Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America,
and the New Face of American War
By Evan Wright
Putnam -- 354pp -- $24.95
THIS MAN'S ARMY
A Soldier's Story
from the Front Lines
of the War on Terrorism
By Andrew Exum
Gotham Books -- 239pp -- $25
If you have felt frustrated by the U.S. media's sanitized coverage of war, be careful what you wish for. Evan Wright's Generation Kill and Andrew Exum's This Man's Army provide raw, immediate, and at times disturbingly graphic alternatives, putting the reader smack on the front lines of combat.
Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, written by Rolling Stone contributor Wright, tells everything you ever wanted to know about the experiences of the weapon-caressing, testosterone-charged, hip-hop generation of grunts in Iraq. Exum's This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism is a personal memoir of a college-educated warrior who, as part of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Div., chased after al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Both books are intense and well-written.
As a reporter who covered the Iraq War while embedded with a unit well back from the front lines, I'm in awe of what Wright chose to endure. Traveling with the U.S. Marines of the First Recon, Wright was at the very tip of the U.S. combat spear in Iraq -- in a group charged with racing ahead of the main U.S. fighting force to find the enemy. This sometimes meant deliberately driving into suspected ambush points.
At first, for the young Marines, the real-life danger and excitement beat any video game. The soldiers seem to feel both a giddy guilt and an "uneasy exultation in having committed society's ultimate taboo" -- slaughtering other human beings. But after days of relentless fighting and mounting battle stress, the high wears off. As the Marines increasingly realize that more and more of their victims are civilians, including women and children, they begin to understand that a very thin line separates the hero from the baby-killer. Some deal with the tension by resorting to gallows humor -- one dead Iraqi whose body gets repeatedly run over by U.S. convoy vehicles is nicknamed "Tomato Man." Others channel their feelings into sudden acts of compassion, as when some bend the rules in order to medivac out a wounded 12-year-old Iraqi boy.
The strength of Generation Kill is Wright's unflinching attention to detail, even when it casts U.S. combatants in an unfavorable light. One jittery grunt comes close to bayoneting a prisoner before being stopped by fellow Marines. There are extraordinary displays of incompetence on the part of officers, as when one orders a nighttime clearing of land mines and a soldier loses half a leg. Later the lack of a common radio frequency among some units leaves Marines powerless to prevent another unit from firing on defenseless civilians. At the book's conclusion, just days after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, Baghdad has already begun to descend into chaos, prompting one platoon commander to comment that the military's impact on establishing order is "just about zero." Sadly, that observation still rings true.
While most of the grunts Wright travels with say they come from the segment of America where NASCAR racing is a kind of religion and reading books is for sissies, Andrew Exum comes off as decidedly, even self-consciously, literary. An upper-middle-class Tennessean who majored in English and classics at the University of Pennsylvania, Exum spends the first third of his book chronicling his transformation from Ivy Leaguer into alpha male trained to kill.
Although he does his best to hide his privileged upbringing from the men, in print he does nothing to mask his literary ambitions. Exum laces his prose with liberal references to the likes of Don DeLillo, Vladimir Nabokov, and Graham Greene. Indeed, he is an able storyteller, providing a compelling chronicle of the extraordinarily harsh training of the Rangers School. If the book has one flaw, it's Exum's obsession with his own physical prowess.
In March, 2002, Exum's platoon was dropped by helicopter into Afghanistan's Shah-e-Kot Valley to hunt Osama bin Laden's forces. Although he saw far less action than Wright's marines did in Iraq, he does describe shooting an al Qaeda fighter at close range. His first reaction, Exum admits, was "more amazement than horror. Actions unleashed by my hand had ended the life of this man."
It's unlikely that either of these books deserves to be shelved alongside such combat classics as Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage or Michael Herr's Vietnam account, Dispatches. But for anyone wanting to grasp the experience of the trigger-pullers in today's U.S. military, these volumes are a must.
By Frederik Balfour