Generation Kill
by Evan Wright

If you're watching the daily news reports from Iraq and wondering why things are so fucked there, then read Evan Wright's excellent Generation Kill (great book, shitty title). Wright was embedded with the Marines special-forces unit, the First Recon Battalion during the initial invasion. They are an elite group, trained similarly to Navy SEALS, and as their name suggests, used most often for reconnaissance missions. In Iraq they were corralled into old Humvees they were never trained to drive, then sent into the worst combat areas in the country.

At times it's hard to believe Kill is a work of nonfiction. In one section, the company ops chief, whom the men call "Casey Kasem," forgets to bring enough batteries for the company's critical heat-sensing night vision goggles. He does, however, remember his video camera so he can film the invasion. Elsewhere, "Captain America," a platoon leader, runs around the battlefield with a bayonet affixed to his rifle, firing indiscriminately into tents and huts. And after the company makes it to Baghdad and begins to venture out among the people, Wright comments, "Éit's astonishing to me that in an elite unit of American forces, among the first to occupy the capital city of a conquered country, there's no one within the command structure who fluently speaks the local language."

The lower level men who Wright travels with are by far the book's most sympathetic characters, and among them Brad Colbert--nicknamed "Iceman"--is the most likeable, largely due to his uniquely critical, almost heroic view of the whole mess. "I would never socialize with any of these people if we weren't in the Marines," he says. Later, having helped care for a child shot by one of his men, he says, "A pilot doesn't go down and look at the civilians his bombs have hit. Artillerymen don't see the effects of what they do. But guys on the ground do. This is killing me inside."

It's encouraging that the majority of the soldiers Wright spent his time with are more similar to Colbert than Captain America. It's discouraging that the invasion was so fucked from the beginning, that it doesn't really matter.