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Ninebelow
ninebelow
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February 2013
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Phase Four: Generation Kill by Evan Wright

One reason the Hopkins study did not generate sustained outrage is that the researchers did not explain how the occupation had managed to kill so many people so quickly -- about 1,000 each week in the first 14 months of the war. This may reflect our sense that carnage at such elevated levels requires a series of barbaric acts of mass slaughter and/or huge battles that would account for staggering numbers of Iraqis killed. With the exception of the battle of Falluja, these sorts of high-profile events have simply not occurred in Iraq. But the Iraq war is a twenty-first century war and so the miracle of modern weaponry allows the U.S. military to kill scores of Iraqis (and wound many more) during a routine day's work, made up of small skirmishes triggered by roadside bombs, sniper attacks, and American foot patrols.

A Formula For Slaughter by Michael Schwartz (Mother Jones, January 2006)
I finished Generation Kill, Evan Wright’s chronicle of the 2002 invasion of Iraq from the perspective of the US Marine Corps’ First Recon Battalion which spearheaded the campaign, last night. In typical farcical military style First Recon are selected for this task in a rather arbitrary fashion ahead of other outfits who are specifically tasked with carrying out this sort of operation. This means they don’t have enough of the type of vehicles they will need and most of the battalion’s drivers don’t actually hold licenses for, or indeed have ever driven, the vehicles that are scrounged for them. It is a foreshadowing of the chaotic and pointless nature of the warfare that will dominate the book.

As it happens First Recon is also the outfit Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead, served with in the original Gulf War. Swofford is a far better writer than Wright, despite the fact he was a grunt rather than a journalist. This makes the front cover comparison to Michael Herr even more laughable. Wright’s problems can be summed up by this early passage:
Enlisted Marines – that is, those who are not officers – function within a complex web of hierarchy. Privates answer to corporals, and corporals to sergeants. Above sergeants there are staff sergeants, gunnery sergeants, first sergeants, master gunnery sergeants and sergeant majors. Above them all are the officers.
It is slightly clumsy, uses the wrong word (a straightforward linear hierarchy isn’t a “web”) and goes into too much detail since this is essential all preamble for the point he makes in the next paragraph. Additionally this book was originally published as a series of articles in Rolling Stone and no-one seems to have given the book the thorough editing it needs when it was collated. Stupid repetitions abound.

Still the one great advantage a journalist has over a novelist is that real people – even idiots and the unimaginative – tend to resist cliché. When they are unguarded people tend to be quite interesting which is why reality TV is so popular. Wright is blessed with a great cast of characters who are not only unguarded but in a rare and stressful situation. They are also touchingly self-aware. For example, armies are generally seen to be quite homoerotic and First Recon embrace this:
”It doesn’t mean you’re gay if you think Rudy’s hot. He’s just so beautiful,” Person explains. “We all think he’s hot.”
The interaction between the marines is what drives the book and often it pretty much writes itself, requiring Wright simply to record their words. Unfortunately the book isn’t just a documentary account of a group of interesting men, it is first person testimony of an ill-conceived war. What Generation Kill makes clear is that there is absolutely no way to fight a just war of intervention. Others suggest that it is simply the way in which the Coalition (which is overwhelmingly to say the US) fought the war that is the problem:
The most striking feature of the US Army’s approach during this period... is that universally those consulted for this paper who were not from the US considered that the Army was too ‘kinetic’. This is shorthand for saying US Army personnel were too inclined to consider offensive operations and destruction of the insurgent as the key to a given situation, and conversely failed to understand its downside.

'Changing The Army For Counter-Insurgency Operations' by Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster (Military Review, December 2005)*
It can quite easily be argued that the US had no intention of fighting a war of humanitarian intervention in Iraq but even if they had it is hard to see how it could have been achieved. One example of what Aylwin-Foster talks about is the fact that the Rules Of Engagement that are in operation in the book are shockingly lax. However, even though many soldiers apply stricter standards than their official limits but even those who apply the most exacting standards eventually come up against the twin problems of completing their mission and self-preservation. In one hamlet individual soldiers take painstaking care to ascertain whether an armed Iraqi is an insurgent or merely a farmer, the next hamlet is completely flattened by a bombing strike they call in. One marine sees a man, thinks he poses no threat and drives by, the next marine sees the same man and thinks he is armed and shoots him. If one man starts shooting, everyone starts shooting. Under heavy fire anyone holding anything that looks like a radio is a forward observer for a mortar team and is therefore a valid target. There are no translators which makes every roadblock a case of Russian roulette. Although these initially all seem like individual decisions – and there are clear instances of good and bad decisions – the overall impression is of individual marines as cogs in a gigantic machine whose only purpose is to destroy and that cannot be bent from this purpose.

In the book friendly fire is routine: First Recon are shot at by their own battalion, are shelled by their own artillery, are strafed by the US Air Force. If an army cannot protect itself from collateral damage then the civilian population has no chance. It is possible that there may be a case to be made for interventionist warfare on humanitarian grounds. I don’t see how this case can start to be made unless one proceeds from the position that a civilian life is more valuable than a soldier’s life. Since this is politically entirely untenable I don’t see that any such war in the foreseeable future can be justified.

(As it happens, almost immediately after finishing Generation Kill I read Hugh Thompson's obituary in the paper. Think on.)

* If you don’t want to read the whole PDF, here’s a Guardian article.

Comments

I don’t see how this case can start to be made unless one proceeds from the position that a civilian life is more valuable than a soldier’s life. Since this is politically entirely untenable

Do you mean politically untenable in context of American politics, or jsut politically untenable?

Also, a few sentences in this post need tidying up. Happens to me all the time as I change the structure of the sentence halfway through writing it and don't re-read it again, but I still find it strange as I'm not used to seeing that on your blog. :)

Do you mean politically untenable in context of American politics, or jsut politically untenable?

In any country, I think. I don't think any electorate is prepared to raise the safety of "foreigners" above that of its own citizens.

Also, a few sentences in this post need tidying up.

Hopefully it is cleaned up a bit now. I add HTML as I go which makes proofing a little confusing.

From that Guardian article

"the US army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent kind".

I think this is a model that has been accepted uncritically world-wide. But warfare interests me, because I think this approach defeats itself.

I think different film traditions spread different models of what wins a war. The British b/w films of the 2nd WW propagated an ideal of pluck, endurance, and turning defeat around. Modern American films propagate an ideal of superior firepower, technology, revenge, remorselessness (I was watching Terminator last night).

But it is interesting to see the new type of war films coming out of America nowadays. They still have the old kind, and then there are new ones like Three Kings which emphasise the chaotic experience of war, the importance of interaction with humans, the importance of information. Some of the good Vietnam films go that way.

I wonder whether this new model will sink through to the American army, and to other people making war.

”It doesn’t mean you’re gay if you think Rudy’s hot. He’s just so beautiful,” Person explains. “We all think he’s hot.”

Lovely.

(Anonymous)
Even Wright

Even Wright is a loser and a piece of shit