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March 27, 2008
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Generation Kill, by Evan Wright
Buy the book at Amazon.com

Dead-Check in Falluja, by Evan Wright
“One thing military officials are not saying is that the behavior of the Marine in the video closely conforms to training that is fairly standard in some units. Marines call executing wounded combatants ‘dead-checking.’ Another Marine in the unit I followed… added, ‘To most Marines that guy in the mosque was just someone who didn't get hit in the right place the first time we shot him. I probably would have put a bullet in his brain if I'd been there. If the American public doesn't like the violence of war, maybe before they start the next war they shouldn't rush so much.’" [Village Voice]

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright
While spearheading the American invasion of Iraq, the marines of the elite First Recon—nicknamed ‘First Suicide Battalion’—often operated deep behind enemy lines and far beyond anything they had trained for. They faced death every day—and above all, they killed a lot of people.   From America's first generation of disposable children, more than half of these young men come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Evan Wright was embedded with them for two months, and in this excerpt from his book, ‘Generation Kill,’ gives a first-hand account of the new face of American war, and the human costs that almost never enter into sterile debates about ‘just wars.’

Letter From Baghdad: Life in the wilds of a city without trust, by William Langewiesche
“After Baghdad fell, in the spring of 2003, the mood of the people was cautious but glad for the demise of Saddam Hussein, and open to the possibility that an American occupation would be a change for the better. By most measures it has not worked out that way…. Even short of the killing we have done, we have broken down their doors, run them off the roads, swiveled our guns at them, shouted profanities at them, and disrespected their women—all this hundreds or thousands of times every day. We have dishonored them publicly, and within a society that places public honor above life itself. These are the roots of the fight we are in. Now Saddam himself is re-emerging as a symbol of national potency.”  [The Atlantic]

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Into Iraq With 'Generation Kill': An Interview with Evan Wright

Evan Wright spent two months living with twenty-three marines from First Recon, the elite unit who spearheaded the invasion of Iraq. In magazine articles and his book ‘Generation Kill’, Wright chronicled the triumphs and horrors—physical, moral, emotional, and spiritual—that these marines endured. We talked to him about his experience of the Iraq War, and the human costs of ‘just wars.’

Evan Wright, author of "Generation Kill"


[To read an excerpt from Evan Wright's book, Generation Kill, click here]

GODSPY: Why did you name the book Generation Kill?

Evan Wright: There were a couple of reasons. The first reason had to do with a book called On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, which showed that in past generations only 15 to 20% of combat infantry were willing to fire their weapons. After the first ambush we were in, Lt. Fick and I were discussing this book and how today’s guys have no problem firing their weapons. For instance, Fick remarked after a firefight, "Did you see what they did to that town, they fucking destroyed it.” Cpl. Trombley, the machine gunner who was next to me in that ambush, he’d even been sort of ecstatic, comparing it to Grand Theft Auto, the video game.

I think that the problem with American society is we don’t really understand what war is. Our understanding of it is too sanitized.
The other reason was more important to me. For the past decade we’ve been steeped in the lore of The Greatest Generation, the title of Tom Brokaw’s book about the men who fought in World War II, and a lot of people have developed this romanticism about that war. They tend to remember it from the Life magazine images of the sailor coming home and kissing his fiancé. They’ve forgotten that war is about killing. I really think it’s important as a society to be reminded of this, because you now have a generation of baby boomers, a lot of whom didn’t serve in Viet Nam. Many of them protested it. But now they’re grown up, and as they’ve gotten older I think many of them have grown tired of the ambiguities and the lack of moral clarity of Viet Nam, and they’ve started to cling to this myth of World War II, the good war.

I never read Tom Brokaw’s book, but if you go back and look at the actual greatest generation writers, people like Kurt Vonnegut—who wrote Slaughterhouse Five—and Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and their contemporaries, who actually fought in World War II and wrote about it, there’s no romance at all. In fact, a lot of their work is very anti-war. So Generation Kill is a play on that myth, because what war is really about is killing. It’s not about anything else, really, for the guys, or for the participants on the ground.

My book also goes into how soldiers kill civilians, they wound civilians, and you know, we forget how the people who fought in World War II were doing the same things. They were shooting women and children by accident, and of course, our governments were bombing women and children, civilian populations. In that respect it’s also an ironic title. It’s a title that works against itself because it implies that it’s really easy for these guys—the marines I was with—to kill. And at first it did seem easy for them to kill, but as the book goes on you see guys like Sergeant Colbert—Ice Man—breaking down and being really affected by these deaths. So that’s the title.

It’s interesting that you mention the book On Killing by Dave Grossman because I wanted to read a quote about it to you: “Stressing that human beings have a powerful, innate resistance to the taking of life, Grossman examines the techniques developed by the military to overcome that aversion.” In the book Grossman makes the case that the military is ignoring the post-traumatic effects of killing on soldiers. Do you have any sense whether this is true?

Well, as an empiricist, I have to say that, personally, I’ve only seen the guys a year after combat. But the question implies that it’s the military’s responsibility to deal with post-traumatic stress, and I would argue that it’s society’s responsibility. Now that these guys have fought, is the military itself really responsible for everything that happens to a veteran after he’s discharged? I don’t know. Of course they minimize it, because the military’s not going to tell these guys “Hey go out there and do your job and kill, and by the way we just have to warn you, you might be screwed up for the rest of your life.” They’re not going to do that.

I think we as a society are content to remain isolated from the military, which is part of the beauty of an all-volunteer army, from the standpoint of empire-building, because we as consumer-citizens don’t have to worry about these issues. If there are problems with the military, it’s their problem, not ours, because that’s how we conceive of war. We’re really alienated from the people who fight wars. They’re almost a separate class. Then we get angry when we hear reports of people getting affected by war, and we say, well, they’d better take care of theirs. But we forget that it’s our society that suffers when they suffer.

Is it true that you were in the most forward vehicle of your battalion?

It's funny, because it almost sounds like bragging, but I spent much of the war in the lead vehicle of the entire US invasion of central Iraq. It's a strange historical fact, but Lt. Fick, the platoon commander of the unit I was with used to joke that the only way I could have been closer up in the invasion was to be in the front seat rather than the back seat of the Humvee I was in. There was nobody in front of us through much of it.

Your unit rode into Iraq in an unarmored Humvee, yet suffered very few casualties. The American military overall, during the invasion, suffered relatively few casualties. I’ve always found that amazing. How do you account for that?

These guys from small town America, what they’re being told to do—they didn’t learn that in Sunday school. They’ve got to throw all that out.
Everyone talks about the high-tech weaponry, but really it’s a testament to the marksmanship of the Marines. At night the Americans have the advantage of the night vision goggles, but in a lot of the heavy engagements and ambushes, we were ambushed in daylight, and we were ambushed by greater numbers of enemy troops who had the element of surprise, and they often had heavier weapons—rocket-propelled grenades, which is a really ingenious weapon. The Iraqis had all these advantages and the Marines came through slaughtering them. Why? These were old-fashioned gun fights and the Marines were better marksmen. I saw in that first engagement in Al-Gharraf, I remember thinking wow, these guys can outshoot the enemy and I hope it stays that way.

One of the reasons conservative Catholic commentators cited to justify this war, in opposition to Pope John Paul II and just about all the bishops, was that conditions had changed. Technology had made war more precise, so you could overturn a regime without the death and destruction of prior wars. What do you think about that, given what you saw?

The first Gulf War was an extravaganza of high technology, and we were mesmerized by images of high-tech bombs sailing through bathroom windows into where the bad guys were hiding. It’s true that the military has these capabilities, but they apply only under certain circumstances. They don’t apply in desert sandstorm environments, and in guerrilla war those abilities are severely eroded by the tactics that are used against us, so I’d say that way of thinking is delusional.

It’s interesting, there’s a soldier in my book named Sergeant Espera, and in my book, before we entered Nasiriyah, he said that he’d talked to a priest, and he asked him well, what’s the deal with killing? And the priest told him, in effect, it’s OK to kill for your country, for a good purpose, as long as you don’t enjoy it. What ended up happening with Espera is ironic because there were guys who were kind of opposed to what they were doing, but after combat, it’s such a high, people are sort of exuberant, they’re talking about these gory things in an excited way. But Espera was always beating himself up, because I think he thought he was going to go to hell if he enjoyed it. I was just with him recently and we were driving, and he was talking about how he’s got these nightmares—he’s very pro-war, he’s a very conflicted guy—he’s got nightmares, he worries, he loves his daughter, and he worries that somehow because he killed people in Iraq that somehow his daughter is going to be taken from him, and he’s obsessed with this...

He thinks that’s how he’ll be punished?

But then he said, that priest—and the word he used was MF, the MF word—that MF priest I talked to, he said “He told me killing is OK, for a purpose. Where in the bible does it say that? Where did Jesus say you can kill people for a purpose? Then he said, isn’t there a rule where we can’t put man’s law above God’s law, and he added, “As soon as the priest told me I could kill with a purpose,” he said, “there was nothing he could tell me after that, because he lost all credibility with me.” I love Espera, he lives near me, and we talk all the time. That was his view.

To me, one thing that gave your book credibility, that made it clear you weren't being self-righteous in your moral judgements, was your honesty about your own instinct for self-preservation. Specifically, before entering a town, you wrote about how you were glad to see the town pounded by artillery.

Yes, that was in the book, about how happy I was seeing Nasiriyah slammed with artillery. But there was actually a more interesting incident. The platoon I was with was holding a position at the edge of this town, about fifty feet from these walls. We were taking sniper fire; we were there for about ten hours. We were being flanked by these rogue RPG (rocket propelled grenade) teams trying to hit our humvees. And the Marine’s rules are “You can’t shoot into this village unless you see a muzzle flash shooting at us.” So we’re taking fire but we’re not shooting back, and after a couple of hours of this, I was just ready to… I was hoping they would call in an artillery strike. There were all these people popping up in windows and spying on us. It was really frightening. We had killed or hit three or four Iraqis who tried to sneak behind us to fire RPGs at us, and we’re all alone there, right? These marines had it in their power, these twenty-year olds, they could have gotten on the radio and found a reason to call in an artillery strike on this corner of the village. They could have leveled it. It would have taken just a handful of 155 millimeter rounds to really shatter this portion of the town that was bothering us, and I was hoping they would do that, because I was like “to hell with these people”—there were old ladies and kids walking around—I just wanted to live. And they had better instincts than I did. If I had my hand on the radio, I would have done it.

It’s been said that because the whole world was watching, more care was taken in Iraq to limit civilian casualties than in any prior war. Do you agree?

I don’t know about that. You just quoted language that’s been used by military leaders, but I didn’t necessarily see that concern.

Doesn’t the example you just described support that claim?

The real rule of war that you learn—and this was true in World War II—is that the people who suffer the most are civilians.
I saw that in the training of the men that I was with. But I also saw the 3,000 shells hurled into Nasiriyah, which is a huge amount of bombing. We’ll never know how many people died from that. I saw the battalion commander—and this is in my book—issue the order, while seizing an airfield, that everyone is declared hostile, which meant the Marines were almost obligated to shoot people they saw, even if they were unarmed. So, I get really uncomfortable when they talk about our side saying “we’re taking every concern.” Yes. I believe they are; in the macro picture, there’s a lot more concern than there used to be. But, keep in mind that when push comes to shove, we’ll just mow down people right and left, without any consideration for them, and we’ll cover it up. I was there when the battalion commander gave the order not to treat a 12-year old boy with four bullets in him. Now, I can never know, in his mind, what his motives were. He later claimed it was because he thought there wasn’t a secure route to get the boy treatment. He later reversed his decision as soon as he realized that the men were really upset. I think he made that decision because he didn’t want to have a wounded civilian on the books attached to his battalion. That’s our military. It’s not that it’s evil. It’s a human institution.

Well, I think you made a more important point, that no matter how well-intentioned, and with the global media keeping watch, you still have the horrors, what you just described…

Yea, and of course I’m as conflicted as Sgt. Espera; I still believe that nations must fight wars. But the interesting example that I always bring up is Rwanda. A lot of my friends were really angry that we didn’t do something there. These are really liberal, typically anti-war people. And I wonder if they realize that if we had gone into Rwanda—a very good war from a moral standpoint, most people would probably agree—I wonder if they realize that you would have had soldiers at checkpoints at night firing in panic at civilians, slaughtering people by accident. You’d have all sorts of terrible things happening. And I think that the problem with American society is we don’t really understand what war is. Our understanding of it is too sanitized.

In your book, at the end, you give a clear picture of the chaos and disorder in Iraq right after our victory, when there was a power vacuum.

You know what surprises me? How clearly obvious it was to us by April 14th, 15th, that the whole invasion was a disaster, that there was no plan. We got into Baghdad before the fall on April 8th. We were in the suburbs, and we went to Saddam City, which is now Sadr City, on April 10th. We were there for the next couple of weeks, the first Americans in many of those neighborhoods. We saw, and it was right in the book, the lack of any American plan, that it all relied on wishful thinking. There was even a marine colonel who was arming Shias, handing AKs in Sadr City, because they were going to take care of the bad guys for us. And we Americans decided that we were just going to stay in these camps at night, not go out—it’s all in the book. I remember thinking at the time, “My God, this is going to be a disaster,” and thinking, “I can’t be right. I just have a very small limited view. We could not have invaded this country with so little planning.”

Lt. Fick and I used to just sit around having these debates: This couldn’t be as bad as it looks to us. There’s got to be someone in charge. There’s got to be good stuff going on in the occupation of Baghdad, and we’re just not seeing it. But it turns out we saw exactly what was going on—nothing, in terms of building security.

Reading your book made some of the more surreal aspects of movies like Apocalypse Now and Three Kings seem plausible to me. Did you see Three Kings?

I saw it after I got back. The funny thing is that as outrageous as some people think the book is, it’s toned down in some places. But it all happened. I crosschecked everything. The books makes it appear like I was just sitting in the humvee with the marines and I wrote what happened…Well I was sitting in the humvee and I was there, but in addition, after every engagement or incident, I would go around and interview the people in the battalion, or people in the adjacent units, to sort of triangulate what was really going on to verify what I saw and heard.

For instance, there’s a story in there about a Marine reserve unit that was handing out porn to these Iraqi children, and an elder came out from the village who was really upset by this. The kids ran off, but one of them, through a translator said “Uh-oh, that old man is really mad at you, he’s going to get a rocket launcher and attack you because you are corrupting our morals,” and the old guy walked out with this rusty old rocket launcher tube, and the reservist marines panicked and they launched twenty-six Mark-19, 40-millimeter grenade rounds. They completely missed the old man, because they were reservists and they hadn’t been trained properly, and they dropped them all on this little hamlet. A Mark-19 round, a single one, is a devastating weapon to drop into a mud hut village. They dropped 26 of these in there. Also, Oliver North, who was working for Fox News as a correspondent was nearby and ran up and was trying to film it, and word was he picked up a weapon and was trying to shoot into the hamlet also. I heard this story—and this is one of the few things in my book that I didn’t witness—and I said this cannot be true. So I went and I interviewed between 15 and 20 participants, including the gunner who actually dropped the rounds on the village. Everybody corroborated it. So yea, there’s some outrageous stuff in the book but it’s all true.

Why was the pornography being distributed?

At the time it was just sort of for the amusement of the marine reservists. By porn, what I mean is something like Maxim magazine. But this is a society where, although Saddam was fairly secular, they’re not at all used to pictures of women even in workout gear. It’s scandalous. So to see the reactions of these kids to women in bikinis…

I remember thinking at the time, ‘My God, this is going to be a disaster. I can’t be right. We could not have invaded this country with so little planning.'
But the interesting thing is I was in touch with some Marines who were in Fallujah recently, they had just returned, and one of their jobs was to train the Iraqi local forces. Numerous Marines were telling me that porn was one of the ways they were motivating the Iraqis to go out on patrols and find weapons hidden by the insurgents. One marine told me “Yea, we started rewarding them. We’d give them a Playboy or a Hustler every time they found something.” Another thing that is very common is that the Americans all have pornography, which the Iraqis really want. And the Iraqis all have hash, and pharmaceuticals, because in that part of the world there’s a big problem of people being addicted to valium, which is manufactured locally and floods the market, because of the strictures against alcohol. According to numerous sources of mine, it’s become a big problem that there are numbers of Americans smoking hash and taking pills and boozing it up over there. My book has the boozing it up, but I left out the fact that there were marines smoking hash in Baghdad within days of the fall. The interesting point is that in an occupation there’s always a corrupting influence. So the Marines who were telling me these stories were really upset because they felt like, gee, our Marine Corps is being corrupted now, and the morale is getting affected because they’re locked up in these camps, sitting around, smoking hash, popping pills and drinking.

The corruption is affecting the Marines or the population…?

Both.

Because of the disorder and the disruption of their routine…?

Yeah. I don’t mean to disparage soldiers at all. They’re young men, and that’s what can happen when you have a lot of them together. It’s not all corrupting. I’m sure there are a lot of positive exchanges.

Based on reports in the religious press it seems that many soldiers come from traditional families, what with pictures of soldiers praying, etc. I have a tough time reconciling that with the porn and the language presented in the book…

It’s an interesting thing; I think with my group if I met them on the street outside the Marine Corps I would have thought, “My God, these guys are the salt-of-the-earth, small-town, religious America.” But get with them in the platoon tent, like a day before the invasion, and they’re the most foul-mouthed, atheist bastards on earth. I actually think it’s the opposite of the saying, you know, how there are no atheists in fox holes. I think there’s an opposite force at work, that they’re trained to kill and violate all these taboos. For that moment they’re the most irreverent… Look at Sgt. Espera. He felt he couldn’t be a Catholic and a Marine. These guys from small town America, what they’re being told to do—they didn’t learn that in Sunday school. They’ve got to throw all that out.

For instance, they do “death checks.” They’re trained, after a firefight, if there are wounded Iraqis lying around, the death check is you put your rifle up to a guy’s eyeball, in his socket, and if he flinches you shoot him. A death check is you’re checking to see if there are any people left to kill. I thought the American military was supposed to take wounded and treat them. And this is what they’re doing in Iraq after firefights, apparently. The recent case involving a young marine who was convicted bears this out. I’ve done a number of interviews, developing this as part of a story, and so far it’s from very good sources, it looks to be true that this is the policy.

In e-mails, on the internet, or in newspaper letters, you sometimes see soldiers claiming that the media is distorting what’s happening in Iraq, that the situation is not as bad as the media makes it seem. How would you characterize the media coverage of Iraq given what you’re hearing from your friends in the military?

Yea, the bias of the media is talked about a lot. Yes, I’m sure we’re building schools and electric plants, and shipping equipment and parts in to make Iraq function. I haven’t been there in a year, so I’m not an expert on the ground there. But being in touch with both reporters and soldiers who are there, or have been there recently, and knowing how the media functions, I think the problem with the media is television. There are so many limitations to television. It doesn’t contextualize. It tends to focus on one dominant image that may even be unrelated to the story. The image is chosen because it’s interesting. For instance, in my book I wrote that the Marine Corps, in the march to Baghdad, mostly depended on artillery bombardment as a tool for stand-off attacks on targets. They didn’t rely on aircraft as much. But the media seldom covered artillery bombardment, because the media always gravitates towards the hot image. Stock footage of an F-16 taking off from an aircraft carrier is a much hotter image than artillery cannon. So the soldier building a school, and the soldier wasting away smoking hash, both feel their story is not being told because television is almost incapable of presenting a complex story. That’s the main problem with media—there are others. Reporters aren’t traveling right now because they’re going to get killed or beheaded—but that’s what we’ve encountered with this war, as a culture, where we thought this war was going to be easy because we all watched the CNN footage of precisely targeted bombs.

There’s a scene in the book where you describe how deserting Iraqi soldiers had to be sent back—to possible death—because the Marines couldn’t handle them. And you were prescient in saying that they’d probably become insurgents as a result. Can you talk about how anger of this kind, along with anger at having friends and family killed, has affected the situation in Iraq?

If you look back at the first Gulf War we captured and imprisoned large numbers of Iraqis, and the interesting thing is that most of them had fairly positive experiences. When we got into Baghdad there were a number of older residents—in their thirties—who I talked to who really liked us because they remembered being treated well when they were captured in the Gulf War.

In this war, in regard to enemy combatants, we didn’t apprehend them and process them. We lost two opportunities. One was to find out who these people were, and whether there were leaders among them. And two, the opportunity to indoctrinate them about the good intentions of the U.S. occupiers. We let the army melt away, and we let them float around ready to pick up the insurgency, especially after Bremer fired the army and the soldiers realized that that they weren’t employed any more.

It’s impossible to write a story about Americans in Iraq and not connect it to the Palestinians, because in the Arab mind, it’s all of a piece. Only Americans think it’s separate.
Another thing is the bombing and shooting of towns. But people were not as outraged as you would expect when, say, the Marines killed civilians by accident. There was this moment of good will on the Iraqis’ part. What really started the insurgency and turned the populace against us was our inability to provide security. The book goes into these amazing firefights in Baghdad after the sun went down and the Americans went into their bases. There was this huge level of chaos and slaughter going on that we permitted to happen. And that probably turned the populace against us. The looting of Baghdad was an amazing event and it went on for weeks. I talked about that in the book—the home invasions and abductions. I mean if you’ve ever seen the movie Mad Max, that’s what Baghdad was like after we liberated it. That’s what turned them against us. I think the Iraqis had this innate understanding at the beginning of the war that they might have to pay a price, and they were willing to do that because the Americans were going to bring something better.

So you think they had a level of expectation about all that?

As far as I could tell, yes. But when we failed to deliver, that’s when they turned on us. That makes our blunder all the worse, because you could argue that the collateral damage was inevitable, but it wasn’t inevitable that we would completely blow the occupation as we did.

Do you think that with enough troops we could have maintained order? Was it even possible after that?

I think so. It wouldn’t have taken much of a show of force to get the Iraqi hoodlums to back down. We just didn’t have a plan. And we didn’t capture enemy combatants. That was a huge mistake. I bet you when they analyze this in the future they’ll figure out that most of the early looting, the criminal activity that plunged Baghdad into chaos, was carried out by disgruntled, disbanded soldiers. We could have captured those guys, and in a positive way. That would have been the army we would have had running the country.

How would you characterize the attitudes of the soldiers you’re in touch with?

There’s a lot of cynicism. I personally hope that I’m wrong, and that the cynics are wrong. I hope it turns into a great success. Let me just say that I sense on the left – I have friends where they almost get into this mode where they’re hoping for disaster. I think it’s important in our society, with this war, not to get into that mode. But I don’t know if we can actually fix the problems we’ve created, personally, much as I hate to be pessimistic. I don’t know if we can put it back together. And I don’t know if we can hold on to it.

Because of the chaos?

War is very psychological. In Iraq, I think the psychological element in our favor was lost because the people turned against us, and all of these insurgents were inspired, and they banded together and built an incredible level of confidence because they learned they can fight and kill Americans. They learned our weaknesses. On April 10th, they didn’t know. We picked up Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to unarmored humvees, lightly-armed marines, because these soldiers believed that humvees had this special protection and they couldn’t be shot or bombed. That was a great position to be in. That sense of invincibility we had was lost. So it’s double-edged. The population is against us, and the insurgency is inspired.

When you say the population is against us, what are you basing that on?

It’s based on reports I have from soldiers, Marines returning from Iraq, from their interactions with civilians. It’s not that they’re for the insurgency, but they’re caught in the middle. In a place like Fallujah, they were subject to American fire, and they were subject to insurgents coming into their neighborhoods and homes and firing on Americans, drawing more fire. What a lot of marines are reporting is that people are just dispirited by this and more willing to believe in the insurgency, again because of the security issue.

Which explains why Iraqi police or soldiers are not willing to go out on a limb…

It’s like a lot of people in south central Los Angeles, an area I’m familiar with. They’re not anti-police. But they’re not going to cooperate with the police, because the police aren’t there in enough numbers to actually protect them from the bad guys.

Did the war change you? Was it what you expected?

Aside from making me much more suspect about war, it gave me a lot more sympathy for Arabs, and Iraqis, than I had before. It’s a curious thing, because I was in a lot of situations where Arabs, and Syrians in particular, were trying to shoot us. Some Americans look at Iraqis and say that they’re kind of duplicitous and two-faced, that they’ll curry a favor and then turn the corner and shoot at you. But what Americans see as duplicity is often just the strategy of people caught in the middle, trying to survive. But I guess I got a lot more sympathy for Iraqis because I saw a lot of women and children killed by our side. That road outside of Nasiriyah—when we drove through there on March 25th or so, I saw all these women and children shot on the road by Americans.

How did you know they were shot by Americans?

You can assume that if someone has a bullet in them from an American weapon that it was intentional. Our sights tend to be very good. They were shot by helicopters and LAVs, light armored vehicles. They were shot in vehicles and they were shot in buses, because it’s true that it was justified in the sense that there were some civilian buses that had Fedayeen fighters in them. Instances like that. You hear those explanations but when you see a little girl in pretty clothes that someone dressed her in, and she’s smushed on the road with her legs cut off, you don’t think, well you know there were Fedayeen near by and this is collateral damage. They’re just civilians. Again, you have all this romance and lore of war, of the soldier, and how they sacrificed. But the real rule of war that you learn—and this was true in World War II—is that the people who suffer the most are civilians. You’re safest if you’re a soldier. I’m haunted by the images of people that I saw killed by my country. There’s no way around that.

By guys you were with?

Yea, they were killed by my friends, or people who became my friends after I wrote my book, and they’re haunted by it too.

I was in Afghanistan before, and I spent a lot of time in the Gulf states. I made a lot of friends with Arabs, and I’m very sympathetic to their world view. I have a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians, and I don’t think Americans quite understand that situation, and the historical position of the Palestinians.

Is it fair to say that in the U.S. we don’t understand the level of suffering and indignity felt in the Arab world?

That’s completely fair.

I'd say that’s the basis for the Vatican’s position regarding the Middle East, which is very evenhanded between Israel and the Palestinians. This is puzzling to many conservatives Catholics, who don’t understand that the Church must have a preferential option for the weak and suffering, and that solutions have to address the root causes of conflicts, rather than relying on violence.

It’s impossible to write a story about Americans in Iraq and not connect it to the Palestinians, because in the Arab mind, it’s all of a piece. You can’t go anywhere in that part of the world without people talking about that issue. Only Americans think it’s separate. But the funny thing is that before the war there were Americans who were making the specious argument, you know, the road to peace in Israel lies through Baghdad. Arabs were bringing it up to me.

That’s been the neoconservative argument, that bringing democracy to Iraq was the best way to solve the problems of the Middle East.

I hope it works, but in practice I don’t think it’s working.

How did the ordeal change you personally?

It changed me a lot internally. But it’s indescribable. You know, when I was with the First Recon I tried to keep things very impersonal. I was with them for two months, and there was a lot of joking and talking, but I never let it get personal. For instance, I supported the war, on the grounds of removing the weapons of mass destruction. But I didn’t tell them that because I didn’t want them to think that I was going to be on their side, that I was the pro-war journalist. But with the book over I’ve become friends with them. And when I see them now, they fill this one need I have, that they’re the only people I know who understand that combat experience. And it’s something I can’t share with anybody else except with them. When you asked the question—“How did the experience change me?—I can’t answer it. It changed something but I can’t put it into words.

You shared an ordeal with them and you have that bond.

Yea, the horrors that we saw.

Did any of the guys get into trouble on account of what you wrote?

Sgt. Espera was kicked out of the battalion. Sgt. Kocher, who’s not a huge figure in the book, he got into a world of trouble and was also kicked out of the battalion. Another guy was supposed to be promoted from corporal to sergeant, and he didn’t get promoted. It affected his pay. None of the people who got into trouble displayed any animosity towards me.

Did you get any negative reactions to the book, people contesting your view of the war?

On October 6th, I went down to Camp Pendleton, to see some of the wives and friends of the Recon Marines I wrote about. The guys I wrote about were returning from Iraq, and they invited me to the homecoming. I went there and checked in to the base. I identified myself as a reporter, no problem. I go on the base, and a Marine from First Recon who worked in the supply unit, he actually had a couple of marines grab me, put me in handcuffs, twist my hands behind my back, and they threw me in the back of a car. But since I hadn’t done anything wrong they couldn’t arrest me. I asked him why he was doing this and he said “We don’t like what you wrote. We don’t like your book. We don’t like what you said about our officers.” He was out of control. You can’t do that to people. That was the only negative reaction. But what was funny was that a week later the base newspaper did a story about the book and called it a cool book.

Was the book widely read by the Marines?

It was extremely widely read by the Marines.

Why did they like it? Because it’s true?

Yea, they think it’s honest. The guys who like it—I’m not going to say that everyone’s a fan of it—but the people who like it say, wow, you really showed Marines as they are. The funny thing is that the book shows them doing all these terrible things, the language, they shoot civilians, they don’t want to and they react to that, they become enraged about this, all these things that are really negative, but I think that it shows that a lot of them are really likable people [laugh]. And I think it has that sort of balance, and I think the Marines like that because, in a strange sort of way, it’s kind of a flattering portrait of them.

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January 5, 2005

ANGELO MATERA is Publisher/Editor of GODSPY magazine.

Photo Credit: Cpl. Jason Lilley

Copyright ©2004, GODSPY Magazine. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
04.30.05   William Owens says:
I also enjoyed this article - Wright's insight was very accurate, though limited. I'm a Catholic veteran and a reserve infantry officer in the Army who's about to be activated for Iraq. The person/alities described are exactly those of the average grunt, as are their poor/disadvantaged backgrounds. The Army has always been a haven for people who lack families and who find in their fellow soldiers the family they did not have as children. The Marines are the same [ ... but different in that Marine way. But not better. They ran away at Bull Run in the civil war!!!]Quite seriously, religious people should be wary of using harsh language and harsh judgments against the military (particularly Catholics). The Army, like the church, takes a lot of heat from ignorant "experts", particularly after Abu Ghraib. Catholics who want to know what it's like in the current Army should ask themselves whether they think it is fair to typecast the Church based on the priest-pedophilia cases. Obviously both institutions are filled with great people but also have the odd rotten person without morals and honor. Both instituions are needed.This said, my concern with Wright's article is that the Armed Forces (especially the Army) has already been typecast as filled with societal misfits and rednecks, and this article does nothing to alter this. While Wright's insights are accurate, they are not a full picture of troops in wartime. Many are educated, devout religious men and women and spend off-duty hours helping their comrades or the civil population. When in Bosnia, my troops rebuilt an orphanage. We weren't unique. Our Army has always done our best to alleviate suffering, even as we train to kill. Some of the most warm-hearted men and women I know are the same ones that I have relied on to train their weapon out and be prepared to shoot.I know that many Christians are taught to turn cheeks, be meek and mild etc but the facts are that those in the military - particularly the infantry - man the ramparts behind which religious people can practice their faith and be secure. While the merits of wars may be argued, I and other soldiers have to do our duty and don't get a say. Catholic pacifists may query this line of work. They may wonder why I serve. But they should ask themselves why do Catholics have more %representation in the armed forces than the nation as a whole? For my part, I grew up in a very Catholic home, did ROTC in a Catholic school, and am the son of an Army officer - my father's family is very Catholic and also has many Army officers in it. While my mother was the driving religious force, my father was an example to me as a man, a Catholic and a soldier. Never did I think there was a conflict between being a good Catholic and a soldier. Like the Church, the Army breeds strong characters and the military ethic demands much of you. When talking about the military, don't forget that it is just as morally absolutist as the Church. It has its own code. In other words, please give us respect for our code and mission, not condesencion or a superficial platitude. Jesus did in Matthew 8:5-13. We are people of faith as well.Finally, if you feel that you need a vocation where you can serve your country and serve your fellow man, and enjoy being in the company of men and women of vast integrity who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, then please join the Army. Uncle Sam and soldiers like me need people like you with us when we go in harm's way.Sincerely,William D. Owenswd_owens@operamail.com

01.05.05   lillyrose says:
I think that this interview is the best thing Godspy has run. It is full of insight--about our culture, the culture of the military, the media, the current generation, the Middle East. . . Congratulations on a great interview!

01.05.05   Godspy says:
Evan Wright spent two months living with twenty-three marines from First Recon, the elite unit who spearheaded the invasion of Iraq. In magazine articles and his book ‘Generation Kill’, Wright chronicled the triumphs and horrors—physical, moral, emotional, and spiritual—that these marines endured. We talked to him about his experience of the Iraq War, and the human costs of ‘just wars.’

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