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Generation Kill vs. One Bullet Away

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

Constantly diplomatic, Officers represent something larger than themselves, trained from the beginning of their careers to salute, toe the line, and not walk on the base's grass.

Nice traits for an officer; bad ones for a memoir writer.

The best writers are undiplomatic writers. They (through writing, reporting, comedy, whatever) shove the real world back in your face, unvarnished and uncensored. The best diplomats massage their messages. They aren't liars, but they certainly don't tell the truth.

The difference between the writer and the diplomat is the difference between Generation Kill and One Bullet Away, two memoirs written by Evan Wright and Nathaniel Fick (previously reviewed here and here). Both men write about the same invasion--Fick led the platoon Wright reported on--and the difference is stark. (Wright's account of the invasion takes up his entire book, Fick's begins about 150 pages in. And as I wrote in my review, the first 100 pages of One Bullet Away are fantastic). Not surprisingly, a lot of my biases (about memoirs) were confirmed by the comparison. Generation Kill feels more honest, and delivers the reader few if any easy to digest morals.

Take the issue of drugs. At the start of One Bullet Away, a few weeks into Officer Candidate School, Fick's Drill Instructor kicks out a recruit named Dunkin, because "hidden in Dunkin's shoeshine kit was a bottle of ephedrine." This incident teaches Fick about what it means to lead, and what it means to obey.

Unfortunately for Fick, his men were ephedra junkies on their drive to Baghdad. In Generation Kill, Fick's Marines use the ephedra-based Ripped Fuel and chew coffee crystals on virtually every other page. Fick, meanwhile, doesn't mention ephedra, ephedrine or Ripped Fuel again, and never discusses his men's drug use. Of course, Fick's men used stimulants during the invasion, and many of them probably used steroids at some point before they deployed--I wouldn't say steroid use in the military is rampant, but it certainly isn't uncommon--but to say so would be undiplomatic. To write so in print, doubly so.

The moral understanding between the two writer is also miles apart. To wit, both writers describe the same incident, the shooting of two Iraqi children, in radically different terms. Death--mainly Iraqi--goes down hard in Wright's book. After Corporal Hasser shoots an unarmed civilian at a check point, Wright asks him how he is, "'Just taking it all in,' he says." After Lance Corporal Trombley shoots two people, he says wryly, "Shooting mother***ckers like it's cool." After he finds out they are children, the platoon nicknames him "baby killer."

These details are absent in One Bullet Away. Fick doesn't name who shot the young boys, doesn't explain his men's reactions, and never mentions the future nickname. Instead he blames the Rules of Engagement and, not openly, his commanders, who refuse to provide medical support to the children. He ends the chapter with an inspiring speech about what it means to be a Marine, and how the Platoon will move forward and get better. Fick searches for easy, digestible morals.

Fick also ignores a lot of the innocent death caused by his Platoon and the rest of the Battalion. Wright describes multiple instances of civilians getting shot, from the truly callous and vile (An unarmed Arab man in a brown suit shot from a convoy window by a Benelli shotgun) to the accidental (Trombley shooting the kids, Charlie company shooting a little girl). On a larger scale, he explains the damage potential of artillery shells, and the insane number of them the Marines shot into dozens of small towns. Wright changed my view of the invasion of Iraq. Fick didn't.

Other details are omitted. Fick only uses the F*** word is 19 times in One Bullet Away, S*** 20 times. I counted the word S*** three times on one page of Generation Kill. Wright litters his prose with multiple epithets for homosexuals and sexual parts that never appear in One Bullet Away.

We all want to present ourselves a certain way, and often that way doesn't jibe with how other people view us. The Marines of Generation Kill are profane, violent, humorous and sad. And at their core well-intentioned heroes. But they curse, say racist things and (accidentally) shoot civilians. But Fick loves them too much to write about them this way, and you can feel it.

I think every memoir would read differently if a reporter also followed the memoirist around. Fick just had the bad luck to have a reporter with him.

six comments

First, the idea that the invasion was poorly planned is pretty much common knowledge. Seeing it in print so graphically really drives the point home though.

As for embedding journalists with all budding memoirists, I wish that could happen.

An interesting comparison. One book a retelling from the soldier’s point of view and one from the external. I think what would be more fulfilling would be a fusion. A reporter gathering the stories, compiling them, commenting honestly. Gathering letters and reading after action reports. The sort of study that is done long after an event, but done presently so the events are fresher in the memories of those there and uncorrupted by time and further missions. Of course, this would require unprecedented access and cooperation.

I think it has to do more with personalities than any particular agenda. If you watch in-depth interviews with Fick, that’s just the kind of guy he is. Likewise, Evan Wright was writing for Rolling Stone after coming from (I think) Hustler. They’re just two different people.

I could see Fick’s book being problematic in the sense of if someone is reading these kinds of books to find out “how it really was”, but I think it’s a fantastic book if you’re looking to find out how it really was for Nathaniel Fick.

@ Ben – I would agree that Fick’s represents his POV, I just wanted to point out how incomplete parts of that POV are.

It also brings up the question of whether or not you like someone’s POV, and how tough it is to be critical of someone’s personality and such.

I’m not sure if Fick had an agenda when he wrote his book, but considering where he currently, I’m sure the book didn’t hurt.

Fick is currently the CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). A think tank where Tom Ricks is a senior fellow. Ironically, it is Ricks that Fick credits in his book for getting him interested in joining the Marines.

CNAS has considerable (an understatement) clout in affecting military policy, especially COIN-type policy.

- mike

The reason for discrepancies is the purpose of each piece. Fick wrote One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer not to tell a story of the invasion (from his POV or otherwise), but to discuss the grooming of civilians into leaders of marines.