Sunday, July 27, 2008

Born To Kill

Shortly before US troops swarmed into Iraq, the Pentagon embedded Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright with the First Recon Marines, one of the units spearheading the invasion. Originally, Wright was not supposed to accompany the unit into combat, but after making arrangements with their commanding officer (he had to leave his satellite phone behind), he joined the Second Platoon on their run through Iraq.

After a brief round of hazing, the men in the unit began accepting and opening up to Wright, and what resulted was a series of stories in Rolling Stone, a book, Generation Kill, and ultimately, the miniseries currently airing on HBO. Since I'm not a big Rolling Stone fan and I don't get HBO, I settled in with the book recently.

Wright sums up his title early in the book:

They are the first generation of young Americans since Vietnam to be sent into open-ended conflict. Yet if the dominant mythology that war turns on a generation's loss of innocence - young men reared on Davy Crockett waking up to their government's deceits while fighting in Southeast Asian jungles; the nation falling from the grace of Camelot to the shame of Watergate - these young men entered Iraq predisposed toward the idea that the Big Lie is as central to American governance as taxation. This is, after all, the generation that first learned of the significance of the presidency not through an inspiring speech at the Berlin Wall but through a national obsession with semen stains and a White House blow job.

What can you say about a generation that was raised on the scandal du jour, gangsta rap, and Grand Theft Auto? Are they as noble as their grandfathers, charging headlong into combat against the Nazis and Japanese? In their own way, yes, and they're just as human as anyone who has put on the uniform and fought - and killed - for their country. Wright did a fine job showing both the best and the worst of this humanity in action.

Wright spends much of his time with Sergeant Brad Colbert - the Iceman, a "stone cold killer" known for his complete calm in combat who commands one of the Platoon's lead humvees. As the missions progress and they push deeper into Iraq, Colbert frequently hands out food and water to the displaced civilians; he also orders his men to dispose of undetonated artillery in the streets of Baghdad. Many of the Marines are like this - highly trained, dedicated and ruthless in combat, but also deeply concerned about their comrades and the pain and suffering they see during the invasion.

I give Wright a lot of credit for not simply showing the good sides of these soldiers -they're profane, sometimes racist, sometimes ignorant and frequently ineptly led, but they always accomplish their missions and actively try to keep from harming people caught in the crossfire. The men frequently complain about their commanding officers, orders and lot in life.

While I found this candor refreshing and eminently creditable, there was some fallout - many men did not receive promotions and Wright has come under fire for his portrayal of some of the officers. However, if you're looking for an insight into the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a look into the terror of modern combat, Generation Kill is a great place to start.

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