Humvee Hell


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.

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.

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.

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.

You had a rare insight into the actual, in-your-face fog of war. What was it like?

Most books about war will describe a battle and all these different moving pieces, and these guys are shooting at these guys over here. But I realized immediately after these firefights that I had no clue as to what had actually happened. The guy next to me was the first one to see the enemy; the kid over there was shooting. I had no clue what was going on. And neither did they, actually. So what I realized is that when you are in combat, you're completely in the dark. You might know a little bit about what's within six feet of you. You might kind of know what the guy next to you is doing. But around the corner, you don't know.

How does it happen that grunts can be competent but there is gross incompetence by their commanders?

I was constantly amazed at how calm the Marines were. If you can imagine being in this vehicle, you hear gunshots, machine guns and see muzzle flashes around you, and your vehicle starts getting hit with bullets. My reaction would be to panic. And they didn't panic. Their response was very measured, talking calmly -- guys were not screaming and shouting. So they're very competent.

The enlisted guys in this kind of elite unit had to really go through hell to get into it. There are enlisted guys who serve for like 10, 15 years. The officer can come in fresh out of college, the Officer Candidate School, and he's suddenly in command. But he has no experience. And it's true: Some of the officers didn't know the basics.

You get the sense that you were surrounded by idiosyncratic and iconoclastic people.

I'd been embedded with the Army in the past and then with the Marines, and the Marines actually struck me as much more competent than the Army. But the interesting paradox is that the Marines are really brainwashed when they go through training. And the Army is supposedly less brainwashed. It's harder to do stories on Army guys in general because they're much more institutionalized. They don't have a lot of -- well, if they have original thoughts, they're not eager to share them. But you could have dropped me into any group of Marines, and you would have found, like, the same level of insanity. They say that the Army sells job skills, and the Marines sell, you know, "Become a warrior." It's a fantasy. A lot of them are really big fuck-ups, and the Marine Corps is what straightened them out. But they're still, in their souls, iconoclasts.

The thing is that they're also trained to violate the ultimate taboo of society -- to kill people. As Sergeant Espera says in the book, "If we'd done this shit back in L.A., we'd all be in prison now." And I think one of the ways they both deal with it and condition themselves for it is to violate every other taboo they can think of.

And yet it's the commanders that seem callous to the killing.

The enlisted guy's psychology is to operate much more as sort of a sensitive humanitarian individual, even though he's also the one pulling the trigger and doing the hands-on killing. Commanders were much more callous about civilian deaths than the enlisted guys. They were pretty much happy with the road-block situation that we were operating under, where all these women and children and unarmed men were shot. [But] the enlisted men had this little mini-rebellion, where they're like, "No, we're gonna fire smoke grenades to warn them off." The commanders were against that because they thought it was less aggressive and the Marines were putting their own lives in danger. Of course, it's the commander's job. He's the one who sends people into battle, and he's the one that actually sees the big picture and knows, I will lose this number of people today. But in a moral sense, to be a commander you do have to be a sociopath, you know?

They're under pressure from above too, right?

The side story of the book is about the commander of First Recon, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Ferrando. He was a heartless motherfucker, and everyone hated him. He wanted to deny medical treatment to the kids they shot. It was only [after] a rebellion that the men fomented against his command that he relented and gave medical treatment. But he was one of the more successful battalion commanders in all of Iraq because the welfare of the men didn't seem like a priority. And the [missions] he sent them on were insane. I mean, sending First Recon through that first ambushed town of Al Gharraf in open Humvees . . .

In the writing of the book, I tried to understate this because I didn't want to be overly dramatic. But a lot of other commanders I talked to were, like, "That was insane." Before First Recon went through Al Gharraf, there were Marines in armored vehicles and tanks that had been stopped; they took heavy fire in this major firefight, and I believe they took some deaths. In fact, the artillery unit lost people south of that town. They actually did this thing they almost never do: They turned their guns and aimed them directly into the town because they were taking such heavy fire from it. Well, that's the same town that Ferrando was, like, "We'll just drive through and surprise them." And he said it to me like, "I thought we'd cause some problems for those motherfuckers, and we did." That was his flippant attitude. And now he's going to receive the Silver Star.

In the book, you can see the path of folly laid out, the one leading to all of the problems now. They're just shooting through towns creating chaos and then moving on.

Yes. And it turns out that's the easiest part of invading a country.

And you get the feeling that they were killing more civilians than anything else.

The problem is that they tended to see the civilian deaths more than the military deaths. The Marines probably killed dozens if not hundreds of armed Fedayeen or soldiers in the town of Al Gharraf. But we never saw the consequences because we just saw buildings falling down and flashes. They saw the civilian deaths more often because they were non-hostile situations at roadblocks.

There's also the leveling of villages with bombs. Did you see a lot of indiscriminate bombing?

The indiscriminate bombing I saw was a bomb here and there from a lone F16. Everyone thinks of indiscriminate bombing as from airplanes. It's the fucking artillery. The Marines in particular were using so much artillery that I have no idea what kind of killing we did. I tried to do little estimates with Nasiriyah. We were dropping these DPICM's [dual-purpose improved conventional munitions] with cluster munitions. One round has between 60 and 90 rounds, and 15 percent of those don't blow up until a kid picks it up later on and steps on it or plays with it because they're brightly colored. I went back and I interviewed the artillery units and asked them how many rounds they fired on the city? It turns out we dropped 10,000 of those on one little city. It's appalling.

Were there other situations where you found yourself feeling similarly appalled?

One thing I didn't get to include in the book for space reasons was a scene in the beginning when these Iraqis surrendered to the unit I was with, and then we realized there were too many. So we had to unsurrender them and let them go even though they were begging for protection. Because they said there were Fedayeen death squads hunting them down and killing them -- which everyone in the Marines, in the higher-ups, believed was true. They were carrying little leaflets saying we [the U.S. military] would protect them if they surrendered.

And we let them go. We said, "You're no longer our prisoners. Bye, good luck, have fun on the road." I did not know this at the time, but it was a Marine officer who later told me that that was a strict violation of a Geneva Convention.

I remembered [Major] General [James N.] Mattis [telling] me and other reporters before the war [that we'd] take all these surrenders, process them, treat them humanely. We didn't do that because our stripped-down military did not have the personnel to process them. We betrayed them. I'm sure that those guys, if they survived, later became insurgents. You know, we lost their trust. Some of them probably turned into criminals. The other thing I didn't report, or underreported in the book, was that we sped past mountains of munitions. Like RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], AK-47s. In Baghdad, some of the civilians were complaining to us that the price of an AK had dropped to the cost of a pack of cigarettes. I interviewed our explosive-ordinance-disposal technicians, who talked about 50,000 AKs in one hospital that we were unable to destroy. We would be digging holes and finding these Dragunovs, the best sniper rifle in the world, still sealed in their plastic bags. The Marines would just toss them out because it wasn't their job to dispose of them. All of this stuff just flooded into Iraq.

Were there repercussions for your unit after the articles were published?

When the articles came out, the Marines were severely punished for what they said to me, and one guy was kicked out of the battalion. They got into a lot of shit, and were given a new commander and a new call sign. The company had been known as "Hit Man." And they were to give it a new name. Part of it was just routine, but part of it was to erase their ugly history, as they saw it, with the Rolling Stone articles. And so they said, can you think of any new names? And according to my sources, Corporal Person, who was the driver of my Humvee, raised his hand and said, "How about �Baby Killer?'"

I was glad to see that even though they were getting punished and in trouble for all this, they didn't knuckle under. It's been my experience when I write about someone, and even though I always try to quote them accurately, they will often retract their quotes later on and say, "I didn't say that, that's bullshit." None of these guys retracted their quotes. None of them took back what they said. In the end, they're just really glad that someone was there to write about it. The thing that amazed me, though, is they all stuck by the articles.

That might be the most heroic thing they've done.

Fuck yeah. It's better than any celebrity I've written about who, you say one little thing that they find offensive, and they threaten to sue you. Oh, here's a great story: The Marines, they're getting busted down. They put their lives on the line. They're accused of cowardice for what they said in my articles. The one person who's infuriated by my articles and is threatening all these horrific things is Justin Timberlake. Because one of the Marines dissed him. And Justin Timberlake's people threatened all these horrible things because Corporal Person mocked Justin Timberlake's musical abilities in the articles. It's just a perfect comment on our culture.

You end the book after you and the Marines have come back, and some of them have returned to Iraq. Later, your old Humvee ran into some trouble in Fallujah.

Sergeant Kocher became the leader of Team One, in the point Humvee, which always rolls a little bit ahead. They reveal their positions, and then the ones behind it race in and kill the ambushers. That's the classic way it should work. So they're doing it again, and their intelligence officers say, "Expect ambushes, but there will be no more than 12 attackers." So they're rolling along, and Kocher is in the front right seat, and suddenly he sees these berms about 150 meters away on the right-hand side. He sees some movement, some weapons possibly, and he puts his M4 out the window, squeezes off three three-round bursts, and he sees the plumes of all these RPG rockets coming toward them. RPGs move very slowly, amazingly so. And he very quickly realizes that there's between 75 and 125 ambushers out there.

One of the RPGs detonates outside the Humvee and blows up the tires. But another one actually comes in behind him. In the seat where I used to always sit, there's a guy whose last name coincidentally is Wright, who's sitting there with his weapon. The RPG hits his weapon, blows up inside the Humvee. And then the guy in the main gun, his nut sack is blown open. There's another guy at the back window, he's knocked unconscious. Everybody is sprayed with these penny-size pieces of shrapnel. They're sticking out of their necks. And as Kocher later described it, the guy sitting in my seat, both his hands are blown off and most of one leg. He said it looked like a butcher shop -- meat and fingers everywhere.

Kocher tells me that they finally come to a stop, and they're taking this fire, and he turns around and the guy with no hands says, "Jeez, Eric, maybe we shouldn't have gotten out of bed this morning." And then he looks down at his stumps, which are spouting blood, and says, "Uh, I don't look so good, do I?" The humor these guys have.

So Kocher jumps into the back seat. They're now taking fire, and guys are advancing on them. And he takes bungee cords and he ties off Wright's stumps and his legs, and he also does himself because he's bleeding profusely. And then gets in the driver's seat, because the driver was in shock. And the Humvee is burning, and the radios are all smashed. And the enemy's advancing. Everybody's disabled. And he turns the Humvee off because he thought it was in the "on" position but wasn't running. But he realizes the engine had been running. So he's trying to start this Humvee, which is burning.

What happened is, the rest of the platoon, as soon as Kocher's team took fire, they drove part way into the berms, and then got out of their Humvees and advanced on the Iraqis and decimated them. But in the process of this, their new commander, Captain Brent Morel, took a bullet sideways under his armpit across both lungs. Kocher took his hand, and they poked a hole in Morel's chest because he couldn't breathe. Kocher said that Morel was 27. He was a redhead. That he was so pale, he said, even his hair seemed to turn white. And then he died.

But the weird thing is that as Kocher tells me this, he's relating the jokes that they're telling in the middle of this ambush. The guy with no hands is joking. These are guys who would tell jokes about kids with no arms and legs, you know, like those old bad jokes. But it shows me that even when they themselves land in that situation, their humor is still there.

Was the writing of this book cathartic?

Well, it's really weird, because I was never this very emotional person, but there's some stuff, like when Colbert treats this girl in Baghdad. We were outside of this insane amusement park, and this girl comes with shrapnel. I cried that day, and when I dictated the notes, I cried. And then, every time I would rework those paragraphs, I always cried. So, I think the catharsis is always there for me.

Generation Kill has such a great narrative. Did you have intentions beyond it?

My real intention with the book has always been to try to take that experience of being inside the Humvee and relating it. I've read a lot of war books, a lot of reporting, but I've read very few stories by people who were in this type of situation over and over again, of ambushes, and this leading unit. And so, when I was writing the book, some people I talked to thought I should analyze the war more. Even this one Marine was like, maybe you should tone down some of the more colorful stuff about the Marines. And my mantra for the book, every day when I was writing it, I would get up, and I'd just be like, Fuck everybody, fuck everything. I'm just gonna write exactly how it felt.

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