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Cannonball Read 2 #43: Generation Kill by Evan Wright

Evan Wright was a reporter embedded with the First Recon Platoon, the first Marines to enter Iraq during Gulf War II. Wright travels with them, getting to know the twenty-six men and their commanders, and experiencing modern warfare from the enlisted man's point of view.

The platoon is the first to enter Iraq, and it doesn't seem that the plan of attack is very well organized or explained. The men basically drive around Iraq, drawing fire and eliminating enemy targets. They spend a great deal of time lost, confused, exhausted, and hungry. Their equipment doesn't function properly, they don't have enough food, and their vehicles are uniquely unsuited for the task at hand--in fact, the specialized training they received as a recon platoon is uniquely unsuited for this assignment. They are engaging in a mission that doesn't make sense to them and that they were not really trained for. It's a constant barrage of stress, never knowing if the people they see by the side of the road are villagers waving to welcome them or operatives waiting to trigger an ambush or detonate a bomb. They have commanders that are terrific and leaders like "Captain America" who lead poorly and cause more problems than they solve.

The men in the platoon are all distinct, and it doesn't take too many pages to recognize each one. The author clearly connected with the men and worked hard to bring out their personalities quickly. He makes it clear that these are average young men, all between 18 and 30 years old (most in the 19 - 25 range) who have been trained thoroughly and specifically, only to be thrown into a circumstance they don't understand, in a culture they can't fathom, where no one even speaks their language. They are both funny and human and chilling and destructive, sometimes both within the same paragraph. Wright doesn't seem to have any particular political leaning -- he is just reporting on the circumstances as he sees them. He is as objective as he can be, but doesn't try to take himself out of the story entirely. He compares his experiences and his reactions to those of the men around him, almost using himself as a foil.

Although Wright never brings this up, the book definitely made me better understand why some of the horrible civilian tragedies have happened in Iraq and Afghanistan; these young men have been moulded by the US military into effective killing machines. Then they've been taken into circumstances where they get almost no sleep (many are hopped up on No-Doz-type substances), are living on crappy food (when they have any at all -- many days the men had one K-rations meal per day), have equipment that isn't up to speed (the universally disliked supply officer didn't bring the oil needed to keep the roof-mounted machine guns working), can't speak the language and don't have enough interpreters available, have the rules of engagement changed on them nearly every day, and--most importantly--the enemy looks (intentionally) exactly like the civilians. If that isn't the recipe for bloody disaster, I don't know what is. It's not that I condone some of the things that have happened, but I definitely understand how some of those things COULD happen.

This is a great book, though not for those who have delicate constitutions. This is the story of a group of men who are bonded together by the Marines, and who who live and die for one another. I definitely recommend it, and am looking forward to getting the HBO miniseries based on the book from Netflix.


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