Evan Wright was a Rolling Stone journalist who, in the first few weeks of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, found himself “embedded” with soldiers from the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion as they moved from Kuwait to Baghdad. Generation Kill is his recounting of that time, and the personalities of the soldiers he travelled with.
I think that, at times, society paints an idealised portrait of “the soldier”, as a man (and this idealistic portrait is usually a man) who is noble, one of the elite, someone to be put on a pedestal. This portrait focuses on his sense of honour, his duty to his country and tries to create an image of a warrior at once ferocious in battle, but gentle when not. A soldier like, say, Richard Winters from Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. At other times, the portrait swings to that of an uncaring butcher, a war criminal with no empathy for the rest of humanity like, say, Lynndie England.
Generation Kill was the book, more than any other, which blew those simplistic depictions apart for me. Wright’s book is probably the most honest-sounding and feeling tome about war that I have ever read. It is a depiction of war and the men who fight it right down to every gritty, unkempt and unsanitary detail, leaving you with the idea of the soldier as just another part of humanity.
This is a book to tell you about the modern soldier. American soldiers on the face of it, but also simply western soldiers, and how the way that our society and culture, changing around them, has resulted in the creation of an new type of warrior, he (and again it is predominantly he) of the titular “Generation Kill”, a generation raised on rap, video games and a dehumanisation of much of the rest of mankind, one summed up by the book cover above (taken from the HBO mini-series adaptation) of a “jarhead” wearing a pair of sunglasses, more faux-rock star than soldier.
Wright, using his gifts for description and an unerring sense of curiosity, crafts a vision of several key soldiers, noting their faults, their niche hobbies and their disgusting habits right alongside their virtues, their reasons for joining the armed forces, their longer term goals. These are the American youth of this era, the “fratboys” of another universe. You have Sgt “Iceman” Colbert, who takes on the role of a father figure for some of the men under his direct command, all while listening to Barry Manilow and collecting retro video game consoles. You have Cpl Pearson, who shrieks out pop songs while wired to the eyes on pep pills. You have LC Trombly, who yearns for a shot at the enemy and then doesn’t know quite how to react when that desire results in something horrific. You have LT Fick, the sane man surrounded by insanity, but who finds himself giving in to a little bit of it by the end. You have “Captain America” and his over-enthusiastic belligerence. You have “Encino Man” and his startling incompetence.
They are just a few of many that Wright chooses to craft characters out of, using language and imagery that is both invocative and startling. They are not the “Greatest Generation” or the “Band of Brothers” that we are used to, these are just men: sometimes scared, sometimes terrified, crude, brave, competent and witless in varying measures, fighting a war many of them don’t believe in for a command structure that many of them despise. I was struck, again and again, at the unflinching nature of Wright’s account. The detail for each of these men, from basic descriptions to innate character traits, is astounding, visceral and real.
I suppose that goes most for the profanity laden narrative, one laced with repeated and seemingly endless remembrances of masturbation topics, violent sexual imagery and casual racism. Wright brings all of that to the page, unwilling to make heroes out of any of the men whom he travelled with, even if some of them come out more sympathetic than others. He is one of the only authors of this general topic who has ever focused part of his text on something as basic and important as defecation and urination, how soldiers deal with this problem while in a warzone and how superiors try and keep tabs on their soldiers bathroom habits and scheduling.
This is a modern group of soldiers dealing with the messy consequences of an ill-planned war. They rant, foul-mouthed, at supportive letters from young schoolchildren back at home. They have to turn away desperate POWs and question the legality of such an act. They have to try and save the life of a young boy caught by friendly fire. They make a ridiculous nickname for a soldier who shot the kid, but only as mockery, not as a serious denunciation. They have to face the seeming horror of assaulting an Iraqi armour unit, only to discover that the tanks are unmanned. They trundle through Iraqi nights blaring Avril Lavigne songs at the top of their voices. They have to suddenly and painfully transition to an occupation force in a chaotic Baghdad, a job they are totally incapable of. They have to tolerate and survive superior officers more concerned with gaining promotion than keeping them alive.
They are, more than anything else, a believable group of people, far more so than the idealised portraits of the soldier you may find from numerous other sources, who prefer to cut out the cursing, the rampant misogyny and homophobia, the use of ephedra or the other kind, who shoot, torture and main just for the hell of it.
Wright is also able to create a narrative that is replete with tension and nervousness, as the battalion seeks an engagement and has to wait and wait to actually get one. The mix of excitement and fear in the soldiers he travels with is palpable, and one of the only things that could tie this group of soldiers in with their counterparts from WW2, at least insofar as the literature allows. The troops are giddy and exuberant after fighting through an ambush, with one comparing it to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. But in the end, most of the journey is an anti-climax: the unit only see’s pure combat on a tiny number of occasions, and the war ends in “victory” in just a few weeks. That sense of nervousness changes to one of deflation as the Battalion settles into Baghdad, having, perhaps, come closer to death as a result of misdirected artillery from their own side than the bullets of the enemy.
Wright is able to write so well about that fear, that anti-climax, because he was right there, in the middle of it, forced to contemplate his own mortality and chances of survival. Wright, a professional writer, is perhaps better able to put that feeling into words that the inexperienced, like you or I, can understand and relate to. He makes a connection with the soldiers he embeds with, one that results in a reciprocation of trust in terms of opening up: something that has cost more than one of the soldiers whom Wright recorded, who have faced censure for their honesty.
Yes, Wright’s account has its detractors and its critics. When discussing people like “Captain America and “Encino Man”, you might raise an eyebrow or two, and wonder if Wright was unduly influenced by the immediate circle of soldiers he was embedded with. But even that stuff rings true. An armed force will always have its inferior elements, and while soldiers will always gripe about their superior officers, that doesn’t mean they are always wrong. Even so, Wright does take the time to discuss these matters with “Godfather”, the battalion commander, and question why he did some of the things that he did.
What did Generation Kill teach me about war? It taught me that we should be careful not to idolise or criticise those who fight it too much, because it does a disservice to the reality. Soldiers are real people too, and should be treated and viewed as such. It also taught me that war is a messy, complicated thing, not just for the Presidents and the Generals crafting grand strategy, but for the battalion level soldiers tasked with the tactical nuances of trying to turn that strategy into victory.
Perhaps more than anything, it taught me that men in uniform are no special case, but are capable of all the same successes and failures, praises and faults as the rest of us. It is easy to idolise them, just as easy as it is vilify them. But that is too simple. As the portrait that Wright draws should tell us, soldiers like those from Generation Kill should be understood as merely human, both in terms of where they came from, how they are led and how they react.