Fourteen years have passed since the United States military invaded the nation of Iraq and deposed its former ruler Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush had declared Iraq America’s number one enemy and vowed to remove Hussein from power. Hussein fled but was captured in December, 1993 and eventually executed for his crimes against his own people. For many Iraqis and Americans, his death was long overdue and they bid farewell to one of history’s worst dictators. Critics of the war remain and remind us that our military is still in Iraq and no clear permanent solution to establish true democracy is in place. The war is as controversial as those that precede it. But for the men and women that served in the war, their stories are often unnoticed. However in this phenomenal story, Evan Wright brings their story to light for the world to see what warfare was like for thousands of troops. In March, 2003, he accompanied the First Reconnaissance Battalion as the invasion begins. The group becomes known as First Recon and is tasked with clearing town after town until the Iraqi army capitulates. Baghdad eventually falls, Hussein escapes and the marines have done their job for the time being. America celebrates and Bush stands stoically as the armed forces once again succeed. The infantry soldiers return to civilian life or choose to remain enlisted. Their stories fade in time and their names are often never heard of by the mainstream public. But just who are these brave souls and why do they voluntarily put their lives on the line? Wright explores this and more in the book that became a New York Times Bestseller and inspired the HBO hit series of the same name.
I forewarn those readers looking for a feel good story to stop before they purchase the book. There is no glorification of war in this story, this is the life of a grunt and all of the ugliness that comes with it. The Marines are quite young, most of them under twenty-five years of age. But they are hardened and they are seasoned with one command, to kill whatever is hostile. Readers that dislike profanity or crude talk might do well to prepare ahead of time for the dialogue contained within the pages of the book. They’re Marines in a foreign land embroiled in a deadly conflict. Pleasantries sometimes go out of the window. To Iraqi troops and foreigners who have come to Iraq to fight the Americans, the Marines are a mass of invaders and nothing more. But as we travel with the group next to Wright, we learn their stories and talk to each man to get his view on the war and his own life. Their stories are fascinating and as we get to know them, we come to like them more and more and nervously wait until each battle is over, hoping that there have been no casualties. Sadly, there are casualties in the book but that is a part of war.
The saying that war is hell is entirely appropriate throughout the book. As I read through it I found myself having enormous empathy for the Iraqi civilians that the group encounters. Some of them are severely or fatally wounded and others are mentally unbalanced because of the sudden invasion. Their loved ones, land and animals are destroyed by American weapons but yet they truly believe in the removal of Saddam. Their ability to continue even in the face of crippling adversity is beyond admirable. The deaths of the civilians and their deplorable conditions affect the Marines and we see how each one wages his own personal battle knowing that his actions and those of his fellow soldiers have permanent effects on their lives. Sgt. Brad Colbert is the most recognizable and plays a prominent role in the book. In him particularly, Jung’s concept of the duality of man is put on display. He is joined by other Marines whom we meet one by one as the story progresses.
If he were alive today, I think Gustav Hasford (1947-1993) would be proud to read Generation Kill. In fact, there are times in the book where I am reminded of his classic The Short Timers, the book that served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s (1928-1999) Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987). Cowboy, Joker and Animal Mother would be in awe of Espera, Gunny and Manimal. The war is different but the Marines are the tough lot of characters they are expected to be. The battle scenes in Nasiriyah, Al Gharraf and Al Muwaffaqiyah are vivid and pull the reader in refusing to let go. I have never been in active combat but as I read the book, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up each time the platoon reaches a new destination, unknown to them and potentially a kill zone. Incredibly, the men perform as if on cue even as they are under heavy fire. I cannot say enough about the courage they display in this book. And regardless of personal opinions readers may have about the war, the efforts of the soldiers and conditions under which they exist, deserved our full support and understanding. Wright has done a great service to these Marines and the many others that have proudly put their lives on the line in defense of the United States.