The Iraq war has been good to Evan Wright. The series of articles he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine about being embedded with frontline combat troops won the 2004 National Magazine Award for reporting, beating out competitors from The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Now his book-length account of the ground assault, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War, is already in its second printing, after less than a month in stores, and is being adapted into a miniseries for HBO.
Not bad for a guy who got his start in journalism at 30 as a porn reviewer for Hustler magazine.
"It's been good," Wright says plainly by phone from his West Los Angeles home, of the response to his book. But for many of the soldiers who appear in Generation Kill, the reaction has been a little different.
Of the 23 Marines with whom Wright was embedded, at least six claim to have been disciplined for statements and actions that Wright depicts in his book, ranging from disrespectful language to descriptions of insubordination.
Reports of disciplinary actions in response to Wright's reporting were first published in The New York Times in June. While the Marine Corps acknowledges that a "full command investigation" was launched after publication of his articles, spokesman Lt. Nathan Braden categorically denies that any Marines were punished as a result of Wright's work. "No reprimands or courts-martial resulted from that investigation," he told us. Neither legal nor nonjudicial punishments were meted out, Braden added, though he declined to comment on any specific allegations of discipline by troops.
The controversy is just one byproduct of Wright's unique sort of war reporting chronicling not only the action, but also the downtime, the fear, the infighting and the soldiers who suffer through it all no matter how unflattering his portrayals may be.
"There were so many things in `the book` that I thought, when they read this, they're gonna be upset. They're going to be embarrassed," Wright says. "But they killed people over there, and when you do that, even when it's justified, I think there's some shame involved, and I can only speculate that if you do something that you're a little bit concerned about, you want people to know what happened."
There were more than 700 embedded reporters in and around Iraq at the height of the war. The embedding practice, which assigned journalists to live and report from within specific military units, was widely criticized by media watchdogs as a cynical government ploy to co-opt the free press into party-line cheerleaders. But Wright's own embedded reporting suggests that perhaps the critics were the real cynics. In his case, at least, a self-described antiwar journalist has penned an explosive and occasionally nauseating account of the Iraq invasion one that would be unthinkable without the extraordinary access allowed him by the Marines. Unlike most reporters, who traveled in rear units with officers, Wright persuaded division commanders to let him ride in a lead vehicle, a bullet-riddled Humvee at the very tip of the invasion spear. The result was that he was often at the head of the invasion forces from Kuwait to Baghdad, running ambush-baiting gauntlets through cities like Nasiriyah and al-Kut.
"I basically was with this team from several days before the invasion started until a week or so after the fall of Baghdad, and I never saw another reporter," Wright says. "And I seldom saw an officer, and I wasn't in contact with anybody."
Written in the rough argot of the Marines it profiles, and from their pinhole perspective at the chaotic head of the massive ground assault, Generation Kill allows readers to see the U.S. warrior in Iraq as he really is: brave, but sometimes bigoted and simple-minded; dignified, but also slightly depraved.
Among the numerous revelatory episodes in the book is a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention: A battalion commander declines to afford protection to surrendered enemy soldiers and orders disarmed Iraqi troops to march back to Basra, where Fedayeen death squads are believed to be executing fellow countrymen who refused to fight to the death. Later, foreshadowing Abu Ghraib prison, a platoon commander is depicted by Wright abusing a hooded prisoner of war with a bayonet.
Wright also reports widespread contempt by Marines for incompetent leadership, including troops fantasizing about the death of a commanding officer. "Every time he steps out of the vehicle," one Marine is quoted saying about the prisoner-abusing commander, "I pray he gets shot."
Then there are the sickening accounts of civilian casualties that would have certainly gone unreported had a reporter not been there to witness them. When 19-year-old Cpl. Harold Trombley, the gunner in Wright's Humvee, accidentally mows down a 12-year-old Bedouin boy with his semiautomatic weapon, we are witness to the sight of a distraught mother dragging her dying boy across the desert toward the Marines, her shawl come undone in the front, exposing her breasts, begging the teenager who shot him to save him.
"She is on her knees, praying with her head tilted up, talking nonstop, though no words come out," Wright writes. "She turns to me and continues talking, still making no sound."
Though Wright's journey to Baghdad was lined with burned and disfigured corpses, perhaps the most remarkable moments in Generation Kill depict the banter between battles. In defiance of critics of embedded reporters, Wright freely admits to falling in love with "his" Marines. It is precisely his ability to seduce them into his confidence and his determination to report their failings as well as their fearlessness that gives the book its raw, voyeuristic charge.
He details, for example, the peculiar logistics of wartime masturbation, known by the men as "combat jacks," and the camaraderie between ranks that comes from public defecation:
"Have a good dump, Sergeant?" Trombley asks.
"Excellent," Colbert `the commander of Wright's Humvee` answers. "Shit my brains out. Not too hard, not too runny."
"That sucks when it's runny and you have to wipe 50 times," Trombley says conversationally.
"I'm not talking about that." Colbert assumes his stern teacher's voice. "If it's too hard or too soft, something's not right. You might have a problem."
"It should be a little acid," Person says, offering his own medical opinion. "And maybe burn a little when it comes out."
That last line was uttered by Cpl. Josh Ray Person, 23, the driver of Wright's Humvee and the man behind many of the book's most memorable quotes. After one of the first firefights in the book, Person confides to Wright his physical reaction to combat: "Man, I pulled my trousers down and it smells like hot dick ... that sweaty hot-cock smell. I kind of smell like I just had sex."
His ex-girlfriends back home didn't appreciate that particular sentiment, Person admits by phone from Kansas City, where he currently works at a 24-Hour Fitness while trying to get a rock band together. "What can I say?" he laughs. "I'm brash."
Though he believes his quoted statements among them calling his superiors "retards" and "fucking dumbasses" resulted in his being denied his sergeant's stripes, Person says he has no regrets about his portrayal in the book.
"People have to understand that bullets are going overhead and I could die at any moment. It's not that I woke up one morning and started saying colorful things. The environment spurs a lot of it," he says. "Nothing's taboo where you're going around killing people."
Person says his family was far more impressed than bothered by the book, and credits Wright, 39, with an unusual ability to gain the young soldiers' trust.
"It all goes into the kind of person he is, the fact that he wrote for Hustler, the fact that he's not so New Yorker, not so proper," Person says. "You have to shit-talk, I guess. If you can be quick-witted and shit-talk in our groups, you're less likely to get devoured."
He thinks for a moment, then adds, "Also, he didn't seem like a pussy."
In 2002, Wright was embedded with Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan, but he had experience as an "embed" long before it became a media-relations strategy of the Pentagon.
While covering the anti-World Trade Organization riots in Seattle for Rolling Stone in 1999, Wright befriended and ended up traveling with a group of anarchists for more than a month. He's also investigated white-supremacist groups, women's boxing and the dog-mauling death of Diane Whipple.
"At Rolling Stone, they used to call me their unofficial ambassador to the underbelly," he says. "I've always written about people who are on the margins, trying to use their own voices."
Though many of the voices quoted in Generation Kill would make even Dick Cheney blush, Wright figures his use of the colloquial puts him in pretty solid company. "I've always been fascinated by vernacular culture," he says. "Dante was revolutionary because he wrote The Inferno in Florentine Italian at a time when serious people only wrote in Latin. So all of my work has been consistent in that interest."
He sees his work as a natural extension of the medieval social history he studied as an undergraduate at Vassar College and Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1980s.
"I've always approached journalism from a social history perspective," he says. "At Hustler, when they wanted you to write a profile on a porn star, the expectation was you'd write about how much she likes to suck dick, and I'd always write about who her father was and does she like to cook."
Raised in Cleveland, Wright left Vassar in 1986 to follow a girlfriend to Baltimore and completed his undergraduate studies at John Hopkins University. He says his year in the Mount Vernon neighborhood he remembers as being "half yuppie gay, half ghetto" went a long way toward toughening up the devotee of Old English verse for a future of macho journalism.
"Basically, I did a lot of serious drinking in Baltimore. I remember all these bars and restaurants with 'ery' in the name the Buttery, the Drinkery? Some Baltimore thing. I was thrown out of many," he says. "I was, in fact, a complete dire-straits type of alcoholic when I lived there. Maybe that's why I'm so fond of the place."
Baltimore in the mid-'80s was "more dangerous than Iraq," Wright jokes or maybe not. "I once got into a fight with some crackheads or junkies who were making too much noise on my stoop." Though the cops arrived before anything violent happened, Wright recalls, "They said I was an idiot for trying to kick these guys off."
After he left Baltimore, Wright taught English in Japan, moved to Hollywood to try screenwriting, and generally "couldn't get a job" for nearly 10 years. His break finally came from Larry Flynt. "I became the leading porn critic at Hustler. I gave the ‘fully erect' or ‘totally limp' ratings," he says. "That's when my whole life came together."
Wright parlayed these inauspicious beginnings into a confessional feature for LA Weekly and was soon writing similarly offbeat pieces for Salon.com, Rolling Stone, and Time magazine. Though he's now represented by powerhouse agency International Creative Management and has already sold his next book to Hyperion, Wright still chuckles with bemused wonder when describing himself as a "working writer."
Today, Wright is back in Los Angeles working on the new book he describes as "the Fast Food Nation of Christianity." Meanwhile, the 1st Recon Battalion has returned to Iraq, as have many of the troops he met over there, where fewer than 50 embedded reporters remain. In a grim reminder that the invasion of Iraq was only the start of a broader, bloodier conflict, Wright recently learned that the Humvee he rode in was ambushed in Fallujah earlier this summer.
"It was completely blown up," he says, severely damaging the right arm of Sgt. Tucker, one of the soldiers profiled in the book. "His assistant, who was sitting in my seat, had both of his hands blown off and part of his leg. The gunner had part of his testicle sac ripped open."
As for the portrayals of the Marines in Generation Kill and the fallout that followed, Wright reports that there's no bad blood. You might think Marines would carry a grudge against the journalist whose reporting may have derailed their military careers, especially after they chaperoned him to safety through ambushes by Saddam Fedayeen, gunfights with foreign jihadists and continuous mortar attacks. Instead, they threw him a party.
"My first thought," Wright recalls, "was they're going to take me to this party and they're going to kick my ass."
But a month after the first Rolling Stone article was published in June 2003, the Marines featured in it reunited in Southern California's Inland Empire and presented Wright with a group photo signed by everyone in Bravo Company 2nd Platoon. At the bottom someone had written, "To Evan Wright, from the men of Recon Battalion. May the truth set us free."