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Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs

With the battlefield growing ever more dangerous, the Marines’ initial inhibitions about firing fades, and even relatively minor threats are met with fierce bursts of gunfire. Civilians bear the brunt, to the consternation of many of the Marines. “I think it’s bullshit how these fucking civilians are dying!” rages Jeffrey Carazales, a lance corporal from Texas, after he shoots at a building that clearly has civilians in it:

They’re worse off than the guys that are shooting at us. They don’t even have a chance. Do you think people at home are going to see this—all these women and children we’re killing? Fuck no. Back home they’re glorifying this motherfucker, I guarantee you. Saying our president is a fucking hero for getting us into this bitch. He ain’t even a real Texan.

At a bridge leading into the town of Muwaffaqiyah, Fick’s unit is ambushed on three sides, and a sergeant, shot in the foot, begins to bleed profusely. The Marines then open up on their attackers, killing some and causing the rest to flee. Pulling back a couple of kilometers, the Marines again complain about the reckless way in which they’ve been deployed. Meanwhile, they watch as artillery batteries pummel Muwaffaqiyah. Exploding DPICM shells scatter lethal clusters over wide areas. A-10 fighter jets belch out deafening machine-gun fire. Cobra helicopters, low-flying and menacing, launch rockets and grenades. When the platoon is finally able to enter the town, they see that large sections of it have been leveled. On the rooftops are an undetermined number of bodies—victims of the shrapnel from the cluster rounds. “We had one guy shot in the foot, and we blew up their whole town,” a Marine tells Wright.

Wright’s account of this attack is exceptional. In the thousands of reports written about the invasion, few dwelled on the enormous destruction it caused. Even most of the retrospective analyses downplay this aspect of the war. A good example is Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor. The authors meticulously and convincingly document the many “grievous errors” that the Bush administration and the Pentagon committed in planning and executing the war. Yet when it comes to describing the invasion itself, their writing is oddly bloodless. Attacks tend to be referred to in a fleeting blur of acronym-laden aircraft and tanks, armored vehicles and munitions, with acts of destruction sequestered in brief euphemistic phrases. Here are some examples from the book (with emphases added):

• As Sanderson’s battalion prepared to advance up Highway I, it came under Iraqi artillery fire. Within minutes, Lieutenant Colonel Doug Harding unleashed a barrage of lethal counterfire. This was the first significant artillery duel of the war. The Americans got the better of the exchange, suppressing Iraqi fire for the time being.

• McElhiney realized he would have to fight in close quarters and destroy the Iraqi air defenses one at a time. Using 30mm guns and rockets, he took out the mosque.

• The regiment’s 2nd LAR and Recon moved on the town border, which was skillfully and tenaciously defended. Covered by Cobras, the Marines headed north to the town from the western side of the Gharraf River, paralleling Highway 7. Craparotta’s 3/1 moved up and…cleared the town.

The town referred to in this last passage is Muwaffaqiyah—the same place Wright describes as having been partly flattened by the Marines. The brief, bald description in Cobra II of Muwaffaqiyah as being “cleared” conveys none of the horror, devastation, and death that, according to Generation Kill, accompanied the attack. Unlike Wright, Gordon and Trainor were not present for the attack. In seeking to reconstruct it, they relied heavily on interviews with the soldiers who carried it out and who had little incentive to dwell on the unarmed Iraqis who might have died as a result of their actions. Written from the perspective of those planning and executing the invasion, Cobra II—like so many other accounts—tells us little of what it was like to be on the receiving end of the violence.


As Fick’s platoon nears Baghdad, the fighting intensifies. Towns and hamlets are torn apart by relentless bombardment and artillery fire, and unarmed Iraqis continue to get shot at roadblocks. In one touching scene described by Wright, some Marines, overcome by the swelling crowds of dirty, hungry refugees, scramble to help them, but with the need so enormous, there is little the soldiers can practically do. When, on the morning of April 6, they finally reach the outskirts of Baghdad, they confront what Wright calls a horrorscape of human corpses and of dead cows—bloated to twice their normal size—lying in ditches. Sergeant Espera’s vehicle swerves to avoid running over a human head lying in the road. When the vehicle turns, he looks up to see a dog eating a corpse. “Can it get any sicker than this?” he asks. Reflecting back on the battalion’s performance to this point, he says, “Do you realize the shit we’ve done here, the people we’ve killed? Back home in the civilian world, if we did this, we would go to prison.”

Taken together, Fick and Wright provide a chilling account of what it was like to be in Baghdad as the city descended into anarchy. A stream of terrified and desperate Iraqis shows up at a cigarette factory the Marines are occupying, begging them to put an end to the looting, but the soldiers feel powerless. At night, the gunfire in the streets becomes so fierce that they don’t dare venture out. By this point, Fick has learned that the seemingly reckless way in which his men had been deployed was actually part of a bold Marine plan to attract the fire of Iraqis and distract them from the main invasion force thrusting into Iraq much farther to the west. The plan succeeded, but this seems of little consolation in light of the lawlessness sweeping Baghdad. Fick, Wright observes, “appears to have lost his belief in his mission here.” The cause is not so much the disorder itself as his realization that the Americans have no real plan to remedy it.

As Wright’s time with the platoon nears an end, he looks back on all that he has seen:

In the past six weeks, I have been on hand while this comparatively small unit of Marines has killed quite a few people. I personally saw three civilians shot, one of them fatally with a bullet in the eye. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The Marines killed dozens, if not hundreds, in combat through direct fire and through repeated, at times almost indiscriminate, artillery strikes. And no one will probably ever know how many died from the approximately 30,000 pounds of bombs First Recon ordered dropped from aircraft.

Wright leaves it at that. By this point in his book, the death of civilians has emerged as a major theme, and I was sorry he didn’t discuss the matter further. To learn more, I contacted Marc Garlasco, the senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. (During the invasion, he worked at the Pentagon, recommending targets for air strikes.) Garlasco told me that, according to the most widely accepted estimates, 10,000 civilians at a minimum were killed during the invasion, the large majority victims of the coalition. Few Americans seem aware of this number.

Wright did elaborate on this in an interview he gave soon after his book appeared.* “For the past decade,” he said,

we’ve been steeped in the lore of The Greatest Generation, the title of Tom Brokaw’s book about the men who fought 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 fiancée. 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.

His book, Wright added, “goes into how soldiers kill civilians, they wound civilians.” In Iraq, the shooting of civilians

was justified in the sense that there were some civilian buses that had Fedayeen fighters in them…. 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 nearby and this is collateral damage.

Overall, Wright said, “the problem with American society is we don’t really understand what war is.” The view Americans get “is too sanitized.”

For Nathaniel Fick, too, the killing took a heavy toll. After returning from Iraq he was promoted to captain and named the commanding officer of the Basic Reconnaissance Course. The war, however, would not leave him. On the street, he would size people up, looking for the telltale bulge of a pistol or a bomb. Sometimes, he cried for no reason at all. “I thought I was losing my mind,” he writes. And so the young Dartmouth graduate who had joined the Marines in a fit of idealism decided he had to leave them. Many Marines, he explains,

reminded me of gladiators. They had the mysterious quality that allows some men to strap on greaves and a breastplate and wade into the gore. I respected, admired, and emulated them, but I could never be like them. I could kill when killing was called for, and I got hooked on the rush of combat as much as any man did. But I couldn’t make the conscious choice to put myself in that position again and again throughout my professional life.

After leaving the corps, Fick drifted. Combat, he realized, “had nearly unhinged me.” Worst of all, he writes, were the “blanket accolades and thanks from people ‘for what you guys did over there.’ Thanks for what, I wanted to ask—shooting kids, cowering in terror behind a berm, dropping artillery on people’s homes?”

Today, Fick is a graduate student at Harvard, pursuing a joint degree in public administration and business. When he graduates in June, he hopes to work on energy policy as it relates to national security. Wright is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Generation Kill is currently being made into a mini-series for HBO. Millions will see it, and if it manages to capture some of the horrors described in the book, it could help impress on Americans the terrible human costs of the invasion.

Since the invasion, of course, those costs have multiplied many times over. In a subsequent article, I hope to explore how they, too, have remained partly hidden from view.

  1. *

    The complete interview can be found at www.godspy.com/reviews/Into-Iraq-With-Generation-Kill-An-Interview-with-Evan-Wright-by-Angelo-Matera .cfm.

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