I have to fess up that I find the war in Iraq—replete with obfuscating, PR-oriented euphemisms such as ‘the war on terror’ that make the incursions sound much more palatable, heroic, and successful than they are—completely and utterly bewildering.
In some ways I find the issues underpinning the war so complex that I worry that no one—least of all the troops sent to Iraq to apparently set things straight and whose skills are more aligned with brute force than negotiation—can truly understand them. In other ways I find them so multi-faceted and overwhelming that they’re inevitably assigned to the thank-goodness-it’s-over-there-not-over-here too-hard basket.
Two American journalists—one from Rolling Stone magazine and one from The Washington Post—went in to experience and deconstruct the war for the rest of us. The results are pretty incredible and, after reading both books, I’m slightly less bewildered. Or I at least it’s bewilderment I better understand.
Evan Wright’s Generation Kill documents the true story of First Recon marines, the special forces soldiers who are the first guys on the ground in the most dangerous areas. Nicknamed the ‘First Suicide Battalion’, they’re the guys that they army keeps angry so they’ll be spoiling for a fight, and Wright’s no-holds-barred insight into the motley crew is compelling.
There’s plenty of profanity contained within the pages—in fact, it’s used as a term of endearment—but beyond that is a group of marines struggling to do the best they can with minimal information and resources at their disposal in a war they little understand. Most frightening is the fact that their superiors are incompetent and are making decisions that put them directly in the line of fire.
Which sounds pretty bleak, but isn’t. Or it’s more insightful than depressing. The marines are actually incredibly funny, and Wright contrasts this with the horrors and guilt they face, including when they know they’ve been responsible for some innocent civilians’ injuries.
Generation Kill was turned into a major television series by the same name by the creators of The Wire and many of the actors in the series are recognisable from other American shows (Alexander Skarsgård who plays vampire Eric Northman in the True Blood series plays my favourite Generation Kill character, The Iceman, so named because he remains cool under pressure).
About the same time Wright was embedded, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel spent eight months with infantry soliders of the 2-16, a battalion nicknamed the Rangers. And his platoon-level account, The Good Soldiers, is extraordinary. Finkel begins the book with its end, outlining upfront just how badly the Iraq operation would end up.
The opening sentence speaks of eternal optimist Colonel Kauzlarich, whose catchphrase was ‘It’s all good’—‘His soldiers weren’t yet calling him ‘the Lost Kauz’ behind his back, not when this began’—and proceeds to powerfully outline the battalion’s morale demise: ‘The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favourite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn’t yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, “I’ve had enough of this bulls&*t.” Another soldier, one of his best, hadn’t yet written in the journal he kept hidden, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.”’
In a book-length, even-handed feature article-style format, Finkel commences each chapter with a date-coinciding quote from President George Dubya Bush—the quotes a stark contrast to what was happening in Iraq and what was being reported courtesy of the American PR. Then he proceeds to focus on not only the big-picture complexities of the war, but to illustrate them through exploring its minutiae.
There’s the soldier so badly affected by the death of another that he obsessively rearranges the furniture in his room. There’s the soldier who spends hours sandbagging his room until there’s only a small opening at the door. There’s the thoughts the soldiers have about where the next IED or EFP—the enemy’s exploding, roadside weapons of choice—will hit and how they should sit or stand to minimise the loss of limbs.
There’s the devastation that the soldiers experience as they try to make sense of the senseless deaths and destruction, and there’s the Iraq nationals who work as translators but find themselves and their families aligned neither with the Americans nor with their own people. Then there’s the state-of-the-art rehabilitation clinic that badly injured soldiers end up in and the slow demise of morale and optimism in all of the troops, including Colonel Kauzlarich.
While both Generation Kill and The Good Soldiers raise further questions for me about the issues underpinning and coming out of the so-called ‘war on terror’, they’re raising valid questions and ones that are—weeks after I finished reading both books—turning over in my mind. I might still be bewildered by the war, but I’m now bewildered with some solid insight. Most importantly, I am determined to find out more.