Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War
By Evan Wright
Putnam, New York, NY, 2004, 354 pp.
Reviewed by Mark Biskeborn
As a journalist for Rolling Stone, Wright asked to join a front-line, first-in unit of the Operation Iraqi Freedom during the initial invasion of 2003. He embedded with the Second Platoon of Bravo Company, commanded by Lt. Nathaniel Fick, a 25-year-old Dartmouth graduate. Fick originally joined the Marines in a fit of enthusiastic patriotism. By the end of the invasion, his views change drastically:
“[The Marines] reminded me of gladiators. They had the mysterious quality that allows some men to strap on greaves and a breastplate and wade into the gore. I respected, admired, and emulated them, but I could never be like them. I could kill when killing was called for, and I got hooked on the rush of combat as much as any man did. But I couldn't make the conscious choice to put myself in that position again and again throughout my professional life.”
Riding with Fick’s platoon, Wright gained the hard earned trust of the Marines and this key opened doors for him to learn firsthand their daily reality in combat.
Unlike the sanitized, homogenized news reports about the war in the mainstream media, Wright’s exposure to the horror of combat leaves him with no romantic ideas. The revisionist accounts that some mainstream journalists have recently repackaged about World War II, such as Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, fall short of war’s horror.
Wright strips away whatever fantasies civilians might have about war. In the daily work of combat, no one boasts of glory. No one brags about trumped up claims for a “mission accomplished,” or any great generation. Wright tells us, "the problem with American society is we don't really understand what war is." The view Americans get "is too sanitized."
What's missing here are the voices of so many great writers of the so-called lost generation. Vonnegut, Hemingway, Sartre, and legions of others who wrote about war as a hell, not a playground for rich kids who dance in flight suits for the sake of photo ops.
Wright rode with a team of four Recon Marines in a Humvee, led by Srgt. Brad Colbert, 28, 'the Iceman.'
Like Army Rangers, these Recon units train to a level one step away from the elite Special Forces. Ahead of the main invasion force, they pushed behind enemy lines as the first in and served as "ambush bait" to draw out Iraqi forces. For this, other Marine platoons nicknamed them: "First Suicide Battalion" - a group of soldiers who blitzkrieged their way north during the first phase of the invasion.
Wright lived with these Marines and puts his reader in combat boots with them. He experienced every danger when the bullets, RPG’s, and mortars flew. However, he wasn’t a Marine, didn’t carry a gun, and didn’t have to kill.
Killing takes a central theme in the book, how the Marines deal with this ultimate taboo. Wright walks us through many scenes of cold-blooded killing. Even the toughest Marines have to deal with it; some shrug it off, some bury it or rationalize around it. But the feelings and doubts rise to the surface when it involves unarmed civilians—unfortunately, an all too common occurrence. Recent studies have found that as many as 600,000 civilians have died in the on-going occupation of Iraq, (NY Times, 10 Oct. 2007)
Americans, watching the highly spruced-up war reports on TV, might think of "collateral damage" as the occasional errant smart bomb. Unfortunately, as Wright reports, troops kill large numbers of civilians on the ground as they daily pulverize cities with artillery and fight under rules of engagement (ROEs), aimed at guerrilla tactics where the enemy wears civilian clothes.
At times, Marines in First Recon questioned and even challenged the ROEs because too many civilians were getting shot. But in order to survive, they can’t question rules or politics, because that slows down their reactions to dangerous situations. Survival supersedes propriety.
"Despite all its disparate elements, the column functions like a single machine, pulverizing anything in its path that appears to be a threat. The cogs that make up this machine are the individual teams in hundreds of vehicles, several thousand Marines scrutinizing every hut, civilian car and berm for weapons and muzzle flashes. The invasion comes down to a bunch of extremely tense young men in their late teens and twenties, with their fingers on the triggers of rifles and machine guns."
Mouthfuls of instant coffee granules and M&M’s fuel them through adrenaline rushed combat. Unlike regular grunts, the Recon units operate fast and furious, almost completely invulnerable to attack, armed with .50-calibre machine-guns and supported by Apache helicopters.
The twenty-first century Recon Marines dodge bullets (with Kevlar vests) and see in the dark (night-vision goggles/sniper sights). When in doubt, they "bomb the s##t out of it". They suffer minor injuries while killing hundreds of Iraqis. Few enemy soldiers survive their attacks and often stumble out of ruined buildings to surrender, some crying and defecating with fear.
Wright shows us that more than half of these Recon Marines grew up in broken homes, and many came from the fringes of criminal gangs. Many are "on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and internet porn than they are with their own parents", making it easier to adapt to modern war which at times, resembles another high-tech game. As 19-year-old Corporal Harold Trombley says:
“I was thinking just one thing when we drove into that ambush . . . "Grand Theft Auto: vice city." I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of the windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was f#cking cool.”
The Recon Marines, as Wright describes them, represent less the Generation X, as they do an underprivileged Generation Kill. "Popping your cherry" can equate to killing a hajji for the first time. One soldier reflects about the bomb on Hiroshima thus: "a couple dudes killed hundreds of thousands. That fu#king rules!", while another observes: