Natural-born killers will not win hearts and minds

By Charles Clover

Financial Times

Published: June 25 2004 21:14

One of the more jarring memories from my experience covering the war in Iraq as a reporter "embedded" with US troops was of a young American soldier after a firefight in the streets of Najaf. During a shootout with a sniper, a blue Fiat raced into the the street, trying to escape. The soldier fired 15 rounds from his SAW (squad automatic weapon), killing the driver, who we found out was an unarmed university professor. An hour later, I heard the soldier complaining that his weapon had jammed, preventing him firing off more rounds. Meanwhile, fellow soldiers clustered around him, congratulating him on "busting his cherry" - making his first killing. It was not clear at the time i f he knew who he had killed and if it mattered.

I have always had difficulty understanding how someone like this, an American teenager who probably grew up in some suburb, like me, could have this attitude toward taking a life. I saw plenty more like him.

This group of young, violent Americans is the subject of one of the best books to come out of the Iraq war: Generation Kill by Evan Wright, who covered the war for Rolling Stone magazine as an embedded reporter with a US Marine reconnaissance battalion. One does not know quite how to categorise Generation Kill. It is not anti-war in its exposition, but the s um total of Wright's observations lead to a harsh indictment of US conduct in Iraq. Like the generation it observes, the book has no moral compass, it is simply a grim ledger of conversations, deeds and misdeeds - all recorded in an adrenaline rush of intelligent prose.

The title says it all: this is a book about the contemporaries of the Columbine high school massacre in Colorado, blitzing their way across Iraq to spearhead the US campaign last year. They "represent what is more or less America's first generation of disposable children", says Wright, who estimates that half his platoon are from absentee, single-parent homes: "Many are on more intimate terms with the culture of video games, reality TV shows and internet porn than they are with their own families."

The core of Generation Kill questions the dark intersection of war-making and this generation's obsession with violence - how the largely virtual world of America's teens seamlessly transposes itself onto the battlefield. Early on , Wright records one of the soldiers enthusing "I was just thinking one thing when we drove into that ambush . . . Grand Theft Auto: Vice City", referring to a popular computer game. "I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of the windows, and the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool."

This generation will play a decisive role in America's open-ended war on terror - for better or for worse. As Wright observes, the soldiers are so cynical they need no reason to do their grim jobs. Unlike the Vietnam generation for whom the war represented a loss of innocence, the Iraq generation has no innocence to lose, they are a generation "for whom the big lie is as central to government as taxation", according to Wright, and are perfectly happy to contemplate that the war is entirely a grab for oil.

From my perch covering the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two years, I have seen this group of socially maladjusted, heavily armed youths become America's main international liability. Violent youth subculture in the US has long been a curiousity abroad, but it has now been driven to unprecedented levels of contact with an ancient civilisation which it does not understand, and which does not understand it. The result is grisly and tragic, and ultimately self-defeating for the US and its allies. More than anything, the decisive shift in Iraqi public opinion against the occupation in recent months has come about due to contact between Iraqis and these young men and women.

Rather than winning hearts and minds abroad, America's military has become the most acute source of anti-American rage. It neatly symbolises the US national priority of producing missiles and aircraft carriers at the expense of education highlights the income inequality that has made mercenaries out of the poor.

The 374 men of the First Marine Recon battalion, in which Wright was embedded, epitomise the violent youth subculture. "We've been brainwashed a nd trained for combat. We must say 'Kill!' 3,000 times a day in boot camp. That's why it's so easy", a soldier tells Wright.

Nathaniel Fick, a 25-year-old lieutenant and platoon leader, also explains the point. "In World War Two, when Marines hit the beaches, a surprisingly high percentage of them didn't fire their weapons . . . Not these guys . . . These guys have no problem with killing."

Amid the bravado, however, there are powerful moments of remorse. One sergeant who mistakenly orders his turret-gunner to shoot a civilian house has to confront the consequence: a critically injured 12-year-old boy and a sobbing mother. "A pilot doesn't have to go down and look at the civilians his bombs have hit. Artillery men don't see the effects of what they do. But guys on the ground do. This is killing me inside," admits the sergeant.

But, observes Wright, this was not the first time innocent lives were taken, only the first time anyone got caught at it: "This only happened because this time, the battalion stopped moving long enough for the innocent victims to catch up with it."

'Generation Kill' is published by Bantam Press in the UK and by G.P. Putnam's Sons in the US

The writer, an FT editor, was the FT's Iraq correspondent in 2003-04