(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.
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.
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.
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.