reyes is promoted to a team leader.)

Fick and Reyes are most memorable, but if Wright had wanted, he could have expanded this book to an 800-page character study without an excessive line. A cynical, embittered doctor battles alongside them, but then his temper explodes when he attempts to treat mortally wounded civilians; their commander is nicknamed "Iceman" for his inscrutability, and longs to come home to long solitary bike rides; a Missouri native shrieks Avril Lavigne songs and once opened for Limp Bizkit.

Many of them want to be idealists. They're challenged by the war, but embittered by their leadership. As stated by Sgt. Eric Kocher,
"If something happens to me, I want my wife to know the truth," he says. "If they say we fought valiantly here, I want her to know we fought retarded. They haven't used us right -- sending us into these towns, onto the airfield, with no observations."
Their arrival to and occupation of Baghdad is both powerful and anticlimactic. Fick's vision of the war comes undone when he quickly realizes that there is no plan for the occupation. He meets with locals, expecting that he'll serve as a liaison to doctors and engineers. Then, chaos ensues. With the Americans' blessing, Baghdad turns to anarchy, with Shiites enacting revenge killings and the mass slaughter of Baathists. The Marines do not patrol at night because the Shiites have been given a green light to enact a bloodbath.

In one of the funniest, strangest passages of the book, the Marines survey a wealthy Baghdad neighborhood, where the women work like mules, everyone hates Saddam, and the local men make sexual advances on the Marines, who are told by men and boys that they have "pretty eyes." ("Girls. Blah!" says one local. "You go with my friend, you like." Apparently, Iraq will either become the next Afghanistan, or the next Chelsea.)

Generation Kill
is a book so good that I have to discipline myself to avoid superlatives. It does not belong in the proximity of coleslaw, but then again, it stands too tall to be compared to anything. Not the reporting the TV war correspondents, or even Seymour Hersh's New Yorker dispatches.

This is graphic and profane -- more than Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, or Anthony Swofford's excellent Gulf War memoir Jarhead. It contains an episode more violent than anything I've read or seen. And man, this book is a hell of a thing. It taught me more about war and current events than anything in my 20-book library on the Bush Administration's post-9/11 foreign policy. Wright's narrative is detached and evenhanded. He makes you love the soldiers and hate the war, in a way that isn't some stupid slogan or an armchair polemic. In comparison, Farenheit 9/11 has the gravity of Family Circus cartoon.

*In an attempt to streamline our often-lengthy posts, I'm writing this review in two parts. Part II will discuss the book's lessons about the Iraq War, the U.S. military, and war reporting.

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