Last year's war in Iraq witnessed a markedly different style of warfare for the United States. Eschewing the traditional doctrine of consolidating gains before moving on, American planners relied on speed to throw the Iraqi military into confusion and advance their ultimate goal of capturing Baghdad. It was also a different style of warfare for those who fought on the ground, one that presented them with new challenges.
Evan Wright explored those challenges in a highly regarded three-part series that ran in Rolling Stone last year, expanded now into this exceptionally compelling book, "Generation Kill." Wright spent a month on the front lines with the elite First Recon Marine - nicknamed the "First Suicide Battalion" - a group of soldiers who blitzkrieged their way north during the war.
The men in this unit had one mission: to press ahead of the main advance and use themselves as bait to discover suspected ambush points. Instead of initiating combat as they had been trained, they were to wait to be attacked.
Complicating the Marines' mission were the Iraqi Army's habit of wearing civilian clothing and the presence of foreign jihadists. Frustratingly, the Iraqi military either half-heartedly attacked the Marines or unexpectedly put up fierce resistance. A farmhouse could contain a terrified family or an enemy equipped with a cellphone calling in mortar attacks. Crowds that would welcome the Americans one day might turn against them the next. As Wright notes, all of this placed incredible pressure on the Marines and innocent civilians, who sometimes paid the price of what is euphemistically called the "fog of war." To add to their problems, the soldiers began to lose confidence in some of their officers, either because they were judged incompetent or they were seen as using the unit to advance their careers.
It's remarkable that these young men, most of whom had never seen combat, were able to complete their mission as successfully as they did. The strength of "Generation Kill" - a testament to Wright's skill in getting these tough young men to open up to him - is that his book is more than war reportage; it's also an examination of the individual men in the unit.
Wright fleshes out human beings who were raised to respect the sanctity of life, yet revel in the euphoria of combat. Men who embrace the heroic values that war imposes, yet have to live with the suffering they inflict.
"The fact is, there's a definite sense of exhilaration every time there's an explosion and you're still there afterward," he writes. "There's another kind of exhilaration, too. Everyone is side by side, facing the same big fear: death. Usually, death is pushed to the fringes of the civilian world. Most people face their end pretty much alone, with a few family members if they are lucky. Here, the Marines face death together, in their youth. If anyone dies, he will do so surrounded by the very best friends he believes he will ever have."
"Generation Kill" deserves to be ranked alongside Mark Bowden's modern classic "Black Hawk Down" (1999). Wright manages to tell the story of the men of First Recon without worshiping or maligning his subjects, extremes which are all too common in recent chronicles of America's current war. We won't have the final word on the Iraq campaign for many years, but from Wright's powerful account we can gain an insight into the opening chapter as written by the men of First Recon.
• Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.