Book Review: Generation Kill by Evan Wright

Despite knowing that war is often pointless, horrible and grim, it holds a grim fascination for me. It’s different from the chipper obsession I had with war movies as a child, where good triumphed and heroes wisecracked their way against the Germans and death was heroic, noble and quick. As a teen my friends and I went through a phase of watching ‘Nam movies and oddly enjoying the grim, pessimistic view.

In both phases I always thought of one thing- what would it be like to be in a war.

Hell, I assume.

I’ve never had serious thoughts of joining up, in fact I think back in WWI I’d have been a conscientious objector, or just asked to serve as a medic. I’m not cut out for war, I’m not a fighter, I’m a bit soft and I imagine I’d be a coward, but I’m still fascinated by those who do go to fight.

I’ve read books about WWII and Vietnam, and always kind of felt more akin with the lads sent to Vietnam. They were the first proper teens to go to war I guess- they liked movies and music, got drunk and were sent off to a war which wasn’t clean cut. Against the Nazis I could see a reason for going, but Vietnam must have been a tougher sell, and when they got there it wasn’t what they expected.

So reading about a generation even closer to mine going off to fight, especially as told by a writer who’s work I admire, Evan Wright, led me to check out this book which follows his time embedded with the Marines of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as they spearheaded the invasion of Iraq.

generation kill

The book confirms many of your preconceived notions of war- the monotony and rising tensions which are broken with flurries of intense pressure and violence. Young men forced to confront death and the bloody aftermath of their fights, as well as the consequences of their decisions and orders. There are horrors, tragedy and incidents galore, but throughout Wright never glamourizes the action, it’s terrifying in it’s intimacy and he captures the chaos that descends.

Central to his book are the Marines. He gives little sketches of their actions, capturing their quirks and personalities, as well as developing insight into their reactions to events that unfold around them. At the start many seem oafish, gung ho stereotypes, but it’s acknowledged that the image of themselves as elite cowboys has been fostered by the Corps, and that for many the bravado covers more complex characters and feelings. They come from different backgrounds and have joined for different reasons, but they share a bond and form friendships.

Some of the bluster remains, but the OTT antics of some of the men, particularly one nicknamed Captain America, are viewed with distaste by most of the men and there’s a sense many just want to do their job as professionally as possible, not kill innocents and get home safely. They are not the cartoon heroes or baby killing nutters that soldiers are often stereotyped as, but young men shoved into terrible circumstances on the flimsiest of grounds, and their youth often emerges in their surprising moments of naivety and wonder, but Wright shows us that many are hardening due to exposure to the chaos of war.

The battalion were sent in a dangerous mission North, ahead of the rest of the coalition forces, encountering stiff resistance, often with little or no support. Driving in convoys of Humvees, often deliberately used to expose ambush points, the unit, trained for stealth and small force missions are forced into combat which they are not prepared for. Throughout the well oiled US military machine is exposed to have quite a few kinks- insufficient supplies, poor communication and commanding mistakes pile up to endanger lives and make their mission even harder.

Wright’s writing is powerful and engaging in a fairly no frills way, he captures the grim reality of day-to-day life of the invading forces and recounts the incidents in a visceral way that packs quite a punch. Some moments left me astonished by what the Marines have to see, and marveling at how they, for the most part, keep their sanity when faced with the situation.

That’s not to say it’s all bleak, there are odd moments of black comedy and in the men’s profanity laden chatter there’s a sense of genuine affection and comradeship under the insults. Several of the men are around for much of the story and I became involved in their story, with Wright really grounding your interest in the story.

The men question what they’re doing and even in these early stages there are signs that the lack of thought towards Iraq’s post-Saddam future could spell disaster. It’s a great document of the war and after leaving Iraq Wright addresses how attitudes towards the war changed in the US, as well as updating us on what became of the men.

The above cover has a reference to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and while it can’t quite match Herr’s powerhouse account of Vietnam this is still an extremely well written insight into war and definitely worth checking out to see what the modern day soldier experiences in the field.

Verdict: A fascinating and extremely well written first hand account of life among the invaders of Iraq. Tough in places, but hard to put down and Wright ensures you care about the men involved and see the effects war has on them. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


One Comment on “Book Review: Generation Kill by Evan Wright”

  1. […] Wright accompanies a group of Marines during the Iraq war, capturing the chaos of war and the way it effects the young men who fight. Having spent lots of time with the unit Wright gets to know his subjects, they share their thoughts and he captures their quirks. What’s interesting is the way the men view combat and their enemies, in a decidedly less gung-ho way than you’d expect. Also captures the way the higher ups can make disastrous and inexplicable decisions, and how it’s the men on the grounds who have to adapt to these new strategies and do their best to survive. Review. […]

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