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."