Monday, June 16, 2008

Comments on Generation Kill

In Evan Wright’s book, Generation Kill, Major Michael Shoup is the sometimes quoted Forward Air Controller who left the Pentagon and was assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, during the campaign. These are his views on the Marines of 1st Recon, the events of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the book, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components.


History is never above the melee. It is not allowed to be neutral, but forced to enlist in every army.
- Allan Nevins, The Gateway to History1

The first one to the chalkboard wins the engagement.
– Fighter pilot maxim

A reporter's motto is ‘charm and betray.’
- Evan Wright2

Personal background

The reader will please forgive an opening salvo of military jargon to explain who I am: I am an FA-18D Hornet Weapons and Sensors Officer, also known as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) or ‘backseater.’ I have 2000 hours of flight time in FA-18D Hornets and A-6E Intruders. I am a Weapons and Tactics Instructor and a TopGun graduate. In 1996, I did a Forward Air Controller (FAC) tour with 2d Battalion, 8th Marines, as the battalion Air Officer (the Air Officer is the senior FAC). FACs are aviators trained to call in air strikes and helicopter support for infantry units.
The FA-18D Hornet is a multi-mission jet that does both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. In particular, we are good at coordinating and directing air strikes and artillery support for infantry units. We work closely with the battalion FACs and ground commanders. In 1999, I saw combat during Operation Allied Force in the Balkans. Operation Iraqi Freedom was not the first time I was shot at, but it was the first time I was shot at on the ground.
At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was a Major with 14 years in the Marine Corps on a Pentagon staff tour. Major General Mattis, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, wanted to make the division “the most air-centric division in Marine Corps history.” He needed extra FACs to do so. So I went. I am not a recon Marine. I could not hang with them on a ruck run or an ocean swim, but I spent some time with them during OIF.

General Comments

I met Evan Wright before the war started. He was pleasant and engaging, and was surprised I had read his previous Rolling Stone article from when he was imbedded with an Army platoon in Afghanistan. We spoke several times during the campaign. After the campaign was over, the division withdrew to Ad Diwaniyah to begin its return to Kuwait. I spent about three hours with Evan talking through the war. I kept a notebook/diary that had notes from close air support missions (air strikes), as well as a day to day account of our travels. In retrospect, I was naïve. In one case, I spoke for another person when I should not have done so. That being said, I was happy to help Evan fill in events, and offer a broader perspective on battalion and division operations.

One of the most important things to realize as you read the book is the battalion was being used in a non-traditional role. Normally, recon Marines infiltrate small teams to observe, perhaps call in air strikes or artillery fire, and exfiltrate, all without being detected. The terrain of Iraq makes clandestine ops very difficult (see books like Bravo Two Zero from Desert Storm.) Recon gets paid not to closely engage the enemy. The infantry gets paid to close with and destroy the enemy. The reader should know that recon Marines are drawn from the infantry. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, 1st Recon Battalion was used more like cavalry, mounted up in HMMWVs with heavy machine guns. Some Marines adjusted their thinking to this new role and some did not. The battalion had to adjust its equipment, personnel, and tactics to act as a maneuver unit. I rotated between different companies in the battalion, depending on the scheme of maneuver and tasking. I spent time with Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie Companies, and the Headquarters and Service (H&S) Company, during the campaign. I did not ride with our attached reserve unit, Delta Company, 4th Recon Battalion, at any time. I believe my time spent with the different companies gives me a better ability to comment on Bravo Company specifically, as well as the personalities at play in the book. The battalion had a permanent air officer, who also called in close air support during the campaign.

Three Events

I decided to write in detail about three events described in the book to illustrate the differences I have with Evan:

Al Gharraf (p134)
As the truck rounded the corner, I saw a man in a brown tunic-type uniform. It was the same uniform I saw on a dead RPG gunner north of An Nasariyah. He was standing in the entrance of a courtyard. (Almost all houses in Iraq have a wall around the property line with a metal gate.) He was smiling and standing with one arm behind the gate, as if he were hiding something. I thought it odd that he was standing there in plain sight in the middle of a gun battle. He was on the left side of the road, and I was sitting on the right side of the truck. Had he been on my side of the truck I would have shot him as I recognized the uniform and he was clearly holding something behind a gate in the middle of a firefight. He was not an innocent bystander. I never told Evan I saw anyone shoot the man. We were past him in a few seconds and I did not look back.
I talked about the Al Garraf firefight with the officer Evan mentions. At the time, I came away from the conversation thinking he saw the same man when his HMMWV came by and shot him. I relayed that impression to Evan. After Generation Kill was published, the officer and I discussed this passage and he said I was wrong. He said he did not fire his weapon in Al Gharraf and had no recollection of the man in question. I believe him and attribute the error to my own memory. Although I made an error, Evan embellishes the event to say I saw the man killed, and uses a double negative to infer it was not justified.

Airstrike (p232)
In the fifth paragraph, Evan states we do not all see the same things in a firefight. Indeed, the battalion column of vehicles could stretch over a mile, allowing for very different understandings of the situation. For example, in several firefights, one end of the battalion would be shot up, while the other end would receive little fire. Allowing for these differences, I believe Evan talks up mortar fire in one situation (p200) and negates it in another (p232.)
That morning started very hazy and we received more harassing mortar fire. We used several sections of aircraft searching for mortar positions. As the morning progressed the haze cleared. I recall several mortar airbursts a few hundred yards to the west of my position. It was not ‘quiet’ as Evan describes. The aircrew I was talking to said they spotted a mortar position. I believe that they did. About 2000 meters to the south, there were two buildings formed in an L-shape. One or two trucks parked next to the buildings completed a horseshoe with the open end away from us. The aircrew reported a mortar position in the open space in the center of the buildings, and saw puffs from the mortar tubes. I also believe Corporal Stinetorf that there were civilians there. I did not know Marines had spotted women and children in the cluster of buildings. At the same time the position was across a canal, and I did not, nor do I now, believe other reasonable options were available.
I find the way Evan pairs a description of officer’s ‘smoking cigars and laughing’ next to Corporal Stinetorf’s remarks, and parses conversations for effect, deeply offensive. No one celebrates civilian casualties. At the time of the strike, they did not know civilians had been spotted either.
In the book, when Sgt Colbert’s Marines were engaged, Evan describes mortar shells coming in like rain; while in this situation, there were supposedly none. There was the same sporadic mortar fire. We were taking incoming. The FA-18 FAC(A) saw mortars and I cleared them to engage. Evan chooses to portray a “Marines kill indiscriminately” theme and it is wrong.

Al Muwaffaquiyah (p247)
I was attached to Bravo Company and riding in the company commander’s HMMWV on this day. (Sometime after Qalat Sikar I stopped riding with H&S Company and began riding with the lead company in the battalion column.) In the first push up to the bridge, we arranged for AH-1W Cobras to cover us as we drove into Al Muf. They spotted the Syrians in the trees. As I recall, they shot some 2.75” rockets (which are notoriously inaccurate), but then had problems with their TOW missiles and guns, and went back to the refueling and rearming point to get fixed. Again, it was an overcast, extremely dark night with no cultural illumination.
On the second push up to the bridge, we cleared the obstacles and began to cross over. The bridge had steel deck plates. One of the plates had dislodged and fallen into the river - it was not damaged by artillery fire. I felt nervous on the bridge after the HMMWV trailer got stuck. It was very exposed, and a Light Armored Reconnaissance company (LAV-25s) had a heck of a firefight in Al Muf the previous day.
Suffice to say I did not order the Captain to ‘give me your radios’, nor was I ever ‘effectively in command’ of Bravo Company at any time. I could see the company commander needed to get free of the radios (which were bolted down inside the HMMWV.) I offered to be the radio operator while he attended to an intractable problem. In regular infantry battalions, the platoon and company commanders have radio operators who carry the radios, follow them around, and relay messages so the commander can focus on commanding his platoon or company. Recon battalion did not have enough dedicated radio operators – the officers manned their own radios.
When I expressed my anxiety over the battalion net to Major Whitmer, the battalion operations officer, he reassured me that we had M1A1 Abrams tanks on the riverbank covering our position, and they were mighty handy in a firefight. Enough said.

So what?
If I can attest that in three occasions Evan embellished, or misrepresented, events as I related them, the reader can fairly question how many other events in the book are exaggerated or distorted. Evan told me he writes to portray the “gritty, Lance Corporal view of war.” His writing has impact, and evokes a sensory, visceral response. A good war book has to have bloody combat and all those stereotypical characters we see in war movies. He provides them, but at significant cost to accuracy.
In entertaining us with the acerbic, irreverent, and not always well-informed commentary of a few Marines, Evan also limits the reader’s perspective. There was a whole lot more of the war going on all around him, and Evan did not temper the emotional outbursts of those young Marines with perspectives from around the battalion that may give the reader a more complete picture of 1st Recon Battalion. Read and enjoy, but do not think you are reading a complete story.

Page by Page

What follows here is a page by page commentary on the book. It is by no means exhaustive. I comment on items I thought were significant enough to deserve correction, reinforcement, or amplification. There are other sections I disagree with, but lack the experience or first hand knowledge to comment.

Evan plays fast and loose with characterizations and higher level operational plans for the campaign. He writes for drama and impact, not to educate.

The battalion was not ‘kept in the dark’ (p13) about the possible roles for us in the campaign, nor was the USMC experimenting with maneuver warfare (p11.) Maneuver warfare has been Marine Corps warfighting doctrine for almost 20 years. The part of the Marine Corps Evan is least familiar with (staffs and high level command) put in Herculean efforts in planning this war. We were ready for it.

I concur with other reviews and compliments in how Evan portrays the unvarnished side of Marines; un-PC and unscreened by public affairs officers. He makes me both wince and laugh.
I object to Evan’s juxtaposition of quotations. I suspect many, and not just mine, were paired for effect. I cannot read many of these quotes and know if sarcasm, an out of context snippet, or an emotional outburst contributed to the words.

There is a key admission on page 30. At the lowest level all you see is the friction, but the big machine works. In reading Generation Kill, we get 350 pages of conversation on the fog, friction, frustration, and fatigue of war. Remember this short paragraph: the big machine worked magnificently well. In my notebook I had a long list of things that went wrong, or were screwed up, during the campaign. But enough went right to create stunning success. The reader should know this campaign was not WWI slaughter in the trenches, nor was it the total war and bloody beaches of WWII. It was maneuver warfare. It had its own set of advantages and difficulties, and wholly avoided the cost in blood to either Coalition troops or Iraqis that any previous doctrine or strategy would avail.

p45. While Evan focuses on the grooming standard, the real issue was discipline. The reader can pick up a personal history from WWII and read the same thing. Although it may challenge stereotypes held by sociology professors and aging hippies in Berkeley, young Marines do not enjoy discipline and being told what to do. Senior Marines will tell you discipline is necessary for the effectiveness of a military force. Small unit cohesion is critical, but step one is discipline. LtCol Ferrando was right about several things: leadership has elements of faith (p190), bad attitudes are a cancer (p189), and there is only one kind of discipline in the Marine Corps - perfect discipline. You cannot be slack in garrison and in training, and then expect Marines to execute in combat. Evan focuses on the grooming standard, but LtCol Ferrando was pressing his officers and SNCOs for basic discipline. Special Forces units are elite units where experienced, high performing individuals maintain self-discipline and hold themselves to high standards. The infantry uses a blend of discipline and small unit leader initiative. Recon Battalion Marines thought they were the former, but needed to act as the latter.

We were not ‘racing ahead’ of the rest of the division as often as he states. The level of combat is played up for effect, as well as portraying a reckless, pell-mell advance. Evan gets the purpose of RCT-1’s attack correct: it is a fixing attack to prevent Iraqi forces from falling back to defend Baghdad proper. At a lower tactical level, RCT-1 used 1st Recon Battalion to leapfrog units, cut-off enemy retreats, screen the flanks of the main force, and conduct movement to contact.

p56. Some of the commanders in 1st Recon are intelligence officers and some are infantry officers. The reader should know the intel officers have all been through the Infantry Officer’s Course and the Basic Reconnaissance Course. Some of the intel officers excelled as infantry officers, and some did not. Not all infantry officers excel as infantry officers either.

Evan does not distinguish between events he witnessed firsthand, and events related to him through interviews. The reader should be aware of this and understand the limits of secondhand information.

p100. I do not remember low (or strafing) passes from FA-18s.

p143. The lost lieutenant event really happened. It was scary until we found him, then it was funny. You cannot believe how absolutely black it was. Zero cultural lighting, and an overcast, rainy, moonless night. It was inside-a-cave black.

p147. Indicative of his selective interviewing, Evan misses an opportunity here. The battalion supply officer and master sergeant were riding with us the entire time. Maybe he could have asked them how resupply and logistics did or did not work during the campaign. I have my own criticisms, but I hesitate to state them. I know the logistics train was taxed by distance, and the division was using a lot more artillery ammunition than originally forecast. The logistics force moved fuel, water, ammo, and MREs, and not much else during the campaign. I am not in a position to evaluate their performance.

Plate 17. The building rubble is from an FA-18 LGB that was dropped during LAR’s firefight at Al Muwaffaqiyah the day before. See discussion at p256.

p150. What Evan is trying to describe here are the strong point tactics RCT-1 used after An Nasariyah to advance up Highway 7. At each town, the lead battalion would deploy along the highway in overwatch positions. The other battalions would then punch through, leapfrogging the overwatch battalion. The town of Ar Rifa was our turn to overwatch the RCT as it punched through. The overwatch helped prevent Iraqis from taking potshots at each unit advancing through town or reset ambushes. Yes, CSSD-111 shot us up as they drove by.

As a bomb-dropper, a bomb-caller, and temporary rifleman, I am amazed that blue-on-blue engagements do not happen more often. Television shows us command center computers, gadgetry, and surveillance videos that make war seem organized. You cannot imagine the chaos of “boots on the ground” war – close combat renders high-tech gadgetry irrelevant. It is so easy to make mistakes when your brain is numbed and overwhelmed with the violence around you. Battle drill and muscle memory determine your success – and a few individuals who manage to keep their wits about them.
American forces run around day and night, dropping bombs and shooting artillery on the move, and doing it amazingly well. Most countries’ armed forces do not even attempt what we do. Even among modern NATO forces there are huge gaps in capability. I flew in operations where other country’s aircraft did not fly at night and in exercises where other NATO countries refused to shoot artillery and drop bombs on the same range on the same day. We border on thriving in an environment of dizzying stress and complexity. It is easier for bad things to happen than you realize, especially when you play varsity. There were several firefights with blue-on-blue fire.

p152. Until units get over being nervous, people shoot from fear and over-aggression. I have seen it happen in the air and on the ground. Firefights also break out when Marines start shooting simply because the Marine next to them starts shooting (pp 94, 163, 292.)

p155. Combat SOPs cover routine stops and local area security.

p166. A lot of the intelligence reports we received were erroneous. An intel buddy of mine told me of his frustration after the campaign. A lot of raw data was passed as processed intelligence. Several times, this bad data led to bad things on the battlefield, such as the airfield seizure at Qalat Sikar on 27 March. The reported tanks were actually truck chasses parked on the runway to prevent coalition aircraft from landing.

p176. Despite any junior Marines expressed misgivings about LtCol Ferrando, he was looking out for them. He ordered a preliminary inquiry be done on every incident where civilians were hurt. He did this to protect Marines if the event was brought up in the future. He would be able to show an official investigation was done, and the Marine(s) involved acted on the best information he had at the time. Furthermore, every medal awarded in the highly decorated Second Platoon was endorsed or approved by LtCol Ferrando (p351.)

pp 178-179. Questionable intel reports made people nervous, notably me, the night of 28 March. Evan notes the battalion had multiple reports of large enemy forces on the move. In my logbook, I count two 1000 pound LGBs and two maverick missiles dropped – that comes to 3000 pounds, not 10,000 pounds of bombs. Overall, I give Evan full credit for telling a story that well illustrates what Marines call the “fog and friction” of war: a lot of uncertainty and chaos, the easy becomes difficult, and the difficult becomes impossible. Only in hindsight it looks obvious and simple.
I would also like to point out that night was the first time I controlled aircraft in Iraq. The first aircraft I talked to was not just from my old squadron, but one of my best friends was in the airplane as well. They searched the area for enemy (they too had a hard time identifying objects with their night vision optics and infrared sensors.) They ran A-10s on two targets, and then came back after sunrise to scour the surrounding roads and countryside to ease the fears of their ground-dwelling squadron buddy. In a nutshell, that explains the teamwork of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF.)

p189. Evan and I crossed paths right after LtCol Ferrando’s talk to the officers and SNCOs. I heard a regroup and get back to the basics talk. It was a debrief on the battalion’s performance to that point in the campaign. Evan listened to my opinion, then said, “Yes, but do you think he was being self-serving at the same time?” You are either going to give someone the benefit of the doubt or not. I think by that time Evan was no longer giving LtCol Ferrando the benefit of the doubt.

p200. In my opinion, there is a lot of embellishment in this section. I give full credit to Marines performing under fire, and allow for differing perceptions. But I read about a lot more mortar fire than occurred. The level of enemy fire adjusts to Evan’s narrative of his platoon and those outside the platoon. I also read Marines blowing off steam and being quoted as if they made deliberate statements (p192 and many others.)

p207. The ‘entire battalion’ was not pinned down. I was at the front of the column with 3d Platoon, Charlie Company, at the time. An elderly man in a blue tunic told us there was an ambush waiting for us in the treeline as we exited the village to the north. We called in Cobras, who spotted the positions (to include a technical vehicle.) A general engagement broke out (to include what I think was some blue on blue because the battalion column extended south around a bend in the river.) The Cobras shot TOW and guns (and I think called in artillery) on the positions in the treeline.

p215. Instead of a technical glitch, I recall we were out of range of the DASC(A), an airborne command post that pushes aircraft out to ground units. We could still talk on the artillery radio nets, so it could not have been too dramatic.

p248. When we were talking in Ad Diwaniyah after the campaign, Evan told me he tried to track down the wounded Syrian so he could get the story of the battle from the other side. When he told his editor that he could not track him down, his editor said, “Maybe they killed him.” That statement stunned me. I think that soft accusation says as much about the editorial staff of Rolling Stone as any of Evan’s words say about Marines.

p256. 3d Battalion, 1st Marines (RCT-1), had occupied the town. Our mission was to pass through and push north to the outskirts of Al Kut. The damage cited by Evan (plate 17 in the illustrations) was not from artillery fire called in by 1st Recon Battalion. During their firefight the day prior, LAR called in FA-18s, who dropped what I estimate were 1000 or 2000 pound laser guided bombs. The buildings along the riverfront had 20 foot craters in the foundations – that level of destruction can only be caused by 1000 pound bombs, not 100 pound artillery shells that break up into submunitions. Also, the damage in the town was largely confined to the buildings adjacent to the bridge, not the wholesale destruction Evan infers in the book.

p258. I appreciate Evan noting that an elementary school was used as an ammunition dump. Whether it was using a hospital as a bunker in An Nasariyah, schools as ammunition dumps, or locals cheerfully pointing at mosques when we asked where the Fedayeen were; the Saddam loyalists knew we would abide by the Geneva Convention and ROE, and used our restraint to their advantage.

p266. The Navy FA-18 was shot down by a U.S. Army patriot missile. Early in the campaign a patriot battery also shot down a British Tornado. All aircrew were killed.

p287. I think how Evan used my statement about air support and morale (p232) was a blatant distortion. I could see the spirits of the Marines lift when a Cobra or a jet passed overhead, and when they killed people who were trying to kill us.
When the battalion was prepping to go to Baqubah, LtCol Ferrando decided to leave H&S company behind and take the line (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta) companies. I was walking across the field to grab my gear and join Alpha Company when a sergeant from Delta Company intercepted me.
“Sir, are you coming with us?” he asked in an anxious tone.
“I would not miss it!” I brayed, belying the cold fear I felt inside.
“Good sir, good. That is comforting,” he replied.
That sergeant was a recon Marine who looked like he could bench 350 and was a SWAT team member on his police force back in the states. Although recon Marines are trained to call in close air support, he was reassured that the skinny flyboy was coming along because I represented a connection to the FA-18s with the 1000 pound bombs and the Cobras loaded with rockets, missiles, and guns. No one wants to go to war by themselves. You want to bring as many friends along as possible.

p299. Evan gets carried away here. We had jets and helos flying in all directions trying to locate mortar positions and recon our route of advance. He implies a wholesale destruction of anything in our path. When we could locate enemy vehicles and positions, we used close air support to destroy them. Evan’s flair for the dramatic furthers his narrative, but is unwarranted.

p339. I hate to write this section because I have to defend one Marine at the expense of another. The watch officer was a recon Marine and an experienced, former infantry company commander. He did not intend for anyone to mark the minefield at night. Since convoys were traveling that road, the intent was to toss red and yellow chemlights next to the portion of road adjacent to the minefield so convoys would know not to stop there. Engineers would return in the morning to properly mark it. He conducted a face to face brief with the platoon commander and Gunnery Sergeant, specifically ordering them to stay on the paved road. They did not.


The 1st Reconnaissance Battalion came through Operation Iraqi Freedom with zero dead and seven wounded. Three of those Marines became wounded after combat operations were concluded. With so few Marines hurt in the campaign, I believe one or more of these reasons must apply: 1) we were lucky on a dozen consecutive occasions, 2) the combat was not as intense as portrayed, 3) the leadership was not as bad as portrayed, or 4) the enemy was exponentially more inept. Although I am not an infantry officer, I have spent 15 months in two battalions. I have been shot at by surface to air missiles in an FA-18 in addition to ground combat with 1st Recon Battalion. I am forced to conclude that Evan’s portrayal of the intensity of combat, and the leadership, was not accurate.
In documenting a few events, which I related to Evan in Ad Diwaniyah after the campaign, he used quotes out of context to build on the theme for his book. He picked favorites, and used particular events to reinforce story lines. He decided Sergeants and below were okay, while senior Staff NCOs were almost universally discounted. The reader should know that Bravo Company lost their First Sergeant shortly before combat operations began. There was a dearth of senior enlisted leadership in the company and it reflected in the discipline and morale of the junior Marines. If Evan had talked to senior Staff NCOs in Alpha or Charlie companies, maybe he could have added perspective to what he witnessed and the stories he heard from junior Marines.
In the end, what we are left with is Hollywood stereotype. Most officers are either incompetent or careerist. The one good platoon commander is an outsider. The real heroes are the junior enlisted Marines. There is not a single officer or senior enlisted Marine who would speak of the dedication, intelligence, and professionalism of junior Marines in anything but the highest approbation. Evan’s major failing is his lack of awareness of the tremendous burden modern warfare places on leadership and staffs; and the long years of dedication to the profession of arms those same officers and staff noncommissioned officers put in to be ready when the war tocsin sounds.
Evan deserves full credit for sticking with the battalion and documenting what he sees as the ‘gritty, Lance Corporal’s view of war.’ There is tremendous value in that perspective. I acknowledge that perceptions define an individual’s reality, but that individual reality is not the whole truth. In a situation as chaotic and stressful as combat, the truth is a complex animal.
Evan’s sins are borne of ignorance, inexperience, and lack of perspective. I do not expect Lance Corporals and Lieutenants to be experienced or possess broad perspective either, but journalists should attempt to overcome those shortcomings, not revel in them.
At the beginning of this piece, I used Evan’s quote out of context to make him look malicious. I do not think he was malicious. But it is easy to use quotes out of context to create a narrative of your own choosing.


As of this writing, I have nineteen years in the Marine Corps. The non-commissioned officers of 1st Recon Battalion were the finest enlisted Marines I have encountered in those nineteen years. As a Hornet backseater, I have to say the best Marine officers I ever served with were my squadron mates in Beaufort back in the 1990s. That being said, I also have the highest respect for the officers and staff non-commissioned officers of 1st Recon. I believe leading Marines and Sailors in combat is the most challenging job in the entirety of the human experience, and they did it very well.
I went back to Iraq in 2006 with the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, working in the operations department. I flewa handful of missions in between my staff work and was even able to do a show of force for some 1st Recon Marines out on a patrol. I am glad I was able to help one more time.


1. Sep 5, 2007.

2. Waxman, S., ‘Sparing No One, a Journalist's Account of War’, New York Times, June 10, 2004.