In the spring of 2003, the United States Marines led the invasion of Iraq. At the point of the spear was the First Reconnaissance Battalion out of Camp Pendleton. The platoons of "First Recon" rotated occupying the point position at the head of the column where the likelihood of being attacked is highest. When the five Humvees of Bravo Second Platoon drove point, in the lead vehicle, in the rear right seat, sat Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright. "I remember, when we finished," Wright recalled during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home, "Lieutenant Fick, who was the platoon commander, told me, 'The only way you could have gotten closer in this invasion was to move from the back seat to the front seat.' He said, 'Only one person was in front of you in this invasion.' "
Wright, who later expanded the articles he wrote on the experience into a recently released book titled Generation Kill, talked his way into that right rear seat after he objected to being assigned a safer situation. "When I started," he said, "the original plan was for me to embed with the headquarters and support company, and they ride in the rear, and I was going to hang out with officers and stuff. I realized quickly that was bullshit. I knew I wouldn't get a good story. So then I sort of finagled my way out of it. And finally I met this one platoon, and they told me, 'We have an extra space,' and I said, 'Cool,' and they said, 'We have one Humvee which has some armor on it.' See, of the five Humvees, four of them were completely open, they didn't have roofs or doors, some didn't have windshields, and they were just like these platforms. Mine had a roof, and it did have this very thin armor on the doors. I think it was, like, a 16th of an inch thick, and it would stop a nine-millimeter round. It sometimes stopped AK rounds. But anything a little bit larger, or a close-up AK, they went right through it. But the funny thing is, when they said, 'We are putting you in our one armored Humvee,' I thought, 'Oh, I guess that is because I am the reporter.' Only in retrospect did I figure out that it was armored because it was the point Humvee for the platoon."
Wright's reception from the platoon was a bit cool at first, he said, "but not hostile. I was an unknown quantity. It was clear they were in the military and I was the only civilian."
Asked how he won them over, Wright answered, "There were three things. First, the way I handled their sort of subtle -- it wasn't hazing, really, but they were a little bit hostile, making jokes. But I put up with the very mild hazing. Second, I used to work for Hustler magazine, so that clearly won them over, because saying you worked for Hustler is like Kryptonite. They can't resist. Third, as soon as they started getting shot at, I didn't try to leave the Humvee or anything, and I stayed with them the whole time. So once you get shot at together with people, it's a shared experience.
"Oh, and the other one," Wright added, "is I had done a Rolling Stone story on Shakira, and a couple of the Marines thought she was really hot."
Wright admitted that he "really grew to like" the young Marines with whom he was situated. Asked how they won him over, he answered, "It's almost too cute to put it that way. We were in life-and-death situations together. I am always careful about that, because I grew to really like them. But I think, as a reporter, I am really merciless. I like people all the time, but that doesn't stop me from writing things that are bad or negative or incriminating. Whether I like someone or not is almost immaterial to my job, and the reason that I point that out is that a lot of my friends, they thought the embedded reporters were all co-opted by the military, and I don't think I was. And certainly the fact that, because of my stories, many of the Marines got into trouble is proof that I didn't write a puff piece on them."
Two Camp Pendleton-based Marine sergeants, Tony Espera and Eric Kocher, were disciplined following the publication of Wright's Rolling Stone articles; Espera was removed from the battalion for comments he made regarding the "manifest destiny" of the white man, and Kocher was reprimanded for actions such as running into a minefield to save a fellow Marine.
"When they really won me over," Wright added, "wasn't so much when I was in the process of writing them. What really wowed me was after I printed these Rolling Stone articles, and they were very raw. I mean, I wrote about guys by name shooting civilians. I wrote about them using the foulest language, bathroom humor, and things that you might make jokes about, but you wouldn't want your mom to read them, and their moms did read them. I put them through all of this, then some of them got threatened [with disciplinary action], and one guy gets kicked out of the battalion. So here I am writing this really raw, gritty portrayal of them, which got them into trouble, and when I see them, the first time after when they came out, they were, like, 'That was great what you wrote,' and I asked them, 'You got into trouble; aren't you mad?' and they said, 'No, no, no, we want people to know the truth,' and they actually presented me with this photograph of the platoon taken outside of Baghdad, which said, 'May the Truth Set Us Free.' "
The Marines' reaction, Wright found, "was totally refreshing, because it was great to be with people who spoke their minds and then had the courage to stand by it. In my experience that is really unusual."
In addition to an admiration for the individual men with whom he went through combat, Wright also gained respect for Marine culture in general. "I had been embedded a year earlier in Afghanistan," he explained, "with a unit of the 181st Airborne Division, which is sort of an elite unit within the Army, roughly comparable to First Recon, who are elite within the Marines. There is such a world of difference between Marines and Army personnel. Marines tend to be very opinionated, outspoken. This is all my anecdotal experience, but they tend to have funny senses of humor. Really, when I was embedded with the Army, I was with these guys in the Army for weeks, and it was hard to draw people out. You never have to worry about drawing out a Marine. Marines will start talking and saying crazy stuff."
Wright believes the cultural difference he experienced in the two branches of the Armed Services can be seen in their television advertising. "The Marine Corps doesn't sell recruits on college education," he said. "They sell them on becoming a warrior. Even in the 'Army of One' ads, you will notice that they always focus on Army technology, like cool tanks and helicopters. The quintessential Marine ad is the one where a young guy fights a dragon, and as he sheathes his sword, he morphs into a Marine in dress blues. In the Marine Corps, they really sort of sell you on the fantasy: 'You will improve yourself and become the ultimate warrior.' So I think you get a different type of person. People in the Army tend to be much more sort of institutionalized in their outlook. The paradox is the Marine Corps in their training initially brainwashes recruits much more heavily than the Army does. But in the end, I think individual Marines tend to absorb that brainwashing but then reemerge as very sort of individualistic characters."
As a consequence of that, Wright said, most Marines he came into contact with in Iraq and in subsequent visits to Oceanside want to be where the fighting is. Sergeant Kocher, for example, despite having a wife here and despite his arm being severely wounded when his Humvee exploded, is itching to get back to Iraq. For four days in June, Wright went to Oceanside to visit Kocher, Espera, and other Marines he spent time with in Iraq. His take on wartime Oceanside: "It is a company town. I felt like I was in a company town, and business was booming. Because all the Marines you talk to, they are really excited because they are getting deployments. I mean, Marines are really sort of schizophrenic about this. On the one hand, they always complain about being sent away for six months on floats, as they call them. But at the same time, there is a war going on, and a lot of them joined because they actually wanted to go to war. So they are very excited about that. And the other interesting thing is, the Marines who are getting out, a lot of them are getting these insanely lucrative job offers to work [in Iraq] for private security companies. When I was in Oceanside, we went to the Semper Fit gym on Camp Pendleton, and people were really excited about business. We went out to dinner to Applebees and some other restaurants, and everybody in these restaurants was a Marine. And a lot of people were talking about the deployments they are going on, the deployments they have been on, or about their buddies who got out of the Corps and now work for private security companies and how they are making, like, six-figure incomes. Some guys in the unit that I wrote about have gotten out, and they are making, like, $120,000 going back to Iraq and guarding hotels and stuff like that."
Wright added, "As a writer you are always thinking of stories you are going to do, even if you end up not doing them. Well, while I was there, I had this story in my mind, 'Oceanside: Business Is Booming.' "
Next week: An excerpt from Generation Kill.