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.


SJ said...

Thank you for writing this. I recently finished Wright's book and I thought it was excellent. I am always a bit worried about authenticity and I am glad that you were able to point out the embellishments and inaccuracies.

Anonymous said...

I am a Washington Post reporter writing a review of the new HBO series. Any chance you'd be willing to chat? 202 253 7327.

Jon Finer

Instugator said...

I am a B-52 guy who was supporting the push into Baghdad on or about April 6, 2003. I am just looking for some ground perspective on the strikes we accomplished.


Anonymous said...

Colonel - At the end of your rebuttal you wrote: "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."

This is the underlying truth of all things. Your experiences and recollections of events will differ significantly from the man next you witnessing the same event as you both will process the information presented to you differently, based on your unique points of view.

No one can read any single book or watch a single documentary and feel that they been exposed to the "truth;" rather, they have been presented a point of view that they may or may not embrace as factual or fictional.

Your efforts to document discrepancies of your vantage point with Evan's "embellishments" misses the point. The broader question and meaning for the book is did he do a good job of capturing the view of the lance corporal?

I couldn't help but feel, reading your post, that you took umbrage with the characterization of the officers in the book as incompetents. You also state that had Evan's embedded at another echelon, his perspective would have changed greatly.

I was in Baghdad in 2004 during Fullujah - as a DOD civilian. My status as a civilian gave me entree to viewpoints from GO's to grunts. I remember feeling that neither had a real understanding of ground truth; however, their perspectives were real to them. In fact, the grunt's perspective had more authenticity as it was unencumbered by political/military goals for success. Sometimes I wondered if the GO's really believed the things they said or if they felt they had to say things to encourage good morale and discipline. It's all about from where you sit...

Michael Shoup said...

Anonymous: Thanks for taking the time to comment and an extra thanks for going to Iraq to help out the team!
I cheerfully acknowledge that Evan does a good job portraying the Lance Corporal view of war – I hope I made that clear. I documented the factual errors, mischaracterizations, and parsed conversations that I think go beyond providing another point of view. I think if Evan spent some time with the Lance Corporals of Alpha and Charlie Companies (adjacent units, not just another echelon) his perspective may have been different as well.

Stew: Sorry, I did not talk to any B-52s or know of their missions. There are probably other Marine FACS out there who do – thanks for all the “dial a JDAM” though!

Anonymous said...

I just started watching the mini-series and am glad to have found this blog posting with your perspectives.

I will make sure to have your viewpoint in mind while i watch the mini-series. I think a reading of the book will be in order as well.

I'm not an American but thank you for your service regardless.

Anonymous said...

I would also recommend reading Capt. Fick's book "One Bullet Away" for his perspective. I think you'll also find some discrepancies with "Generation Kill".

Anonymous said...

The main point is that you should always keep in mind that every story is partial. If anyone wants to know the "whole truth" about the war in Irak, then a journalist's account is certainly not the place to go - at least not exclusively.

I don't see Generation Kill as being about the war in Irak. I see it as being about soldiers at war - how they deal with being tasked with killing fellow human beings, how they deal with facing death themselves. Basically, a window into their minds. I honestly don't care if facts are embellished in order to help with the portrait.

People should remember that this is fictionalized. It feels real because of the journalistic lens through which we see it, but it is fiction.

Karie Ann said...

First, thank you for your service to our country. I have the highest respect and gratitude for my fellow citizens who are willing to faithfully do as asked, in defense of our country, and who sacrifice so much, as you have.

Also, thank you for your crisp, clear and informative response to Evan's book, which can ostensibly extend to the mini-series, which has been captivating. It is fascinating for someone like me, removed and living a fairly comfortable life, to imagine the circumstances these guys are placed in - and they hang tough and manage - and it amazes me, inspires me, frightens me and troubles me.

I'm glad to be able to watch the series with your amazingly articulate and insightful commentary in mind.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights and perspective.

Keynes said...

Lt Col Shoup --

You may have noticed that Jon Finer from the "Post" has been reporting for the last week from Russian-occupied Gori, Georgia (or at least occupied until yesterday, possibly). He's had the lead article on the front page at least twice, including today's paper ( From writing movie reviews for the "Style" section to reporting from a war zone (without the protection of US troops, no less) must be quite a change.

In addition to the points you discussed, I noticed 2 minor factual errors in Wright's book. On p. 167, he quotes SGT Colbert as shouting, "I don't want to get schwacked by the A-10s.... They're goddamn Army. They shoot Marines." Only the Air Force flies A-10 "Warthogs," of course. Sgt Colbert may indeed have said that in the heat of the moment, but it seems pretty unlikely. (They corrected this scene in the HBO miniseries. Sgt Eric Kocher, who was a technical advisor to the film, may have caught it, even if no one else did.)

Then, on p. 172 Wright says Navy LT (Dr.) Aubin graduated from the "Naval medical school in Bethesda, Maryland." But instead of being just a "Naval" med school, it's actually the *interservice* Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS, commonly called "you-shoes"). Students from the Army, Air Force, and Navy attend there. It just happens to be located on the campus of the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center.

I really don't intend to be nit-picky, but such minor errors, which could *easily* have been caught by either Wright or the fact-checkers at "Rolling Stone," add up quickly and begin to detract from the credibility of other aspects of Wright's account. (It took me less than 2 minutes to confirm both of the above points.) If I can't trust any writer to get even the simplest black-and-white facts correct, it forces me to wonder what other mistakes he's also made. Your discussion adds many other such instances of far greater significance.

And while I agree completely with the "perception is reality" point of view so articulately expressed by "Anonymous" in his July 14 post and in your reply, eventually the purely factual errors become so difficult to ignore that I also begin to wonder about how accurately Wright portrays even the Lance Corporal's point of view (and, to be fair, also the E-5 sergeant's), even within the narrow confines of Bravo Company. On the other hand, the experiences of my own 28-plus years of active duty lead me to believe there's far more truth in Wright's account than we may prefer to think.

BTW, for anyone interested, a new edition of Wright's book has just been published, with a "new afterword" that contains some interesting surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. You'll also appreciate the clever cover. (If nothing else, drop by your local bookstore and skim that chapter over a cup of coffee.)

Finally, I fully concur with the recommendation by another anonymous writer (July 28): if you're at all interested in this subject, by all means read then-Lt Nathaniel Fick's "One Bullet Away." It's one of those rare books that's so good I hated to come to the end of it.

Thanks for your post, Col Shoup, and condolences on your current assignment at "Fort Fumble." But doesn't the Navy have a saying something like, "At least it's shore duty"?

J.M. Keynes

Boom Boom said...


Thanks for taking the time to offer your meticulous counter-points. As you know, my perspective more closely aligns with yours.

Semper Fi,
Boom Boom

Anonymous said...

Dear Lt. Col. Shoup:

Thanks for your commentary on my book, Generation Kill. In several places you indicate that I have distorted, fabricated and re-arranged quotes to create a biased view, one that favors what you term "junior Marines."

I am always interested in learning about errors in my work, and between the first and third editions of Generation Kill I made corrections when such errors were brought to my attention. Had I known about your criticisms a few years ago I would have tried to address them where applicable in updates to my book.

Back in August 2004 I received an email from a mutual friend who said he'd recently had a long dinner with you. Among other things our friend passed to me in his note he mentioned this about you, "He [meaning you] thought the book was good, but was sorry to have been portrayed as blowing up a village of civilians."

I understood four years ago that our mutual friend was referring to the village discussed starting on page 231 of my book. At the time I read the note, I believed our friend's reference to the village was in the spirit of gallows humor, since I never actually wrote you blew up a village of civilians. Now I see in your commentary on my book that you indeed take issue with this passage among others.

I wanted to comment on a few of the things you mentioned. First, to clarify the issue of my writing my book from the perspective of lance corporals and "junior Marines:" It ought to be obvious that this is the perspective I was handed. I spent the duration of the invasion in the lead humvee of a line company. As we both know, senior officers were seldom present the line companies at the front. (I know you occasionally jumped into a humvee to get as close to the action as possible--I believe you did so for a stretch at Baquba--but this was not typical.) I was in a humvee with enlisted Marines, and most of their day-to-day contact was with officers no more senior than first lieutenants and sometimes captains serving as company commanders. Because of these facts, my book inevitably presents more of their perspective than that of more senior officers who were typically riding to our rear.

I personally feel it's somewhat misleading to refer to the enlisted Marines I was surrounded by as "junior." A recon line company is sergeant-heavy, with relatively few pfcs or lance corporals. Most of the men in bravo two, the center of my reporting, were corporals or sergeants with years of experience in the recon community. Most were on their second combat deployment. A couple like Sgt. Patrick and Gunnery Sgt. Wynn had also been deployed in combat in Somalia.

As we both know, a recon unit is somewhat of an anomaly in that enlisted men often spend many years immersed in its specialized training and practices, while officers frequently cycle through for shorter stays, and are even permitted to command recon units without having completed the Basic Reconnaissance Course. As Maj. Patterson used to say, "In the recon community officers are renters, the enlisted men are owners."

For these reasons, I think it's factually true, but misleading nonetheless to characterize enlisted men who often have more training and combat experience than the officers leading them as "junior."

But you are right to point out that my book focuses most on the quotes, thoughts, observations and perspectives on the men in bravo two. This is because these are the men I rode with and lived with, and my intent was to base my narrative as much as possible on first-hand reporting. Narrative often has a particular perspective. Mine is bravo-centric.

Your commentary seems to suggest I ignored the comments of and perspectives of officers and other Marines in the battalion. This is not accurate. When the shooting stopped, and I was able to separate myself from bravo two, I spent considerable time interviewing other personnel in the battalion and First Marine Division. While the focus of my account covers a three week period, I spent nearly two months with the battalion. By the time I left the battalion in May, I was told by a PAO that I among the reporters who covered the 1MARDIV in OIF1 I stayed for the longest period of time in my embed. (I never confirmed this with other reporters, but I seemed to be about the only one left after the division settled into its camp at Diwaniya.) I stayed as long as I did in order to gather as much reporting as possible on the entire battalion.

So, while my narrative unfolds from inside team one's humvee in bravo two--my perch during the invasion--my research extended far beyond those men. I conducted more than 100 interviews inside the battalion, more than a third of all personnel. From my earliest days at Camp Mathilda through my departure from Diwaniya I focused on the leadership, conducting multiple interviews with Gen. Mattis, Lt. Colonel Ferrando, Maj. Whitmer and on down the line. Prior to publication of my book, I provided my manuscript to a former officer in the battalion, respected by many, who closely read it, and provided commentary and corrections which I followed carefully in my final revisions.

I sought you out for an interview in 2003 precisely because of your experience in air war and unique perspective as FAC. You were among many officers I spoke to in order to fill out and balance my narrative. Your commentary often seems to be based on the unspoken premise that accuracy of my book simply boils down to my word against yours. The reality is in writing my book (and earlier Rolling Stone articles on which the book is substantially based) I relied on multiple interviews, in order to contextualize statements or events I personally witnessed against a wider spectrum of views.

It might help you better understand the context in which I wrote my narrative if I focus on four significant areas in which you disagree with in my book:

1) Al Gharraf (p.134):

You write "Evan embellishes the event to say I saw the man killed, and uses a double negative to infer it was not justified."

This is in reference to Maj. Eckloff's alleged shooting of a man during the ride through Al Gharraf. My notes from the day I interviewed you in 2003 quote you as follows:

"At Gharraf: I saw a dude standing in a doorway with his back to us - tall, dressed in brown suit, with a close beard. He was smiling. Our XO [Eckloff] shot him with a shotgun. He put that out of his vehicle instead of a rifle. He was on the left side. We were driving across a courtyard from left to right...He was in a suit suit. Well dressed."

I recall at the time I took these notes being confused by your description, and asking you for clarification. What kind of suit? You didn't mention tunic, or the type worn by fighters. You just said "suit suit."

I also wondered how the man could as you said, have had his "back to us" but you saw him "smiling." On questioning you I recall (five years later, so be sure) you stating that the man was turning and you couldn't see what was in his hands. For this reason, when I wrote the passage in my book I stated, "Shoup can't be sure it wasn't a legitimate kill." I used the double negative not to add to doubt about the legitimacy of the kill, but because you yourself expressed uncertainty about its legitimacy when you told me about it. I felt my double negative statement in the book actually gave more benefit of the doubt to Eckloff than you did in my actual interview with you.

I should also point out the context of the interview. I sat down with you to ask about your job as FAC. You began the interview by talking about civilian casualties, your mother's work as a pastoral PTSD counsellor and how ground war is much more confusing and messy than you had anticipated. In particular, you expressed strong emotion about a road block incident in which you had been involved while armed with a rifle. Among the things you mentioned prior to discussing the Eckloff incident you said:

"They say that's the difference between fighting a war on the ground and in the air. It's different. It's far uglier on the ground."

"In the air I'm comfortable. Here, I'm out of my element. I'm not just with grunts; I'm with a recon battalion."

"Everyone has different levels of compassion. These young guys in this battalion have the mindset they need, and they're poised and ready. They're young. I say that because I know the sort of guy I was out of flight school and how I am now. I've changed a lot."

"When you are a young platoon commander you are keyed up, very well trained, but we don't train to deal with the situation where a car load of civilians drives up. When they're driving down a highway. Where they never thought there would be Americans on it."

I cite all these quotes in of yours to contextualize your discussion of Eckloff's shooting the man in brown at Al Gharraf. You only brought this up after discussing all of the above and more about the ugliness of war on the ground. Moreover, you brought up Eckloff and the incident in Al Gharraf to me, unprompted.

Now, five years later in your commentary you say that you never actually told me you saw Eckloff shoot the man. You now state that you misquoted Eckloff to me about shooting someone else. (I believe this is what you mean when you write in your commentary that you "spoke for another person when I should not have done so.")

Here's what what Eckloff said to me when I interviewed him:

"Because we didn’t have a full Bravo command structure, I didn’t have a whole lot to do but listen to the radio. I ride in a 7-ton; me, the battalion supply chief, and our driver. It's cool. Because that way I am able to shoot my weapon out of the window. See? They shot an RPG at our truck. Alpha picked up a wounded guy. I heard the RPG explosion on the left side of the vehicle. It came down between the truck and a water bull. Because I wasn’t doing anything, just waiting to take over if the BC was shot – you’re only one bullet from command in my job, though the CO doesn’t think that’s funny. I use a Binelli automatic shotgun. Shot ten bad guys on that trip and seven to eight more on way to Al Hay. At Nasaria I got one guy at 50 feet in an alley. All I saw was a big cloud of pink. The next instant another guy, running on a balcony area, I gave him a few. My aim is good. At position we had small arms, maybe RPK and RPG."

I spoke to Eckloff before interviewing you. So, I did not specifically ask him about the man in brown in Al Gharraf. However, in his interview with me he spoke quite freely about the numerous men he took out while riding in the supply truck, claiming to have successfully fired on 17 to 18 men between Al Nasaria and Al Hay with his shotgun. Since Al Gharraf is on that route, and you provided me with what I thought was a credible, eye-witness account of one of those shootings, it seemed legitimate to include this in my narrative. It was sourced to you, but supported by my interview with the man in question.

Throughout my narrative I significantly undercounted the number of hits claimed by Eckloff. In my book I include just two, not the 17 to 18 he claimed to me in our interview. By the numbers I certainly did the opposite of embellishing. And in characterizing the shooting you described to me, I included a stronger suggestion that the "smiling" man could have been armed than that which you provided when we spoke.

In writing about Eckloff, I didn't personally believe he shot the wrong people, i.e. innocents. I suspected in the excitement of recounting his actions to me he overstated the accuracy of his shotgun. In my experience, I've often found the emotional maturity level of officers to be no greater or less than that of "junior Marines." This is not a slam at Eckloff. It's simply to say I thought he was very excited by having been in combat and possibly exaggerated his effects on target. Your account, I believed, given your emotional state prior to giving it to me, over-emphasized your suspicion that he might have shot an unarmed smiling man. In the end, I wrote a version that captured your dismay over the shooting but gave Eckloff benefit of the doubt.

2) Bombing of Phantom Convoy (pp. 178-179)

I appreciate you giving me credit for telling this complicated story. In part, this passage turned out well because you did such a great job in our interview explaining how confusion grows from things like "autokinesis" and aircraft thermal devices reading heat signatures of hot shrapnel from recently dropped ordnance.

You state that I totally got the tonnage of bombs dropped wrong. You write, "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." To be clear I wrote "nearly 10,000 pounds of bombs."

I'm puzzled you didn't share your logbook with me when we spoke. I described to you my interviews with other officers in which they mentioned greater numbers of ordnance dropped and greater tonnage than you now provide, but you didn't contradict me. Instead, you explained in great detail how so many bombs could have been dropped in error.

Here is some of what my other sources said about that bombing, from whom I arrived at the "nearly 10,000 pounds of bombs" figure cited in my book.

Alpha Company Commander Capt. (later maj.) Patterson, whose Marines first spotted the "phantom convoy" and then performed the BDA the next day said:

"We dropped a ton of shit: 500-pound dumb bombs, Mavericks, and maybe some 1,000-pound bombs. We saw [later, on a patrol] where the A-10's dropped six to eight bombs."

About the same strike, Capt. Peterson, whom I believe worked in coordination with you, said:

"They vectored us A-10's, F-16's, and F-18's. We dropped a whole lot of ordnance. The A-10's saw an APC. The A-10's were dropping IR Mavericks and Mark-82, 83, 84 - a lot of GBU which were laser-guided. The aircraft marked targets themselves. They dropped a couple of JDAM. We probably dropped nine to ten thousand pounds of ordnance that night."

This is the information I had to go on. I should add, I observed flashes and listened to explosions of the air strikes that night. Imprecise as eyewitness observations can be (you might see flashes in the sky caused by flares, not bombs exploding, etc.) my notes indicate there was a great deal of explosive activity that night involving aircraft several kilometers from our location. Other Marines I interviewed had similar memories of events.

So, I find your assertion here that only three pieces of ordnance were dropped to be highly confusing and at variance with my other reporting, including my interview with you.

3) Airstrike (p. 232)

This is about the air strike called on a small village which outraged several Marines in bravo two.

This part of your commentary, I believe, misstates what I wrote in my book. You write that I "negate" mortar fire in this situation and describe the village as "quiet" when it actually wasn't. You end this passage writing, "Evan chooses to portray a 'Marines kill indiscriminately' theme and it is wrong." By putting quotes around "Marines kill indiscriminately" you suggest that you are quoting something from my book, when I never wrote that. Nor did I describe the village as "quiet."

My account of this incident begins on page 231. I describe driving past the village in question as a "series of explosions issues from it. The blasts sound like mortars being launched, perhaps from inside the village." On the next page, I describe the village as the place "from where mortars seem to have been launched when we rolled in." There is no doubt in my description that the village is potentially the site of mortar attacks.

Where our versions disagree is in the amount of time that elapsed between the sounds of mortars possibly being launched from the village and the air strike on it. As my book states, after passing by the village and pausing nearby, bravo two enjoyed a long period of quiet. I describe how birds sang in nearby trees, how one Marine on the team I accompanied took a nap, how another partially stripped in order to go the bathroom and wash. This period of relative leisure is also documented in photographs I took then of Marines at ease prior to the bombing of the village.

When the bomb struck, many Marines as quoted in my book were outraged. They had observed threats coming from the village earlier, but believed whoever fired the mortars had fled, leaving behind civilians. You take exception to my description of their anger, writing, "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."

Your assertion that I parsed conversations for effect is incorrect. I simply quoted the comments of angry Marines observing the village, including Marines' who focused on what they saw as the outrage of some officers smoking cigars after the bombing. Prior to publication, I removed the quotes and attribution from that detail of the cigar-smoking officers to spare that Marine trouble in the battalion. This was on the recommendation of the battalion officer who informally vetted my manuscript before it was published.

In other parts of your commentary you suggest that juxtapose conflicting quotes for sarcastic or comic effect. At the end of this passage I juxtapose the Marines' perspectives whom I was following with your account of why the pilot believed it was correct to drop the bomb. I included this not humiliate you or the officer corps, as you commentary seems to suggest, but to point out that the outrage, the very perceptions of facts of the men I was following, might have been completely wrong.

In quoting you, I included small details of your recollection in order to buttress what you were saying, to signal to readers that you as a source were highly specific and seemed credible. But in you commentary, you draw the opposite conclusion, writing, "I think how Evan used my statement about air support and morale (p232) was a blatant distortion. "

I should also add that when I interviewed you I stated that the men on the ground whom I was with saw things differently. This is precisely why I was soliciting your perspective, to balance that of the men I was with. My intent in this passage was to show that competent men of good will often have radically different perceptions of the same event.

In your commentary there is a now an added meta component to this. Not only do you disagree what the men saw, as I wrote in my book, but you disagree with how my book lays out this disagreement. In any case, I don't know how to battle the meta disagreement we have about how the incident is written other than to say that I believe to most readers, other than you, it's clear the passage was not intended to slam you or the officers. It's simply an account of what happened, with dissenting views.

You should notice that if you go back to page 231 I write that Sgt. Colbert in my vehicle calls in the "location of the suspected enemy position," i.e. the village in question. So, my book itself puts the onus of the bombing--or at least the process that initiates it--on the enlisted men, not on you, or the other officers. (To add another level of dissonance to this, I have been told by two other Marines that I erroneously gave credit to Colbert for calling in the mortar position; these other two Marines each believe they were slighted by my not crediting them with calling in the strike on the village.)

4) Al Muwaffaquiyah (p. 247)

Your commentary here disputes my account of your time on the bridge that night at Al Muwaffaquiyah when the vehicles were stuck. You write, "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."

Here's what you said to me about this night on our interview in 2003:

"The BC was on the radio asking, "What's going on here?" The company commander and platoon commander [Capt. Schwetje and Capt. Dave McGraw A/K/A "Captain America") were stuck on the radio and they were not commanding. I saw what was going on and I went up to Captain Schwetje and said, 'Give me your radios.' I think taking the handsets from Captain Schwetje was the most useful thing I did that night."

Here's what Captain Schwetje said to me in my interview with him about the same incident:

"At the bridge Major Shoup was freaking out. He was like "Why don't I take the radios?" It turned out good. I went out to help manually pick up the trailer. Even the BC came and helped. The angle was tough because someone would have fallen through the holes."

As for McGraw, his panicky chatter on the radios and in front of his men was part of a larger pattern. In another incident I made audio recordings of Bravo Marines in a firefight dealing McGraw in such a state of panic on the radios that he appeared to be completely distraught.

Regarding that night on the bridge, I also interviewed Captain O'Conner, who was part of the battalion. O'Conner began his interview with me, saying, "McGraw would get too excited and talk about how we're going to get killed." Then, describing what he saw on the bridge, he said:

"At the bridge: McGraw was stripping weapons, screaming, and throwing them into the river. No one was in control. No one thought to check the Syrian lying there screaming. That's not being a commander."

Granted, O'Conner is describing the bridge perhaps an hour or so after you became involved with the radios. But his description of lack of command there seemed to support your original interview with me. Based on my interview with you and also that with Schwetje it was my judgment call to write that by taking the radio you were "effectively in command."

In the same passage I was careful to state that you had no actual command authority. I was simply trying to point out that in a chaotic situation you appeared to impose some control--something even the commander acknowledged in his interview with me.

But in your commentary, you now state you never told me you demanded the radios from the commander. I'm not sure what to do about this, since your retraction contradicts my interview with the other party involved.

The Reporter's Perspective, or Bias?

In your commentary you cite a question I asked you during our interview: "Yes, but do you think he [Lt. Col. Ferrando] was being self-serving...?" And you use this question of mine as evidence that I as a reporter "was no longer giving Lt. Col. Ferrando the benefit of the doubt."

This suggests to me that you occasionally fail to recognize the extent to which a reporter simply reports. In other words, you seem to confuse the act of conveying other people's ideas and views-what a reporter does--with possessing those views. When I posed the question to you about Ferrando, I wasn't asking it because I necessarily believed this to be the case with him. I asked the question on behalf of other men I'd interviewed who did believe he was self-serving. I was soliciting your opinion on the matter, not trying to advance my own.

Reading my book as closely as you have done, you should notice Ferrando's briefings were often met with suspicious comments and complaints by the enlisted men under him. I quote them in several places throughout the book, not because I necessarily believed them, but because as a reporter this what you do. A man makes a speech. You quote the reaction he gets.

At the same time, I periodically did step out of my reporting of the men's views about Ferrando to provide my own comments. After I introduced Ferrando on page 46 I describe his wry humor, the sincerity of his belief in the importance of the grooming standard. In recounting my final encounter with Ferrando on p. 348 I describe him as having been "vindicated" by events on the ground and note that the battalion under his command "exemplified the virtues of maneuver warfare."

In that same passage above, I credit Ferrando with making tough decisions by quoting some of the thoughts he shared with me regarding his handling "Captain America." At the end of this passage, I admit to the reader that I myself would not know what decision I would make if I were in Ferrando's shoes.

It was always my impression that Ferrando's quotes in the book reveal him to be a man of intelligence, wit and uncommon candor. I include his own admission to me on page 46 that, "My temper and personality are not suited for today's youth." My intent in quoting him there was to suggest to readers the possibility that this man was easily misread by the young troops in his command given his own admission of incompatibility with young people.

In your commentary you state that my book presents "most officers" as "either incompetent or careerist." As a reporter, you deal with the hand you were dealt. I was embedded in bravo company, which deployed with a total of two platoon commanders and one company commander. It so happened that of the three officers in this company many of the men in their command held two of them in low regard. So it is true that within bravo most officers were not highly regarded, and book reflects this. (The commander was as my book points out, well liked; the men were simply frustrated by their view that he did not communicate well.)

Im writing the book, I did worry that bravo's command situation was not representative of that of the overall battalion's. To remedy this, I shoe-horned alpha company into my narrative. This was a stretch since I didn't follow alpha company. But I interviewed men in it and its commander and came away with the view that it was a solidly led unit. Therefore, in part to balance my bravo-centric account, with its comparatively weak command, I introduced Alpha's commander on page 93 in the following manner, "Whatever indefinable qualities make a good commanding officer, Patterson has them."

Ultimately, I did focus on the perspective of enlisted men. However, I reject the notion that choice of perspective necessarily indicates a personal bias. In this case, my perspective was determined by my placement in the battalion.

In my first interview with Gen. Mattis prior to arriving at the battalion in March, 2003 he asked all of us reporters to focus on the enlisted men in our reporting. After I arrived at the battalion, Ferrando echoed those sentiments to me. He went even further. In our first interview he initially told me he didn't want me writing about any of the senior commanders. (Later, he modified that to allow interviews with himself, other senior men and to permit me to sit in on his briefings to them.) But his directive was clear: that I focus on the "junior Marines." In the end, that's the book I wrote, though as I tried to make clear here, I did so with input from many men in other positions.

You were among the many Marines whom I held in high regard during my stay with the battalion. I appreciate the kind comments you make about my work in your commentary even in the midst of what is clearly your deep dismay at certain passages of my book. My intention was to write this rebuttal to your commentary in the spirit of respect. Not only do I appreciate the time and consideration you provided me in Iraq, I enjoyed our interview, as well as earlier encounters along the way to Baghdad. I have no doubt the book contains errors. Nor do I claim infallibility. We spent at least three hours together on that hot day talking in Diwania. This is my account of what you said, and how I used it my book.


Evan Wright

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your perspective and for maintaining the moral high ground by not slinging mud on or making ad hominem attacks against your fellow Marines (ala a certain Gunny).

I thought the book captured war from the junior Marine perspective quite well--warts and all...a view that is all too often ignored.

Marines should read it if for no other reason than to reinforce the importance of information flow to the lowest level. Not to mention the myriad other lessons.

Cleared Hot.

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent reply Evan. I enjoyed your book, and series of articles, very much.

Stephanie said...

Not bad Evan.

Michael Shoup said...

Thank-you for adding to the discussion. People can read all we have to say and perhaps understand the nature of combat a little better through our agreements, disagreements, and perspectives.

Plt Sgt. said...

Col. Shoup and Evan Wright,

Thank both of you for an excellent dialog regarding some of the material in "Generation Kill." I found it very helpful.

I do not have a "side" in this matter because I believe both of you make important, and informative comments.

As a former Plt Sgt in a a USMC rifle company, I understand the way memories of events can differ by parties that observe them in times of stress and confusion. It has always been this way. Rashomon illustrates the universality of this reality.
When Churchill said the first causality of war is truth, he was correct.

I must admit, I am comforted by the possible alternate view of what I regarded as the cold blooded murder of the man wearing the hat. I found that passage in the book especially troubling.

The truth is Marines, officers and enlisted, are human. They exist in a culture that gives them guidance and structure in a more extreme way than civilians, but their humanity still can inform their actions. While some of the characterizations in the book troubled me. both officer and enlisted, I recognized the same kind of people that I served with. Incompetence and careerism do exist in the Marine Corps, though perhaps not to the same extent that they do in the civilian world.

Evan characterizations of the junior enlisted appeared to be spot on. They do seem better educated them the men I served with in the 60's, with the same clever, laser focused humor is still being used.

A final point. Decision making in war is not done the same way breaks are decided at the health food store.

Lt. Col. Ferrando by all accounts, accomplished all his assigned tasks, in a VERY challenging environment, with no fatalities, and relatively few wounded. Friction in war creates a tendency toward inertia, which strong leadership needs to over-come. However, in modern war, that leadership needs to tempered, with perception, judgement, and wisdom.

Col Shoup, thank you for your service, and Evan, that you for a wonderful view inside a small Marine unit.

J. M. Keynes said...

It's refreshing to find a blog where people of goodwill can have a civil discussion on such controversial topics without degenerating into name-calling and vitriol. Thanks to both LtCol Shoup and Mr. Wright for devoting so much care and time to their posts.

Some readers might be interested in the first segment of last week's NPR program "This American Life."

As the program summary describes it, "Sam Slaven is an Iraq War [Army] veteran who came home from the War plagued by feelings of hate and anger toward Muslims. TAL producer Lisa Pollak tells the story of the unusual action Sam took to change himself, and the Muslim students who helped him do it. (34 minutes)" His account of the stress he felt when he first attended a meeting of the Muslim student organization at his college is very compelling.

("The Devil in Me" is the title of the whole hour-long program; in case you have to search for it, the broadcast date was September 7. The vet's story is the first one in the program -- "Act One. And So We Meet Again." Some readers may be interested in the other 2 segments, but others won't be.)

J.M. Keynes

Anonymous said...

I echo those thanks. The point/counterpoint above is interesting, especially having read both Evan and Captain Fick's respective books, as well as watching the series. Facts are important, and any journalist (as Evan's very thorough response demonstrates) tries hard to respect them. Can a story be factual and still unfair or biased? Yes, it happens all the time. Can a story have some or many facts incorrect, and still be relevant? Yep, ditto to that. I work in the field.

None of that should take away from Evan's book, which represents a clear attempt to tell a story accurately and fairly, despite its flaws. Imagine if someone asked you to write a story of the 'truth' about your school, office or family. Do you really think there'd be no dissenting views or incorrect facts (however small)?

The most important truth that I found in Evan's book is the double standard that is generally held about war. Civilian journalists pretend (despite all evidence to the contrary) that wars can be waged and won when one side is held to a higher standard. Is it possible or feasible to protect civilians from harm when enemy combatants are happy to hide and attack from among them? Can we really "win" wars when deployment (in scope of both time and force size) are politically limited by the attention span (and erstwhile support) of an apathetic public? Is anyone out there ready to say that they did their jobs for a day, or a week, or a month without making a SINGLE mistake or error in judgment, even knowing that our professional mistakes don't cost anyone a life or limb?

War is different. The men and women we train and send to fight them are human. Many are patriotic, and mean the very best. Some are 'psychos' who want to shoot guns and kill poeple. Some suffer great consequences, some cause them. The bottom line is that trying to judge warriors by civilian standards just doesn't work. I for one wish we were better at giving them the attention, support and thanks that they deserve... even the most incompetent, cowardly and misguided among them did something most of us didn't (and aren't willing to) do. They showed up and risked their lives.

So whether 3,000 or 'nearly 10,000 lbs of ordinance was dropped on a phantom convoy, I think I'll focus on the fact that brave, flawed men acted on the best knowledge and training that they had, and -- yes -- likely made a mistake. Then another man tried his best to tell their story.

To quote (I think?) Captain Patterson's line: "I guess we can put that in the win column?". :-)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful and respectful discussion. I've been collecting 'disagreements' over Generation Kill after reading the newest edition.
With no military background, but long time law enforcement, I see one common thread. We used to say, "There are three sides to a story. Yours, mine... and the truth."
Hard to come by if at all possible even with the best of intentions.

The one absolute truth is that "courage is not lacking, honor and bravery are always present, and sacrifice is only a moment away".

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has voluntarily put themselves in the position to defend this country and my freedom will always deserve my utmost respect. Those of us banging away at our keyboards have no right to question the decisions or actions of another serviceman while acting in our best interests. Please put this argument to rest and truly appreciate the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf.

Anonymous said...

I'm an old Marine. Some are good. Some are bad...but not many. The rest of us just did our best to stand bye our brothers. Having seen Generation Kill, short of one or two examples, I was extremely proud of our corps, and the story that was told. The many good and GREAT Marines, ALWAYS outweigh the few bad.
I had no impression that the writer, Evan Wright, was out to get us, nor that he was looking to make up a story. Most of us have served with officers, a few, that were incompetent. That's a fact, whether senior officers would like to believe that or not. However, we are, BY FAR the most fortunate enlistmen, on this planet. By and large they are the very best of the best. They are very much like us, in their dedication and commitment to excellence.
You don't join the Corps for an education. You join the Corps to EARN the right to wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. I had the opportunity to do either. I've served with the best and the worst.
It's unfortunate that fictitious names weren't used, to protect individuals who may well end up being strong and quality Marines. However, there is also good in pointing out those Marines who need more work and professional introspection.
A hallmark of ALL Marines is too look inside, not in a sense of denial, but in a sense of honor, upon which we improve, adapt and overcome our deficiencies. This is why we NEVER lose the ultimate fight. We don't ever quit.

The very best aspects of Marines were shown in Generation Kill...warts and all.
As was said, in the conclusion. "if I acted upon every complaint, voiced against my officers, how could my battalion function?"
As a young LCpl, I wouldn't have understood that. As a 40 year old retired Marine, that thought process is as clear as day.
I neither doubt Evan Wright's telling, nor do I doubt the rebutall, by an officer, who I think? comes from about 100 years of Marine family history. Somewhere, in the fog is the truth. If you haven't been forced to lead, that fog is far harder to penetrate.
My salute to 1st Recon!
You did a job completely beyond your S.O.P., and did it better than ANY unit could have possibly done it. History will be very kind to you, and too our Corps.
Thank you, Evan Wright, for doing your best, and thank you MORE, to my fellow Marines, for writing another honored chapter in the History of the United Sates Marine Corps!
Semper Fi!

Anonymous said...

I think the success of Wright's book and subsequent mini-series does not necessarily rest on the authenticity of his accounts or the quotes contained within. Of course these are important and if less care had been taken on this issue that would certainly have detracted - not only from the relevance but also the impact of the work.

I think, however, the biggest reason it has such an impact on even a casual observer is Wright manages to portray how "ordinary" the people in this battalion are. They are the people you went to school with. The people you might pass on the street without giving them a second glance. If they had in fact been presented as unusually "heroic" or even ridiculously stupid, it would be much easier to dismiss them as too fictionalised, or at the very least exaggerated for dramatic effect.

But you don't get that here.

Instead you get an insight into ordinary men placed in extraordinary situations and how they ultimately deal with what nobody ever wants or expects to have to deal with in their lifetime.

Without these sorts of insights it is easy for people to lose perspective on this war and the soldiers who fought in it. They can be dehumanised - even demonised - and then just as quickly dismissed. Here we are given an opportunity to get to know, to admire, laugh with (or at!), sympathise with and ultimately respect them.

Every story is a perspective and we each of us have a story to tell. I can only hope when mine is told that it will be as interesting and as moving as this one.

Anonymous said...

I'm an old guy. I echo my colleague to my 12s comments that this book showed the very best in us. Sure some of the guys had some problems and mistakes. But, overall, I'd say these men are the best of the best and Wright showed that very clearly and fairly.

Anyone with any sense understands the need for the heat of the 'grooming standard' how that diversion serves the men and moves them forward.

The minutiae is just that. No one remembers exactly what happens when the battle is on and the perceptions become the reality.

I don't know much about the current generation, I know we never had baby wipes (but I wish we had) but I do know I would have been proud to serve with these men.

One last little thing. If wars were reported from the perspective of the non pogs... we'd all be better off.

You did a good thing Mr. Wright... our men deserve to have their story told in a way the affixes the adequate amount of verisimilitude.

Bryan said...

WOW, this is an exceptional blog. As numerous people above have noted, both LtCol Shoup's and Mr. Wright's civilized contributions are very refreshing in an era of hopelessly wasted bandwidth. Please keep the commentary going to help people like myself gain a better understanding of the war, war, the military, and the people involved...



Max said...

Hi there. Just a few words.

First time I saw GNRTNKLL was last summer.
Last days I was looking for slang words and special jargon when I came across this blog.

Nice. I have read you from the scratch to the end.
And I subscribe to the most opinions about.
Especially what it said about the respect showed by Mr. Right and Col. Shoup on their answers.

The more you learn the less you know, it is said.
And the more experience you got, wider your sight is. I believe.
Both good guys, good stuff, as well as bad and clumsy ones.

Sincerely, I still remember those movies about WWII I saw in my youth.
Rock Hudson wearing a flashy pilot shirt and watching japs moving closer as a sitting ducks.
John Wayne with a chinese girl on his arms at the end of the movie (supposedly on Vietnam),
behold a sunset on the China Sea (no comment ...)
Not to mention, Wertmacht's soldiers shown on movies as dumb retarded clumsy guys,
even on real and historic battles as Ardennes.
Where defeated players seem to say: it happened because there were too many indians...
Despite to seem pedantic, is the same story since Alexander The Great:
winners always write down the history.

But recent years and after for instance "The Iron Cross" movie as it were.
We have been staring a change. Different points of view.
Maybe little closer to the raw truth as well.

At least and as somebody wrote down above:
thanks to writers as Mr. Wright -with his goals and mistakes-,
as well as, de facto, the tops who let him to do that
and people as Col. Shoup, Sgt. Kocher, etc who helped them.
Don't forget it.

Thanks to books and movies as GNRTKLL I say again,
we are better known and better undestood for people out of armed forces.

Someone said this is a way of life.
I believe that is true. Either plumbers nor lawyers, nor nine to five job.
Even us when we exchange a walk on part in the war,
with the cold water up to your neck as your guys on a beach in a dark night,
for a lead role in the cage of an H&S Co. ...
I do not know if I have been enough explicit.

Finally, let me say that in spite I have enjoyed myself long ago.
Once again, it is funny, it is really a relief to notice.
Even after twenty years working with the best of foreigners mates.
ANGLICO and US Recon Teams included.
All of us have the same good and bad ... retards.
Despite we were the first one Marine Corp: Since 1537.
But also, as Ssgt. Colbert said: we still have to "make do" as well.

Thanks a lot again Mr. Wright, Col. Shoup.


GySgt SP Marine Corps.

Anonymous said...

The thing to remember here is that everyone sees things differently and definitly while under the stress of combat, so it doesnt matter if its your memory or the memories of the troops on the ground and the notes of Evan, because no matter how hard you try it will never be 100% bang on. It is easy for anyone to remember or note something different then someone else, i just find it strange that you are so eager to bash evan when your own memory can be critized in the exact same by another marine in your platoon or company

Anonymous said...

Brilliant discussion. Read both Fick and Wright and will do so again. As a woman, I seized on both accounts quoting an observation that went something like this: "If we'd had to fight the women here, we wouldn't have stood a chance".
Recommend also Andrew Exum, Craig Mullaney, Paul Reichoff and Colby Buzzell and Sassaman.. (apologies for spellings).

Anonymous said...

I am just watching Generation Kill - I have not read the book nor have I read Lt. Fick's. I find the discussion here to be an invaluable addition to the series. I wish all the men portrayed in the series would add their comments to the discussion in the same way that Major Shoup has.

Thanks to all those who served.

Anonymous said...

I think this blog and the commentary that follows it are prof that war is confusing and two people standing side by side can have extremely different views of the same event.

I know this from experience. When I was wounded the my unit did an investigation into what happened. During the XO's interview with me he was called away and I was able to read other soldiers view points on what happened to me. I would say that though each one was drastically different that all in all it was exactly what happened just from different points of view.

JCS said...

I come late to this debate, having only just seen the entire HBO series and read the original RS stories. As a (European) ex-war correspondent and amateur historian, I was very interested to read your response, Colonel, and found that it did indeed at the very least modify my perspective on a number of the incidents described or portrayed.

However, what it did not touch upon was what I found most extraordinary in Evan's story, namely the behaviour of the officer called by him "Captain America". Now, either this portrayal was grossly libelous and entirely fictitious, or else the officer in question displayed a level of dangerous incompetence far beyond anything that his superiors should have tolerated; indeed, I was astonished that he could have reached such a rank in the Marine Corps at all.

Can you provide any illumination on this subject? Thank you in advance.

Plt Sgt said...

I too wondered about Captain America. One possible answer is the fact aberrant behavior by leaders is rarely witnessed by their superiors, only by their subordinates.

jlapham103141 said...

Having been shot at I always lament the lack of dread portrayed in these overly glib presentations of warfare. I recall no such glibness; mostly somber silence as each person is left alone with their own anxieties. Wright's book panders to childish imagery. As he himself was quoted as having said a reporters job is to "Charm and betray". He did both.
John Lapham - Boarding Party Machine Gunner USN 1959-1964

Bigun72 said...

Thanks for your insight into the reality of Generation Kill vs. the sensational. to put it mildly as a former Army officer, I found it hard to believe Marines were so unprofessional. I found it offensive to think most Marine officers were incompetent basket cases while all enlisted personal were God-hating hippy geniuses. Your comments settled me down and provided a context sorely missed in Generation Kill. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This has to be one of the most remarkable and insightful blog posts I've read; especially to include counter-point from the author in question.

I spent 7 years in Psychological Operations, including two combat tours. The job is a duality of ambiguity and precision; directly stating and implying.
It takes a special kind of understanding of intention and perception, of perspective, and motivation.

The first universal truth of PSYOP is that perception is reality. Our job is to control and structure that perception. This inevitably provides an understanding in good PSYOPers that if someone is acting on their perceptions, they are in the right, as that is the truth as they saw it.
It also becomes obvious that people do in fact see the world in distinctly different ways, and communicating something to them, an intention if you will, becomes that much more difficult as the size of your target audience grows.

I would have to say Mr. Shoup may have some bias as to the commentary concerning officers. It is very difficult not to view criticism negatively, or defend the actions of your peers.

Either way, I feel both parties have done a wonderful job at attempting objectivity with their criticism, and defending their views of the situation.

Sometimes you just have to admit that your perspective is not UNIVERSALLY true, as true as it may be to you!

The terrible thing is that universal truth is often simply whichever view is shared by the majority, which tends to be whichever view is most well-recieved by the majority (that is to say which one most aligns with their values), or whichever view is backed by the most violence.

Anonymous said...

I was a Cpl in the Marines and part of the invasion in 2003. Although I was not with this unit or even an infantry unit. I related with the book and thought it seems very accurate.

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bjbassman said...

Hi and thanks for a really balanced response to Evans book which I must admit I haven't read but just watched all episodes of the series Generation Kill. From your comments and the amazing series I must take my hat off to you for risking your life for your country. It seems that the real issue in Iraq was the lack of planning by the US Government for what to do after the war was over. I hope that in future the US government thinks more deeply about how to solve a oil fueled international humanitarian crisis with violence.

Anonymous said...

I lost a lot of faith in Evan Wright when I read his factually inaccurate characterization of maneuver warfare from his original reporting. Any student of military history knows that the doctrine adhered to by General Mattis during the invasion (as it indeed was doctrine) was pioneered some six to seven decades earlier by German generals with famous names like Rommel and Guderian. The same strategy: deep penetration by armor and mechanized infantry, followed up by slower, heavier forces to fully root out the opposition; this is how the Germans took France, Poland, and western Russia. Furthermore the entire notion of strongpoint tactics is an ancient concept. Hannibal Barca famously pinned the larger Roman army at Cannae with his heavy infantry, using light infantry in his center to draw the legionaries deeper into the melee before enveloping the entire enemy force with his heavy cavalry.

Although I am not familiar with the particulars of our invasion of Iraq, the parallels between strongpointing occupied towns to leapfrog past them in order to achieve deep penetration of the enemy's defense in depth along corridors of weakness (after all they needed roads too, and so could not make them unusable for our forces) before later completely enveloping those pockets of resistance, and the well-documented successes of many leaders who came before are quite evident. The riskiest and most experimental part of Mattis's strategy was to use Marine Reconnaissance in a role that could be described as closer to that of a Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Rapid reconnaissance in force, but not direct engagement being their primary duty. What is clear is that 1st Recon was used in a much more traditional mechanized infantry role, but relied upon for their elite status as, is aptly stated (though I forget right now by whom) America's shock troops.

A strong theme then in Generation Kill is that, while the men of Bravo Company repeat the mantra that "Marines make do," they spend their time bitching and moaning about being tasked so outside their designated role, rather than making do and adapting to this irregular task. When it comes down to it, 1st Recon are made to look like either selfish (the notion that Ferrando was "trying to get his full bird on [their] backs" is clearly endorsed,) incompetent (almost every company grade officer but Patterson and Fick are shown as inept,) unprofessional (from the theme that Mattis was using this battalion like a science experiement to the simple endorsement of Marines bitching - literally everybody in any hierarchical work will bitch about superiors, retail to Recon,) or some combination of the three (Captain McGraw in particular is shown as unable to effectively lead, openly malcontent about strategy, and implied to have been so focused on his own notion of leadership that he did not recognize the former two qualities in himself until confronted by Kocher.)

Altogether, it's fairly clear from the many extant accounts that Wright achieved a solid communication of the perspectives with which he was most familiar, but failed dearly to familiarize himself with both other perspectives and, in some cases, facts. All perspectives are worth understanding, so I'm not trying to say "don't read the book or watch the series" by any means.

I mostly wanted to add to what I view as increasingly important criticism of Wright's ignorance of military history and theory, given that Mattis is now Secretary of Defense with two of his then-subordinates in similarly crucial roles; Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly having served as his assistant division commander, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Dunford having led RCT-5 parallel to the events related in Generation Kill. These men were daring, but hardly reckless with lives, as is implied. If anything the bold strategy in which the First Reconnaissance Battalion was utilized should only serve to elevate the names of Mattis and Ferrando with those of Guderian or Von Luck.