Thursday, March 24, 2005

Book: Generation Kill, by Evan Wright (2004)

In 2003, Wright rode into Iraq with Marines from the First Recon Battalion. Their goal was to race ahead of the army and seize control of the direct route to Baghdad, a bold plan that asked First Recon to do work for which they were never trained. Wright was with them every step of this mad run, and has turned his award-winning Rolling Stone articles into the first great book about Gulf War II.

I try to keep the politics to a minimum around here, so I’ll say only this: Wright makes it plain that the Marines on the ground never have a clear sense of what their objective in the country is, and that the decision-making process was compromised by Defense Department imperatives to fight the war on the cheap.

I also have to admit that this is the funniest book I’ve read in ages. Throughout, the Marines tear into each other in profane, politically incorrect and hilarious ways.

Pop culture is deeply ingrained in these soldiers, which raises the question of what traces of it they’ll leave behind. You’d expect Marines to call the gung-ho commander of another company ‘Captain America.’ But to refer to an incompetent officer solely as ‘Encino Man,’ after an early Brendan Fraser movie? One Marine begins singing Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Sundown’ as he mans a machine gun in the middle of a firefight.

The strangest pop culture eruption involves Wright himself. When he’s the target of sniper fire, he immediately thinks of Peter Falk’s advice from THE IN-LAWS: “Serpentine! Serpentine!” Which is exactly what would have occurred to me. Wright takes twice as long to reach cover as the rest of the unit, and is helpfully told to disregard Falk’s counsel in future.

The Marines consider the Charms candies they’re given with their MREs to be unlucky. According to THE HARDY BOYS’ SURVIVAL HANDBOOK that I read repeatedly as a child, Charms make an excellent addition to any emergency kit because they have a higher glucose content than other candies. The same book also taught me how to generate a small supply of potable water using only a hubcap, a dry cleaning bag, and some rocks. I have a feeling this technique would work as well as that “Serpentine!” thing.