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Evan Wright's Generation Kill: A Review

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Are you thinking about writing a war memoir? Then read the following passage:

They call Colbert "The Iceman." Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds like comedian David Spade. Though he considers himself a "Marine Corps killer," he's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980's except rap...He collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be "configured by plugging it into his PC.

Can you write this? Can you write with this level of honesty, detail and talent?

This passage comes from Generation Kill, Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's superb account of the invasion of Iraq while he embedded with the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. That Generation Kill is excellent should come as no surprise; it won National Magazine awards, and HBO turned it into a mini-series. And it proves that the best memoirs come from the pros.

The Good

Wright's greatest skill is describing people. Look at that previous passage. Complimentary, disparaging, filled with contradictions, and totally, totally honest, I don't think there's another passage quite like it in another post 9/11 war memoir. And each character gets an introduction like this. No fluffy descriptions, Wright lays it all out.

This honesty permeates Generation Kill. "Embarrassing" details are noted, from the inconsequential (ball scratching, masturbating, profanity) to the world-shaking (killing civilians, killing animals, drug use). This book passes the sniff test. (Importantly, Wright describes the platoon's rampant ephedra use, which we'll get into next week when we compare this book to Nathaniel Fick's account of the same events and people).

But Generation Kill is crude in the right proportion. He mentions shitting and pissing, without obsessing over it like Swofford does in Jarhead, or ignoring it like virtually every other writer. His prose is profane, but intelligently so. And for the first time in the memoirs I have read, this book pays attention to and accounts for every civilian casualty his battalion committed.

Generation Kill benefits from being written by a reporter. Wright questions events if he can't confirm them, interviews a wide swath of leaders and Commanding Officers, and contextualizes the invasion. He explains why the battalion took such a strange route through Iraq, and what the Colonel was thinking. Wright sets the stage like few other memoirs do. As a writer, he understands pacing. If the scene gets too boring, he'll jump to the action of another platoon.

The Bad

Of course, this book isn't perfect. Like Fick's book, Generation Kill tells a real story, and that story--despite Wright's well paced prose--is monotonous. And the same free flowing vernacular prose I praised a few paragraphs ago does call attention to itself at times, like on page 102 when he writes, "blow the F*** out of a Humvee." or uses the phrase "big-honking."

There are more serious problems though. Some of Wright's characterization are downright vilifying, particularly with the code-named "Captain America," "Encino Man" and "Casey Kasem" characters. After reading multiple war memoirs, I have to conclude: the Marine Corps hates their leadership.

The most glaring mistake is this book's title, "Generation Kill." Wright's central thesis, played out in this title and the opening chapters, is that this generation of Marines is somehow different than the old one. Instead of the "greatest generation," today's Marines are "Generation Kill." They aren't.

It plays into one of Wright's other weaknesses, his tendency to generalize. Generalizing in war memoirs is mostly futile, and Wright generalizes all the time--in an organization of 200,000 it is hard to say something true about all of them. But Wright takes things that feel specific to his platoon--like them treating Charms candies as "infernal talismans"--and applies it to the entire Marine Corps.

In Closing

That's a lot of bad, but you should know Generation Kill was a lot of good. If you had to read one first person account of this war, please read this book. I know what you're thinking, didn't you say your favorite war memoir was The War I Always Wanted? I did. But this book is better, partly because it is written by a reporter and professional writer (I'll be writing on this in two weeks, why professional writers are better). His knowledge of timing, pacing and prose just surpasses that of Soldiers or Marines. So if you want to read a book by a Soldier or Marine, read Friedman. But for the best account of this of the war in Iraq, read Generation Kill.

eleven comments

The writing in this book is great, its very obvious from the get go that he is a professional writer. Because of his perspective as an embedded reporter and not an actual Marine involved he didn´t have to either sugarcoat or demonize the characters and events; he had a degree of freedom to write honestly about the events many war memoir writers feel like they don´t have because of fear of damaging the careers and reputations of people in their former unit.

Unfortunately for non-fiction first hand accounts of war (as war memoirs are) most of the time it is monotonous, and if thats captured in the book it may make it excruciatingly boring to read but it also makes it a smidge more exact and accurate. There were inevitably long stretches of monotony even during the invasion (and this book was written about the invasion, think of how quickly the optempo changed after the invasion was over).

I think the title comes from the idea that he was talking with Marines who weren´t under any illusions why they were going to war, and didn´t particularly care to much about the reasons why. This wasn´t “the Greatest Generation” taking on Nazi Germany and fighting to defend their country, this was a group of Marines who volunteered to test themselves and see combat regardless of whether they were fighting for the right reasons or not. I think the glib quote one of them gave about the invasion of Iraq being a flanking maneuver to get to North Korea (even if they had to go through Iran, Russia, and China to get to North Korea) captures that mood best.

As for the vilification of characters, well if he captured a conflict between the leadership and the marines that is not that unusual. The US military is just like the civilian population in the fact that there are great people, normal people, and utterly repulsive people. People hating people in their chain of command may be like a civilian hating a manager at work, the difference is they have a whole lot more control over their life and may get them killed if they are incompetent.

Let me make a very broad generalization here. The brown nosing, asshole, unimaginative manager kind of characters exist in the civilian world (I´m thinking Office Space) as they exist in the military. My First Sergeant always used to yell at us that if there is one thing they learn at the First Sergeant course its how to be an asshole. I think most people are willing to put up with living in that kind of condition as long as they feel they are in competent hands, and that when push comes to shove that their demanding and exacting chain of command would look out for them as long as they meet the standards. When soldiers don´t feel like they´re in competent hands, and are still being held to demanding or BS standards (like being told to shave while they´re in the middle of an invasion) then there can be discipline problems, and very deep seated resentment. I think Generation Kill very accurately captured the skepticism some of the Marines had in some of their officer´s and NCO´s tactical competence.

I haven’t read Generation Kill, so my comments are limited. Eric and I have discussed the amount of civilians the book describes being killed. We are going to go further into this issue, because it deals with core philosophical issues, and I think our readers should know it is coming.

Of the memoir released this is probably the one I am going to read. I am curious how well he describes the Marines and how much I believe them as characters. That is a hard skill to do, and it sounds like he does it well.

@Chris- I disagree with you about the title. I think it is a label and an extremely negative one. I mean, motivation doesn’t have that much to do with it when you consider how many joined still for financial reasons, and how many joined for well before the initial invasion was even contemplated.

As for the leadership problems in both the Army and Marines, I guess it is a problem for both, although it seems like it plagues the Marines really bad.

@ Chris C – I gt where the title comes from, but I don’t like it. As far as the manager thing, I agree. There are crappy bosses everywhere, I just think that Wright should have provided more prspective.

Overall, great book.

Haven’t read the book either, but re the title: (by the way, don’t like it anymore than you guys do!)It’s usually the publisher who choses that. And all that counts is what sells. Doesn’t have to be logical, doesn’t have to match the content of the book. it just has to catch people’s attention and make it a potential bestseller.

Chain of command: wouldn’t anybody hate a CO who either has the natural ability to piss people off or/and who is this incompetent that he issues BS-orders which in fact make him a real liability?! Perfectly natural reaction if you’re asking me!

I have to agree with you Michael that the title doesn´t necessarily fit the military as a whole. It is sensationalism, and it is designed to sell books. In my opinion far more people raised their right hand and signed a contract in order to pay of college than to kill people or out of patriotic reasons, however for the particular unit in Generation Kill, the title does fit. Its not because they´re blood thirsty gung-ho killers, thats not even how they´re portrayed, but these aren´t people who enlisted as cooks and spent a whole deployment on a .50 caliber turret doing convoys either.

The unit that the book portrays was a Marine recon platoon, which at the time was as close as the Marines had to a special operations unit (in fact this unit was later turned into one of MARSOC´s first units). People may join the military out of financial reasons, but I guess I don´t have to tell you that people don´t volunteer for RIP financial reasons, they do it to see if they can, what they´re made of, out of a taste for adventure, bragging rights, to prove they´re bad asses, to get into a more competent unit, and if they don´t like it they can always go back to a conventional units since these are all volunteer units.

I also dislike the sensational title. How is this generation kill compared to Vietnam or World War II? It’s absurd.

Then it isn’t Generation Kill, but Battalion Kill.

I just strive for accuracy in lang.

Hello everyone.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the title referred to how much more todays generation of military age males are supposedly desensitized to killing and death because of our realistic and graphic television, movies and of course video games? I’m pretty sure that’s where that came from, but perhaps I’m blending “On Killing” and “Generation Kill” in my mind, so like I said, correct me if I’m wrong.

Anyhow, I just had to point out that the Charms candies “fear” could probably be generalized for about every Infantry unit in the military. Those things are the devil!

I hope everyone has a great day.

@ Rob – The fact that the Marines are more apt to kill is mentioned briefly in the first chapter, but again, we have less war fighters fighting on the front lines than ever before. Compare it to World War 2, the generation this one is being compared to. They killed about 49 million more people in a less populated world. If ours in Generation Kill, than their the decimation generation or something.

On generalizations, I’ll write more in the fture about the more ridiculous examples.

Eric C,

Good point though on the “decimation generation” and you also have a very interesting point about the number of war fighters fighting on the “front lines” in todays war. Michael C and I figured that when we were in Afghanistan, of the 30,000 or so US troops there, only about 4000 (2x Brigade Combat Teams with 2x Infantry Battalions each and 1x Cav squadron each) were actually out patrolling every day, interacting with the local population, and taking fire.

But anyhow, I’d love to see your take on the generalizations. Good stuff!

Yeah rob we did come up with about 4000, I figure in Afghanistan today it is probably three times that, but with three times as many troops on the ground. Sure a lot of support troops are needed—like UAVs, SIGINT or HUMINT—but so much isn’t.

As for the Generation Kill, it probably does relate to On Killing by Grossman, but it is a ridiculous generalization because it kind of paints even American society like that, and most soldiers love pointing out that less than 1 percent has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Good little discussion today. Wish I weren’t stuck in a secure area all day.