Evan Wright: Reporting on 'The Killer Elite'

Evan Wright

hide captionEvan Wright

'Best American Magazine Writing 2004'

In March 2003, reporter Evan Wright was in central Iraq with a Marine special forces unit that was leading the charge toward Baghdad. The Marine First Reconnaissance Battalion's task was to go in "ahead of the main Marine invasion force, and... seek out enemy ambushes by driving into them."

The experience led to "The Killer Elite," this year's winner of the National Magazine Award for Excellence in Reporting. "The Killer Elite" was the first in a three-part series that ran in Rolling Stone Magazine in the fall of 2003, and is an almost photographic account of his time with the Marines.

Wright spent two months with a group of men in their early and mid-twenties, some of whom were already veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan. Despite their ages, he found that these were tough and serious individuals — with a serious affinity for the scatological.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden speaks with Wright in the second of a series of interviews with some of this year's National Magazine Award Winners.

'The Killer Elite' Excerpt:

Note: The following excerpt contains language some may find objectionable.

The invaders drive north through the Iraqi desert in a Humvee, eating candy, dipping tobacco and singing songs. Oil fires burn on the horizon, set during skirmishes between American forces and pockets of die-hard Iraqi soldiers. The four Marines crammed into this vehicle — among the very first American troops who crossed the border into Iraq — are wired on a combination of caffeine, sleep deprivation, excitement and tedium. While watching for enemy fire and simultaneously belting out Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You," the twenty-two-year-old driver, Cpl. Joshua Ray Person, and the vehicle team leader, twenty-eight-year-old Sgt. Brad Colbert — both Afghan War veterans — have already reached a profound conclusion about this campaign: that the battlefield that is Iraq is filled with "f—-ing retards." There's the retard commander in their battalion who took a wrong turn near the border, delaying the invasion by at least an hour. There's another officer, a classic retard, who has already begun chasing through the desert to pick up souvenirs thrown down by fleeing Iraqi soldiers: helmets, Republican Guard caps, rifles. There are the hopeless retards in the battalion-support sections who screwed up the radios and didn't bring enough batteries to operate the Marines' thermal-imaging devices. But in their eyes, one retard reigns supreme: Saddam Hussein – "We already kicked his ass once," says Person, spitting a thick stream of tobacco juice out his window. "Then we let him go, and he spends the next twelve years pissing us off even more. We don't want to be in this s—-hole country. We don't want to invade it. What a f—-ing retard."

The war began twenty-four hours ago as a series of explosions that rumbled across the Kuwaiti desert beginning at about six in the morning on March 20th. Marines sleeping in holes dug into the sand twenty miles south of the border with Iraq sat up and gazed into the empty expanse, their faces blank as they listened to the distant rumblings. There were 374 men camped out in the remote desert staging area, all members of the First Reconnaissance Battalion, which would lead the way during considerable portions of the invasion of Iraq, often operating behind enemy lines. These Marines had been eagerly anticipating this day since leaving their base at Camp Pendleton, California, more than six weeks before. Spirits couldn't have been higher. Later that first day, when a pair of Cobra helicopter gunships thumped overhead, flying north, presumably on their way to battle, Marines pumped their fists in the air and screamed, "Yeah! Get some!"

"Get some!" is the unofficial Marine Corps cheer. It's shouted when a brother Marine is struggling to beat his personal best in a fitness run. It punctuates stories told at night about getting laid in whorehouses in Thailand and Australia. It's the cry of exhilaration after firing a burst from a .50-caliber machine gun. Get some! expresses in two simple words the excitement, fear, feelings of power and the erotic-tinged thrill that come from confronting the extreme physical and emotional challenges posed by death, which is, of course, what war is all about. Nearly every Marine I've met is hoping this war with Iraq will be his chance to get some.

Marines call exaggerated displays of enthusiasm — from shouting "Get some!" to waving American flags to covering their bodies with Marine Corps tattoos – "moto." You won't ever catch Sgt. Brad Colbert, one of the most respected Marines in First Recon and the team leader I would spend the war with, engaging in any moto displays. They call Colbert the Iceman. Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds a lot like David Spade. Though he considers himself a "Marine Corps killer," He's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980s except rap. He is passionate about gadgets — he collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be "configured" by plugging it into his PC. He is the last guy you would picture at the tip of the spear of the invasion of Iraq.

The vast majority of the troops will get to Baghdad by swinging west onto a modern superhighway built by Hussein as a monument to himself and driving, largely unopposed, until they reach the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. Colbert's team in First Recon will reach Baghdad by fighting its way through some of the crummiest, most treacherous parts of Iraq. Their job will be to screen the advance of a Marine battle force, the 7,000-strong Regimental Combat Team One (RCT 1), through a 115-mile- long agricultural-and-urban corridor that runs between the cities of An Nasiriyah and Al Kut filled with thousands of well-armed fedayeen guerrilla fighters. Through much of this advance, First Recon, mounted in a combination of seventy lightly armored and open-top Humvees and trucks, will race ahead of RCT 1, uncovering enemy positions and ambush points by literally driving right into them. After this phase of the operation is over, the unit will move west and continue its role as ambush hunters during the assault on Baghdad.

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