Most writing about conflict in the Middle East is, at least from an outsider’s perspective, handled with kid-gloves: can I say this, how do I phrase that, how do we make this look less messed up than it was? As far as I can tell, this was a problem Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the Face of Modern War, was never much concerned with.
Originally written by journalist Evan Wright as a three-part series for Rolling Stone, Generation Kill details Wright’s experience as a reporter embedded with a platoon of U.S. Recon Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From Camp Mathilda in Kuwait, across the border into Iraq, and through rural settlements and stretches of desert up to Baghdad, the 1st Reconnaissance Marines were more often than not racing ahead of more heavily armoured units, acting as the “tip of the spear” of America’s invasion force.
Not that First Recon knew this would be their main role in the invasion. As Wright notes, they were more or less under the impression that the only function of their lightly armoured, open-top (read: roofless) Humvees, was to get them where they needed to be to execute traditional, stealthy recon missions on foot. Instead, their orders sent them into ambushes across the Fertile Crescent to draw attention away from the main invasion force on its more direct route to Baghdad – a task they carried out without enough gun lube to prevent their mounted weapons from jamming in the dusty climate, and without enough batteries to power their NVGs at night.
Insane as that already sounds, it’s nothing compared to First Recon’s biggest problem: their commanding officers. Unflatteringly nicknamed Captain America and Encino Man, these two individuals would – quite justifiably in my opinion, rank structure be damned – almost completely lose the respect of the Marines under them. Captain America, seemingly perpetually on the cusp of some kind of psychotic break, fired his collection of enemy A-Ks indiscriminately and without warning out the window of his command vehicle, attempted to bayonet an Iraqi prisoner, and screamed hysterically down the comms whenever his platoon came under fire. By comparison, Bravo’s Company Commander Encino Man appears to have just been blessed with chronic incompetence, which is the only thing that saves the entire company from being blown up by a ‘danger close’ fire strike that he tries to authorise using the wrong protocols.
Wright pulls no punches, which is what makes Generation Kill so refreshingly frank. No one is above reproach, true respect is earned, and command’s biggest cock-ups are never forgotten by the men they directly affect. None of the Marines’ experiences are shied away from, no matter how morally ambiguous, gruesome, or traumatic. Wright illustrates what war is liked for the everyday grunt on the ground – the hours waiting around, the abrupt change in orders, the adrenaline rush of combat – and how they cope with it, which apparently involves impromptu group singalongs and cursing each other out in increasingly creative and offensive language.
Some people will read Generation Kill and praise it for its honest portrayal of the realities of modern warfare. Some will cringe their way through it; whether that be at the actions of the Marines, or for the Marines for having to constantly navigate the Corps’ own internal chaos. Regardless of what conclusions you come to, you’ll feel like you know the Marines of First Recon by the end, because Generation Kill is gloriously uncensored and personal in every sense of the word.
Words by Rebecca Harrison
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