By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
What about your own fear of dying or getting shot?
You go into denial. You think, I won’t get hit. That was my coping mechanism, at least. And then after the first time we were shot at really intensively, I thought, this will never happen again — because it was too incredible. Statistically, this doesn’t happen more than once in life. But then it did every day. I was in the point Humvee for the company, and often the company was on point for the battalion, and the battalion was often 20 kilometers ahead of the entire Marine force in central Iraq. So we were literally in the first Humvee invading the country, and with all the horrors of war, I was, like, I cannot leave this Humvee. I never thought that I would be invading a country, and I thought if I die doing this, it’s better than falling down a staircase in L.A.
Did you hold your shit?
Yes. I did not shit in my pants. That was a big point of pride, actually. We were all told that 25 percent [in combat] will shit themselves.
You read it here first, folks. Which raises an important point: You kept yourself out of the book for the most part.
My technique for writing any story like this — a technique, incidentally, that I honed at the L.A. Weekly — is to spend as much time with the group of people as possible, listening to them.
For me, it was an adventure story, but who gives a fuck about me — I’m not the one who joined the Marines and went off to put my life on the line for a $20,000-to-$30,000-a-year job. It’s their story.
Did they resent your being there?
When I first came in, they were giving me a hard time, and some of them wouldn’t talk to me. They all thought I was gonna leave after the first firefight. And I didn’t. Once I stayed with them after they got shot at, I think they were really just flattered that someone thought it was important enough to be with them. I think they were, like, “God, he really cares about us. Like he wants to know what we’re going through.”
Did a lot of reporters leave after experiencing combat?
I’ve heard now that some of them tried to leave. I was just talking to a Marine from a different battalion, and this reporter had a nervous breakdown, and they couldn’t get him to leave the armored vehicle. A lot of reporters were endangered. I thought I was going to freak out, and I was always amazed when I didn’t.
Was part of you geeked on the adventure aspect?
Totally. I was totally geeked out, and the weird thing is that violence and destruction is so fucking cool. That’s why war is so horrible, because people are drawn into it. The people doing the shooting, they love it, you know? They hate it too, but they love it. It’s like heroin.
Obviously, many came into this adventure one way and came out another.
Within the Marine Corps there’s a particular psychology they sort of revel in, which is: If there’s gonna be a bunch of people fucked over in battle, outnumbered and surrounded by bad guys, it’ll be us. And that’s part of their lore. So they almost are looking forward to that. But, all of that said, once the war started . . . In the book, I describe only two scenes where the guys I was with started crying, but actually that was very common. It was just impossible to not react to the things they were participating in. Like the shooting of children or, you know, any civilian. And they changed.
It is that it’s so intense. You can have a moment like we did in Baquba up north of Baghdad. We were getting shot at continually for like 30 hours, and then had this breakout moment where the clouds lifted and the Air Force and the Marine helicopters came and just bombed the fuck out of the surrounding area. And then we had to drive into this flaming village, and initially everyone was really triumphant. The ground was littered with Republican Guard uniforms. The guys that had been shooting us fled or were blown up. There were bodies everywhere. And then this little girl comes, carried out of a culvert. She wasn’t injured, but she and her family were in shock. And then everyone realized, Oh my God, we Americans just burned down their village and bombed it. Some of the Marines I was with went from literally killing people to crying — and then five minutes later they’re back in combat. They had read about the horrors of war, but they were also really sensitive to it. They didn’t lose their humanity.
Outside this town called Ar Rifa one time, we had to wait for like six hours, and we were getting all these gunshots from the town. There were only 40 of us in this immediate position, and there’s tens of thousands of people in this town 15 meters away. My impulse was: Guys, call in the artillery strike. Just level this corner of the town. There’s probably like 15,000 people who live in this corner. Level it. And if I had been in charge, I would have had that impulse. They didn’t do that. And they could have.