Writing the Iraq War: The Notes, Photos, and Audio for 'Generation Kill'

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The conflict officially ended a year ago. Here, journalist Evan Wright shares the materials and stories that led to one of the first and most prominent chronicles of the 2003 invasion.

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Evan Wright

In 1996, while working as chief porn critic for Hustler, Evan Wright found himself reviewing a movie called Shaving Private Ryan and thinking about the Spielberg original. "It seemed so bizarre that the World War II narrative was being appropriated by these generationally displaced guys—as if they were focusing on their fathers' war, in very misty-eyed ways, to avoid reconciling with their own," he says. In 2002 and 2003, Wright went to Afghanistan and Iraq on assignments for Rolling Stone, and came face-to-face with his generation's wars. Embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps, Wright landed a seat in the lead Humvee of the Iraq invasion—an experience that formed the basis of theNational Magazine Award-winning story "The Killer Elite" and his best-selling 2004 book Generation Kill, later adapted into an HBO series.

This month marks the first anniversary since the official end of the Iraq war, and it's only recently that the conflict has been the focus of serious literary and creative efforts in the U.S. Two of this year's five finalists for the National Book Award for Fiction were novels about the war. As the Iraq narrative begins to take shape through the stories of its veterans and eyewitness reporters, Generation Kill offers a unique perspective by tightly focusing on the 2003 invasion. Although it ends with the successful seizure of Baghdad, the book hints at the unraveling that would, in part, prolong the war until its official ending one year ago today.

Below are the photographs and audio recordings Wright took over his two-month long assignment, the notes that became one of Generation Kill's most striking scenes, and his reflections on the life and process of an embedded war reporter.


From Generation Kill:

She looks to be about three, the same age as his daughter at home in California. There's a small amount of blood on the upholstery, but the girl's eyes are open. She seems to be cowering. Graves reaches in to pick her up—thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her, he later says—when the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out. When Graves steps back, he nearly falls over when his boot slips in the girl's brains. It takes a full minute before Graves can actually talk. The situation is one he can only describe in elemental terms. "I could see her throat from the top of her skull," he says.
_I helped shoot that little girl._.jpg
Graves, _I could see down her throat._.jpg
Jeschke, _Am I a bad person for feeling nothing__.jpg
Jeschke, _He told us there was a little girl in there._.png
Jeschke, _Hold my weapon for a day and see what jokes you tell._.jpg

The incident with the little girl occurred after dark. At the time I had no idea how horrific her death had been. I was about 200 meters away from where she was killed, but I took note of hearing shots and the squealing of tires. That night was a smorgasbord of death and mayhem. She was probably one of 10 people killed around our roadblock.

Three or four days later we consolidated with another platoon and Sgt. Charles Graves gave me the description that I used in Generation Kill. I also spoke with Sgt. Ryan Jeschke, who was with Graves that night. He kept repeating, "Am I a bad person for feeling nothing?" I wrote the book in the present tense and it was important to me to stay in the moment of the emotional state of the guys I interviewed. Graves and Jeschke were still quite numb; whereas, a month later, I was interviewing another marine and suddenly he starts crying and says, "I helped shoot that little girl." This guy had been holding an M16. He was at a roadblock with 20 other men. If 200 rounds were fired into the car, he might have been responsible for two of them. It seemed to me he was expressing a sort of collective guilt. For this reason I left him out of the scene.

I think I was one of the only reporters who took notes exclusively by hand. I kept a minute-by-minute log of my observations and conducted interviews with the men in my unit. What made my journalism so lucky was that I could match my initial notes with their accounts. I'd approach an artillery guy and say, "Hey, on March 25, I was here at noon and saw a bunch of rounds blow shit up," and he'd refer to his notebook and say, "Yeah, we had a call from 1st Recon at 12:08 and sent 10 HE rounds and 12 DPICMs to these coordinates."

By balancing my observations with the marines' perspectives, events came together through different POVs, in Rashomon form. One night we were taking fire from a ZEUS gun. Everyone thought the fire was coming from this one location, but Sgt. Eric Kocher completely disagreed. It's a historiography question: If a car accident happens outside our window, witnesses will say different things. I thought it was fascinating that the most skilled observers in the Marine Corps couldn't agree on the direction of enemy fire, and then disagreed about the effects of our response to that fire—the Cobra lit up a truck with completely different people in it.

It's the unresolved moral confusion that lingers. One of the marines called me the other day and said, "I did all of these things my soul recoils from, but going to war was the best thing I've ever done." Killing, being able to murder—it's empowering. Maybe that marine who broke down over the little girl cried because shooting his M16 at a car full of civilians is the best thing he's ever done.

I want to show the world as it is, not as it ought to be. It hit me while writing the book how monstrous it was to feel so little remorse. Sometimes I wanted to grab the radio, call in an airstrike, and level an entire fucking village just to stop one sniper from shooting at me. I realized in war that zombie movies are sort of true: There's civilian life and then the zombies come out and everyone is eating each other's flesh—that's what we do to each other. The military guys used to say, "We went to war and America went to the mall," and they're right: You have no idea what humans are capable of doing when you live on the peaceful side of things.

I was supposed to embed with the well-known journalist Hampton Sides. I still had a chip on my shoulder from being "the Hustler guy," I was worried he'd file stories before me so I told him horror stories about my grandfather being gassed in World War I. I'd say stuff like, "Do your kids know you're here?" "Do you have insurance?" "What will happen if you die?" The night before we embedded he pulled me aside and said, "I feel a lot of anxiety." "Hampton," I said, "you have an obligation to your family," and it worked. I got rid of him.

My photographer bailed last minute too. The Leica M6 I brought had a broken light meter so I got some crappy digital camera in Bahrain. I also found a bulletproof vest on eBay for $900. It was Vietnam-era and I had to duct-tape it together across my body. Later I found out that sweat and time degrade Kevlar's efficacy so, basically, I brought with me a worthless piece of shit.

As enemy fires too many mortars, 40 vehicles in single file must turn around, and Sgt. Brad Colbert calms Cpl. Ray Person down:

As an F18 comes in to try to hit mortar positions, Cpls. Ray Person and Walt Hasser compose a song:

During an April 9, 2003 ambush, Sgt. Brad Colbert cautions Cpl. Walt Hasser, the grenade gun operator, not to fire on a village:

Reporters always ask, "How do you get people to talk?" The answer is time: Get in a car and take a long road trip with your subject. It's weird how people just open up in cars. I was lucky—I got into a Humvee with four marines and drove with them miles and miles across Iraq.

At one point Gen. Matthis said, "Evan, you're the only reporter left." By then I had amassed several thousand pages of notes, 50 rolls of films, and 48 hours of audio. The thought of leaving these men, the intensity of war, made me depressed. I remember Sgt. Antonio Espera said, "Are you serious, dog? The shit we've been through, the people we are—a fucking idiot could write this down and it would be a great book."

The book ends in victory, but there are hints of the complete unraveling to come: the Syrian Jihadists that ambushed us, the guy who tells me an AK-47 costs as much as a pack of cigarettes. When I was pitching the book proposal in 2003, one publisher said, "It won't sell. The war will be over by the time the book comes out," and I was thinking dude, this war is so fucked.

When Generation Kill came out, Cpl. Joshua Person paid me the highest compliment: "All the stuff that happened, I remember it differently. Then I read your book, and I realized my memory was off. But you got it right. It's as if our memory rewrites things, but because you were there, writing this down as it happened, you get closer to how it really was."

We have a narrative of the war—a little Abu Ghraib, a little Rumsfeld, a little Haditha, and some guy who loves his mom and apple pie caught in the middle—but that's not the whole story. I think vets coming back will defy cultural expectations.

I'm convinced the 2003 invasion was the crucible for a lot of these guys—they kept going back. Jeschke—the guy who had expressed indifference at seeing the dead little girl—returned to help the Afghans "nation build" because, and this is the irony, he wasn't indifferent at all. Four months ago, Jeschke was shot in the back and killed by an Afghan policeman. Maybe his story is the one we should be waiting to hear.

–Evan Wright as told to Leily Kleinbard

Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Natasha Trethewey, Stephen King, Christo, and others.

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Leily Kleinbard is associate editor for PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers.

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