Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: Generation Kill, Evan Wright

A review of Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America And the New Face of American War, Evan Wright.

The author, a journalist at Rolling Stone, rides fully embedded with Marines of the First Recon Battalion as they spearhead the initial drive into Iraq, blazing through small towns and dealing with jihadists, fayadeen, and forward observers disguised as civilians. They sleep --- very briefly, and intermittently --- in "Ranger graves" (small holes in the sand) and talk nonchalantly as tracers whizz by overhead. The talk about pop culture, squabble, say silly things, and fight valiantly.

With a keen ear for rough dialogue and a flair for making his subjects seem real and three-dimensional, Wright depicts the young military men of First Recon as brash, not particularly worldly, honest, willing, brave, strong, stoic in hardship, modest, and skilled. At the same time, he’s honest about the crude, racist language they use, their less sophisticated demeanor, and the generally infantile behavior of young men in close quarters. What emerges from the pages are men who may not be entirely likable, but are often wholly admirable.

The fact that Wright captures the men warts and all makes his depictions of two unnamed commanders all the more astonishing. One, nicknamed “Captain America,” is so utterly incompetent in every conceivable way (wrong each and every time about everything from coming under fire to the right direction to the hospital), and vicious to the point of arguably committing war crimes, it’s hard to believe anyone could be like that. But Wright seems a reliable reporter, and when he tells how this or another officer blunders again, or how the men don’t have the right batteries or equipment for a task, his convincing style makes the point hit home. It’s all the more powerful because Wright lets facts do the talking, rather than commenting on them himself. When he lets Captain America tell his side of a controversy, the reader can sense the spin from the captain rather than the facts.

One over-arching message of the book, aside from how worthy of respect the men of this battalion are in many ways, is that from the top, the war is in the hands of fools or evil people. One Iraqi says to the soldiers, “You are tearing this country apart. I do not think you will fix it.” And that’s exactly the point. On ground level, the men can tell that the absence of humanitarian aid is undermining all the good the military may do by killing insurgents, and at least one commander is personally disappointed when he comes to realize no aid will follow the army; as a result, he becomes less caring himself.

It’s a masterfully written book, and hard to put down. I found myself torn between cheering for these brave warriors and weeping at the waste of such good intentions and such powerful forces.

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