Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Book Review: Generation Kill - Evan Wright

"Generation Kill" is the account of one particular platoon in the Marine's First Recon Battalion and their experience in the Second Gulf War. The First Recon Marines are among the first on the ground and typically are given reconnaissance missions (hence "Recon"). The invasion of Iraq was different. These soldiers are trained for a wide variety of missions except for the one they are being given: the first wave of an invasion. "Generation Kill" is exceptional war reporting, as good as anything else that has been published in decades.

Evan Wright is a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine. He was embedded with First Recon and was able to experience the war from the moment the Marines cross the border into Iraq from the fall of Saddam in Baghdad. Being with First Recon gives the reader a rare look at an elite fighting unit. A Marine has to be the best of the Marines to be able to make it into First Recon. Most who apply wash out. Evan Wright gives the reader the experience of combat and the invasion from the perspective of the Marines in First Recon. These are hard men, warriors. They are trained to fight, to engage the enemy, to kill. They are trained for a very different war than the one they are called to fight. First Recon is sent in to Iraq as an advance unit. They are sent to roll through ambushes so that the main force does not get ambushed. They are sent, at times, 20 miles or more away from any friendly force.

Through the eyes of the First Recon Marines we see what conditions they had to deal with. Their weapons jammed because they were not given enough lubricant to deal with the blowing sand. Squads were not able to communicate with each other because their radios were often set to different frequencies by the administration and support teams, with no warning. The missions were often not clear, and the Rules of Engagement (the rules which tell a soldier when he can and cannot fire his weapon) are constantly changing depending on the mission. There was often an unclear line between who was an enemy combatant and who was a civilian, which coupled with the fact that First Recon was sent so far in advance of the rest of the army that they were essentially isolated made for a very dangerous and edgy situation. As First Recon Marines, these young men in their early 20's were trained not to let the enemy get the first shot. The trouble here is that it is not clear who is the enemy until they take the first shot.

Wright shows us how the Marines live and how they talk and interact with each other. It is crude, vulgar, often funny, and eye opening to see the sacrifices these men are making to serve. In most cases they are not idealistic about the war they are fighting. They are soldiers and this is what they are trained to do. They have had "kill" drilled into them every day before deployment and combat is the opportunity to put their training into action.

The life of a soldier, not to mention a First Recon Marine, is one that is completely alien to any civilian. Nothing that we have or do even remotely compares to the lives they live and they work they do. "Generation Kill" shows us some of the best the Marines have to offer: Marines doing their job well and efficiently. "Generation Kill" also shows some of the worst of the war: poor commanders, civilians being killed, targeted, and degraded, and the wastefulness of war. One thing that this book shows about war is that there is no simple answer or description of what war is and how it is fought. There is good and bad. Morality and immorality. Heroism and cowardly acts. There is a sense of pride that comes out of "Generation Kill", but this is not even remotely any sort of military puff piece. "Generation Kill" is tough, but fair. It is one of the better first hand accounts of a military action that has come out in recent memory.

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