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Generation Kill
Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War
By Evan Wright
Putnam Publishing Group
HC, 354 pages US$24.95/C$36
ISBN: 0-3991-5193-1

The new face of warfare

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 28, 2004

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American WarThe Pentagon's battle plan for Iraq made for great television. Traditionally military doctrine calls for an advancing army to secure its gains before moving on to the next target. In Iraq, the American military relied instead on a variation of the blitzkrieg technique: rapid movement designed to confuse the Iraqi military. Thanks to embedded journalists, viewers were treated to images of lightning advances that culminated in the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in less than one month.

For the soldiers of the American military, however, that doctrine presented a number of new challenges. Perhaps no unit had to adapt more than the men of First Recon Marines, an elite unit that traditionally performs the roles of scout and ambush. Instead, First Recon raced far ahead of the main advance and was used as bait to identify likely Iraqi ambush points. Never previously had the unit lived up so faithfully to its nickname of the "First Suicide Battalion."

Evan Wright's Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War chronicles the open days of the conflict while he was embedded with First Recon. Based on his highly regarded three part series that ran in Rolling Stone last summer, Wright lived with the platoon through the weeks long war in Iraq and has produced a stellar example of war reportage that should serve as the gold standard for books on America's most recent war.

The men of First Recon -- it is an exclusively male society -- are a varied group. Some are educated while others joined the Marine Corps to escape from life on the streets. They are a macho bunch who look forward to the thrill of combat. Men of 19-years of age who wouldn't merit a second look on the street are described by their peers as stone cold killers. When it comes to combat they are far above almost any enemy that they would face on the battlefield.

That turns out to be the biggest problem that First Recon faces, identifying their enemy. Much of the Iraqi military shed their uniforms and -- along with foreign jihadists -- wore civilian dress. With each mission First Recon is never quite sure what to expect. Is the Iraqi dressed in civilian clothes and talking on his cell phone an innocent who is making the stupid mistake of being in the open, or is he responsible for the mortar attack on the unit? Regardless of the answer he's dealt with promptly and permanently. Making these types of decisions takes an enormous toll on the men.

"I've learned that there are two types of people in Iraq. Those who are very good and those who are dead. I'm very good. I've lost 20 pounds, shaved my head, started smoking, my feet have half rotted off, and I move from filthy hole to filthy hole every night. I see dead children and people everywhere and function in a void of indifference. I keep you and our daughter locked away deep down inside, and I try not to look there," writes one Marine home to his wife.

Generation Kill's strength is that Wright doesn't take the easy road in either glorifying or vilifying the men. The men that we saw on television garbed in NBC warfare suits and masks to protect against the desert wind and sand are revealed to be human beings, struggling to make sense of a situation that few of them were adequately prepared for. Although the unit accomplished their mission successfully and honourably, Wright doesn't hesitate to reveal the myriad of problems that they had to struggle through -- whether resistance from enemy forces, civilian deaths or the seeming incompetence of some of the unit's leaders.

The formal end of the war of course isn't the end of the story. Thanks to Wright and Generation Kill, however, we're treated to how the beginning of the story was written by men like those in First Recon. Generation Kill deserves to be treated as a modern classic on par with Blackhawk Down for revealing the modern face of war and how America's soldiers will have to deal with this new reality.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War at Amazon.com for only $16.97 (32% off)

Other related articles: (Open in a new window)

  • How the war was won by Steven Martinovich (March 8, 2004)
    Outside of some minor quibbles about his editorializing, Steve Martinovich thought Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq is the standard by which future books about the war against Saddam Hussein will be judged
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