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
a complete rejection of the hyped, consumerist American dream as it is dished out in reality TV shows and pop-song lyrics…. Their highest aspiration is self-sacrifice over self-preservation.
This sounds idealistic, but, as Wright is quick to note, “the whole point of their training is to commit the ultimate taboo: to kill. Their culture revels in this.” At the end of team briefings, “Marines put their hands together and shout, ‘Kill!'”
Like Fick with his visions of ancient Greece, many of these men arrived in Kuwait full of romantic notions about honor, valor, and sacrifice. From the very start, however, those ideas would be put to the test. Both Fick and Wright express dismay at the layers of incompetence among superior officers with which the men in First Recon must contend. The company’s operations chief, while failing to bring along enough batteries for the Marines’ critical night-fighting equipment, had the presence of mind to bring a personal video camera, which he plans to use to make a war documentary that he hopes to sell after the invasion. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ferrando, seems more interested in the Marines’ personal appearance than in their preparedness for battle. Addressing them in the Kuwaiti desert on the eve of war, he tells them that when they cross the Euphrates, all mustaches must come off. “We’re getting ready to invade a country, and this is what our commander talks to us about?” one soldier says. “Mustaches?”
During their initial thrust into Iraq, the Marines encounter little resistance. Speeding along Iraq’s highways, they are cheered on by excited Iraqi children. By the third day, the platoon has pushed to within twenty kilometers of the southern city of Nasiriyah. Along with 10,000 other Marines, they park on the road, waiting for orders. Even while idle, they leave their mark, in the form of garbage and—a subject rarely broached by the mainstream media—bodily waste. “Taking a shit is always a big production in a war zone,” Wright observes.
In the civilian world, of course, utmost care is taken to perform bodily functions in private. Public defecation is an act of shame, or even insanity. In a war zone, it’s the opposite. You don’t want to wander off by yourself. You could get shot by enemy snipers, or by Marines when you’re coming back into friendly lines. So everyone just squats in the open a few meters from the road, often perching on empty wooden grenade crates used as portable “shitters.” Trash from thousands of discarded MRE packs litters the area. With everyone lounging around, eating, sleeping, sunning, pooping, it looks like some weird combat version of an outdoor rock festival.
In a cluster of mud-hut homes across from the platoon’s position, old ladies in black robes stand outside, “staring at the pale, white ass of a Marine” who, naked from the waist down, is “taking a dump in their front yard.” A Marine says to Wright, “Can you imagine if this was reversed, and some army came into suburbia and was crapping in everyone’s front lawns? It’s fucking wild.”
By the next morning, all the trash has miraculously been picked up by the soldiers. But things quickly take a darker turn. In the first real setback for the Americans, some Marine units become bogged down in a series of firefights in and around Nasiriyah. Fick’s platoon, waiting some distance away, watches as artillery batteries fire 155mm shells into the city. “Marines who so scrupulously picked up all their litter this morning are now bombing the shit out of the city,” Wright observes. A short time later, Fick’s men, approaching a bridge leading into Nasiriyah, are unsettled to see armed men darting through alleyways, clutching women in front of them for cover. The Marines’ rules of engagement forbid them to fire unless first fired on, but, once the Iraqis do begin shooting, Wright reports, “up and down the line, just about every rifle, machine gun and grenade launcher roars to life.”
As the Marines fall back, some are clearly exhilarated at this first exposure to battle; others express remorse. “Before we crossed into Iraq, I fucking hated Arabs,” says Antonio Espera, a thirty-year-old sergeant from California. “I don’t know why…. But as soon as we got here, it’s just gone. I just feel sorry for them. I miss my little girl. Dog, I don’t want to kill nobody’s children.” Coming under heavy fire for the first time, Wright is surprised to find himself calm, but he is astonished at the fierceness of the barrage being directed at Nasiriyah. It includes high-explosive rounds that can blast through steel and concrete as well as DPICMs (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions), cluster shells that burst overhead, dispersing dozens of bomblets designed to shred people.
Even in the best of circumstances, Wright notes, artillery fire is imprecise, which leads him to wonder why reporters and antiwar groups concerned about collateral damage in war pay so little attention to it:
The beauty of aircraft, coupled with their high-tech destructive power, captures the imagination. From a news standpoint, jets flying through the sky make for much more dramatic footage than images of cannons parked in the mud, intermittently belching puffs of smoke.
But the fact is, the Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment than on aircraft dropping precision-guided munitions. During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. The impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating.
Entering the city with the Marines, Wright gets to see just how devastating the impact has been. Smoke curls from collapsed structures, and houses facing the road are pockmarked and cratered. The corpses of Iraqi attackers are scattered on the road leading out of the city. Run over repeatedly by tracked vehicles, “they are flattened, with their entrails squished out,” Wright notes, adding:
We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There’s a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no legs.
Heading north, the Marines find themselves amid the palm trees and canals of the Fertile Crescent, but all around are signs of death. Along the highway are torched vehicles with “charred corpses nearby, occupants who crawled out and made it a few meters before expiring, with their grasping hands still smoldering.” Lying beside one car is the mangled body of a small child, face down, whose clothes are too ripped to determine the gender. “Seeing this is almost no longer a big deal,” Wright comments. “Since the shooting started in Nasiriyah forty-eight hours ago, firing weapons and seeing dead people has become almost routine.” Fick, reaching back to his four years in a Jesuit high school, writes that he found himself “mouthing the Twenty-third Psalm: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….'”
Further north, as they near the town of Qalat Sukkar, Fick writes, he and his men are ordered to seize a nearby military airfield. This upsets them, since they are not trained for such a mission, and their Humvees lack not only armor but also doors and roofs. Fick is further distressed to hear the new rules of engagement: all personnel on the airfield—whether armed or not—are to be considered hostile. During training, he writes, “we had learned about Vietnam’s free-fire zones. They had been, it was acknowledged, immoral and counterproductive. Qalat Sukkar was being declared a free-fire zone.” As they race toward the airfield, one of his men suddenly opens fire. Looking out, Fick sees in the distance a blur of cars, camels, and men carrying long sticks that might be rifles.
Finally reaching the airfield, the Marines find it deserted. While relieved, they are shaken to see how vulnerable they had been. They are soon approached by five Iraqis dragging two bundles. Inside are two teenaged boys. Both have been wounded—one gravely. Examining him, Doc Bryan, a medic, can see that he’s been shot with 5.56mm rounds, a caliber used by the Americans. “Marines shot this boy!” he roars. It’s now clear that the distant figures who’d been shot at were not fighters with rifles but shepherds with canes.
Fick runs to company headquarters and explains what has happened. He wants the boys evacuated to a field hospital. The major on duty informs him that Lieutenant Colonel Ferrando is sleeping and can’t be disturbed. Fick is livid:
I wanted to tell the major that we were Americans, that Americans don’t shoot kids and let them die, that the men in my platoon had to be able to look themselves in the mirror for the rest of their lives.
The reckless way his men have been deployed has opened up cracks in his trust in his commanding officers:
I thought of the untold innocent civilians who must have been killed by artillery and air strikes over the past week. The only difference was that we hadn’t stuck around to see the effects those wrought. Our actions were being thrust in our faces, and the chain of command was passing the buck to the youngest, and most vulnerable, of the troops.
Determined to force the issue, Fick races back to his men. Placing the two boys on stretchers, they rush them to the battalion headquarters, then deposit them in front of the indifferent major. Faced with this small-scale mutiny, he slips to the back of the tent to rouse Ferrando. Coming out, the lieutenant colonel—quickly sizing up the situation—orders the boys’ immediate transfer to a field hospital. Fick’s dejection does not lift:
I felt sick for the shepherd boys, for the girl in the blue dress, and for all the innocent people who surely lived in Nasiriyah, Ar Rifa, and the other towns this war would consume. I hurt for my Marines, goodhearted American guys who’d bear these burdens for the rest of their lives. And I mourned for myself. Not in self-pity, but for the kid who’d come to Iraq. He was gone. I did all this in the dark, away from the platoon, because combat command is the loneliest job in the world.
The morale of Fick’s men continues to erode as they press northward. A new source of tension is added by the need to set up roadblocks to counter the unanticipated threat of suicide attacks. Because these sites tend to be poorly marked, many Iraqi drivers fail to stop at them. When US soldiers fire warning shots, the Iraqis often speed up. As a result, many are killed. After one car has been shot at, a Marine named Graves goes to help a little girl cowering in the back seat, her eyes wide open. As he goes to pick her up, “thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her…the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out,” Wright writes. As Graves steps back in horror, his boot slips in the girl’s brains. “This is the event that is going to get to me when I go home,” he says.
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.
December 20, 2007