Humvee Hell 

Evan Wright talks about his two months riding with the Marines in Iraq, and his new book, Generation Kill

Thursday, Jun 17 2004
Photos by Evan Wright

There is embedded (Geraldo mugging with pistols bared) and there is embedded: Riding in the back seat of the lead Humvee of the lead platoon of the First Marines Reconnaissance Battalion — the elite Marines spearheading the assault on Iraq, nicknamed “First Suicide Battalion” — Evan Wright was embedded. Wright won a lottery and ended up in the front seat of a deadly, hyperspeed war machine, a seat other invited journalists declined to take. He often found himself in deadly battle miles ahead of any military support units, let alone cell phones, and totally reliant on the competence and composure of the handful of Marines in his Humvee. The combination of characteristics that punched Wright’s ticket to Baghdad — luck, bravery, commitment and a unique ability to seamlessly infiltrate the edgy margins of our society — are the very ones that made him the right reporter to bring back the first comprehensive, unsentimental, ground-eye view of the war.

Like Michael Herr’s Vietnam journal, Dispatches, Wright’s account of his two-month tour of duty is destined to become this generation’s essential read on our adventures in Iraq. Unlike Herr, though, Wright doesn’t give us an impressionistic view of the brutality and chaos of war, nor does he use stylistic language to reflect the cadence of the Marines. Generation Kill, based on an award-winning series of articles in Rolling Stone, provides a stark, undoctored picture of the men who formed the tip of the spear aimed at Baghdad. It is both a breakneck adventure story and a twisted morality play, one likely to leave the reader with empathy for the shooters and antipathy for the shot callers.

Among the startling events Wright witnesses is the “unsurrendering” of Iraqi prisoners (a violation of the Geneva Convention) to an unknown fate, and the consistent failure to destroy Iraqi arms and munitions that may now be in use against U.S. troops. Wright also discovered the existence of a secretive course in which Marines and other high-risk military personnel, training to withstand enemy captivity, are locked in cages, beaten and subjected to the sort of psychological torture later seen at Abu Ghraib prison — including the use of hoods and leashes.

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L.A. Weekly’s Tom Christie and Joe Donnelly caught up with longtime Weekly contributor Wright on the eve of Generation Kill’s publication for a characteristically frank discussion about our killer elite, civilian casualties, incompetent commanders and holding your shit during combat.

L.A. WEEKLY: What made you decide to put your life on the line for this story?

EVAN WRIGHT: In philosophical terms, I support the idea that a nation can go to war and defend itself through military means. I’m not a pacifist. Whether you support [the war] or not, whether or not you voted for this president, the nation was sending troops. I really thought it was important that we not just send military. The press has to go to war too. It’s our job. The military often portrays this liberal wimpy press, but in fact, in the first month of fighting, reporters died at a much higher rate than military personnel. And took much greater risks.

One of the issues is the embedding process. With the exception of the ground’s-eye view in this book, there’s been a real failure of bearing witness.

They would assign you to a unit, and let’s say they assign you to, like, a frontline unit such as the one I was in. The typical process was, the reporter would then hang out with the officers in a headquarters and support unit, which is to the rear of everybody else. And then they would sort of shoot forward and do temporary embeds with the fighting Marines or soldiers.

Do as you were told.

It was often the reporters themselves, for the reason that you still usually needed to have your satellite phone, your modem uplink and all the equipment to charge your batteries. And if you’re carrying all that stuff, they don’t want you riding in a front unit. So the media did a lot of self-censorship. The Pentagon actually gave a lot of latitude to the individual commanders. Since I was one of only two people writing for a magazine that was embedded with the entire first Marine division — which is kind of shocking — and I didn’t have a daily deadline, I did some horse-trading, and that’s why I got to go with this front team. And it’s why I was with these guys for a month and never saw any other reporters and seldom saw the officers. But the overall phenomenon of how reporters erroneously reported this war? I think that it’s because in America, television networks almost have — with Fox — branded themselves for their political bias, so that it was almost considered political if you asked a question that seemed to question the war effort itself. Although we have the image of hard-hitting, questioning-authority people, by and large reporters are the biggest bunch of kiss-asses on Earth. They gravitate toward power because power is where the information flows from. I would see these groups of reporters in Kuwait before the war started, kissing up to the officers and the guys in charge, and if the guy made an awful joke, they’d laugh at it. It was grotesque.

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