In House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, Staff Sergeant David Bellavia—a gung-ho supporter of the Iraq war—casually recounts how in 2004, while his platoon was on just its second patrol in Iraq,
a civilian candy truck tried to merge with a column of our armored vehicles, only to get run over and squashed. The occupants were smashed beyond recognition. Our first sight of death was a man and his wife both ripped open and dismembered, their intestines strewn across shattered boxes of candy bars. The entire platoon hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours. We stopped, and as we stood guard around the wreckage, we grew increasingly hungry. Finally, I stole a few nibbles from one of the cleaner candy bars. Others wiped away the gore and fuel from the wrappers and joined me.
This incident is notable mainly for the fact that the platoon stopped; from the many accounts I have read of the Iraq war, when a US convoy runs over a car, it usually just keeps going.
In Chasing Ghosts, Paul Rieckhoff, a graduate of Amherst who led a platoon of Army National Guardsmen in Iraq, describes going out on routine house raids in the summer of 2003 during which his men broke down doors, zipcuffed all the men in sight, and turned rooms upside down in the search for weapons, few of which they ever found. These raids, Rieckhoff writes, “were nasty business. Anybody who enjoyed them was sick. Sometimes I felt like I was a member of the Brown shirts in Nazi Germany.” As Rieckhoff later discovered, some of his men were stealing cash found on these raids—a practice that, as other accounts suggest, is not at all uncommon.
In Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army, Kayla Williams, an Arabic-speaking military intelligence officer, tells of attending an interrogation session in Mosul in the fall of 2003 in which US soldiers remove the clothes of a prisoner in a cage and then mock him: “Mock his manhood. Mock his sexual prowess. Ridicule the size of his genitals.” The soldiers flicked lit cigarette butts at the prisoner and smacked him across the face. Williams later learned that a prisoner died in the same cage she had visited.
These anecdotes could be multiplied many times over. They come from the many books that have been written about the Iraq war by the soldiers who have served in it. In no other war have so many books by soldiers appeared while the fighting was still going on—accounts written not just by generals like Tommy Franks but also by lieutenants, sergeants, reservists, and privates. Such works have been largely ignored by the mass media, which is too bad, for they provide a grunt’s-eye view of the war that is often far richer, and rawer, than anything available in our newspapers or on TV.
As probing and aggressive as the reporting from Iraq has been, it is subject to many filters. There are, for example, “family viewing” standards that make it difficult for journalists to write frankly about such sensitive aspects of military life as the profane language soldiers often use. It’s also hard for journalists to get an accurate sense of what soldiers really think. Through embedding, reporters have enjoyed remarkable physical access to the troops, but learning about their true feelings is far more difficult, all the more so since soldiers who speak out too freely can be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Finally, there are limitations imposed by the political climate in which the press works. Images that seem too graphic or unsettling can cause an uproar. When, for instance, The New York Times in January 2007 ran a photo of a US soldier lying mortally wounded on the ground, the paper was angrily accused of showing disrespect for the troops. More generally, the conduct of US soldiers in the field remains a highly sensitive subject. News organizations that show soldiers in a bad light run the risk of being labeled anti-American, unpatriotic, or—worst of all—“against the troops.” In July, for instance, when The New Republic ran a column by a private that recounted several instances of bad behavior by US soldiers, he and the magazine were viciously attacked by conservative bloggers. Most Americans simply do not want to know too much about the acts being carried out in their name, and this serves as a powerful deterrent to editors and producers.
Books are less susceptible to such pressure and as a result can be far more pointed. The picture they present is not always bleak. They describe many affecting scenes in which soldiers try to do good, administering first aid, handing out food, arranging for garbage to be picked up. For the most part, the GIs come across as well-meaning Americans who have been set down in an alien environment with inappropriate training, minimal cultural preparation, and no language skills. Surrounded by people who for the most part wish them ill and living with the daily fear of being blown up, they frequently take out their frustrations on the local population. It’s in these firsthand accounts that one can find the most searing descriptions of the toll the war has taken on both US troops and the Iraqi people.
That toll began not with the terrible violence that broke out after the fall of Baghdad but during the invasion itself. Two books describe this with special vividness: One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick, and Generation Kill, by Evan Wright. As reported in the press, and as perceived by most Americans, Operation Iraqi Freedom went fairly smoothly. There were some occasional hitches and temporary setbacks, of course, but in the end the destruction was limited and civilian casualties were kept to a minimum. These two books, however, tell a very different story.
Nathaniel Fick entered the Marines in a burst of idealism. A former Catholic school student from suburban Baltimore, he was studying classics at Dartmouth when he decided to join the Marine Corps. He was driven by a desire both to serve his country and to prove himself. Most students at Dartmouth who felt that way joined the Peace Corps or Teach for America, but Fick, inspired by his readings about Athens and Sparta, wanted a deeper challenge—something that, as he wrote, might kill him or leave him better and stronger.
One night he went to hear a talk by Thomas Ricks, who was at the time a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Ricks had just published Making the Corps, a glowing account of the Marine Corps, and in his talk he described it as one of the last bastions of honor in America. Fick was sold. Once in the Marines, he wanted to serve in the infantry, a branch “where courage still counts.” As a lieutenant, he was sent to Afghanistan, where he served behind enemy lines, then was assigned to Reconnaissance, the Marines’ equivalent of Special Forces, and the toughest unit in the corps. After completing the brutally hard training, he was put in charge of a twenty-three-man platoon, and in early February 2003 he and the rest of the First Reconnaissance Battalion flew to Kuwait to await the start of the war.
One day, a bus carrying two dozen journalists arrived at the camp. Among them was Evan Wright, a reporter for Rolling Stone. Fick shared the general Marine disdain for reporters, but, meeting Wright, he found him to be soft-spoken and unassuming, and he was impressed to learn that Wright had studied medieval history at Vassar. When Wright told him that he was staying in a tent with senior officers, Fick said that was a big mistake: if he wanted to find out what was really going on, he should spend time with the young men who pulled triggers for a living. Initially, the battalion had planned for Wright to embed with the support staff in the rear, but Wright—struck by Fick’s intelligence and enthusiasm—asked to join his platoon. After agreeing to hand over his satellite phone and sever all contact with the outside world, he got his wish.
In all, Wright would spend two months with Fick’s platoon. After returning to the United States, he described his experiences in three long articles for Rolling Stone; later, he turned them into a book. His and Fick’s accounts provide unique side-by-side views of the invasion by a soldier and a journalist in the same platoon. Taken together, their stories are far more revealing—and disturbing—than most of the dozens of other accounts that have appeared.
Wright is a keen observer, and in Generation Kill he manages to get past the screens that conceal so many aspects of military life. Here, for instance, is his description of his initial visit to meet Fick’s men:
The tent reeks of farts, sweat and the sickeningly sweet funk of fungal feet. Everyone walks around in skivvies, scratching their balls.
Vigorous public ball scratching is common in the combat-arms side of the Marine Corps, even among high-level officers in the midst of briefings. The gesture is defiantly male, as is much of the vernacular of the Marine Corps itself.
Officers and enlisted men alike take pride in their profanity, with “queer,” “faggot,” and “motherfucker” among the staples. The soldiers often fight with one another, tell dirty stories, use racially tinged putdowns, read porn magazines, and masturbate. Almost all engage in “dipping,” or using smokeless tobacco—the “universal drug of American fighting men.” In addition to delivering “a nicotine buzz that makes filterless Camels seem like candy cigarettes,” Wright notes, it causes users to “salivate like a rabid dog” and to “constantly expectorate thick streams of brown goo.”
Wright is no less unsparing in describing the backgrounds of the Marines. This is a sensitive topic, with few journalists willing to look too deeply into the composition of the all-volunteer army. Wright has no such qualms. “Culturally,” he writes, “these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the ‘Greatest Generation.’ They are kids raised on hip-hop, Marilyn Manson and Jerry Springer.” There are “former gangbangers, a sprinkling of born-again Christians and quite a few guys who before entering the Corps were daily dope smokers.” While some joined the Marines out of prep school or turned down scholarships at universities, more than half “come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents.” Together, he writes, these Marines “represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children.”
While shocked at times at their childish behavior, Wright is also impressed by their fighters’ ethos. Most seem driven by “an almost reckless desire to test themselves in the most extreme circumstances.” The life they have chosen seems in many ways