Generation Kill and the Myth of Clean Violence
While on vacation I re-read Evan Wright’s 2004 book Generation Kill for what I think is the third time now. If anyone has yet to read it—or hasn’t seen the show—I really could not recommend it more highly. In my opinion, it still stands up as one of the most thoughtful meditations on what engaging in violence actually entails in the real world.
A constant point of emphasis throughout the narrative is how opaque and confusing war is at the individual level. Even in elite military formations, those that engage in combat often have fragmented and contradictory information on a moment-to-moment basis. They’re forced to make decisions regarding the life and death of total strangers with whom they don’t share a language or culture. They’re often not old enough to even legally drink.
This gets me to the point of why I’m writing this. There’s a central tendency within contemporary GOP politics in the United States that seems to be captured by something like a myth of a clean application of violence. Recent pronouncements from figures like DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and the rotating cast of pundits on Fox indicate an emerging idea, reminiscent of 2003, that violence, when employed as a tool of state policy, can be used in a "clean" and comprehensible manner.
The underlying premise is that those tasked with executing violence can do so in a way that exclusively targets individuals guilty of severe transgressions. Take DeSantis’ proposal to shoot all cartel members who attempt to breach the border fence. There’s apparently a deluded belief within conservative circles that this can be accomplished without killing anyone other than cartel members.
Putting aside the fact that summarily executing people based on suspicions of affiliation with a criminal organization is morally reprehensible for a nation that upholds the rule of law—that isn’t how any of this even works. Cartel members don’t wear uniforms. They don’t walk around telling people they’re in a cartel. In practice, this policy would just result in the indiscriminate killing of innocent people.
Any proposed direct military intervention in Mexico would also inevitably result in the deaths of thousands of Mexican citizens. There is a fantasy taking hold in these conservative circles that the United States can simply go into Mexico and eliminate the cartels. Totally divorced from reality, this notion provides a simplistic and satisfying answer to complex policy problems. The belief is that somehow violence will only be applied to those who deserve it.
The recurring deaths of Iraqi civilians throughout Generation Kill are almost entirely a result of similar young men with guns being forced to make decisions with unclear information. It is the violence of the real world in which the military would be fighting.
An Iraqi man driving down his own street, not realizing he should stop for a smoke round, is killed on the spot. His only crime was likely being confused in his own neighborhood and not knowing what to do.
A young girl's skull is blown apart on an Iraqi highway for no reason other than her father's failure to stop in time. Two boys on camels are shot because they happened to be near an assault on an airfield. Multiple villages are decimated by airstrikes because there were suspected mortar rounds launched from them. Civilians are repeatedly killed in moments of confusion and incomplete information.
None of this is due to a deliberate disregard for Iraqi lives or any conscious desire by Americans to commit war crimes. These incidents reflect the reality of what service members are asked to do during wartime. Civilian casualties are an unavoidable consequence of war, and hundreds of innocent lives are lost.
The GOP commentariat advocating for a unilateral military intervention glosses over all of this.
Those advocating for unilateral military intervention ignore all of these complexities. They’re not taking seriously what happens when an American soldier fires shots at a vehicle approaching a checkpoint, forever destroying a family. Countless shattered lives and destroyed towns will be an inevitable part of this proposed intervention.
Setting aside the cascading and horrific effects of the instability and violence unleashed by any proposed intervention—we will be sending service members into another country where they will inevitably kill innocent civilians.
This is not to say that I am opposed to all wars. The Ukrainians, for instance, are fighting a just war that deserves our full support.
However, a war in Mexico would amount to nothing more than the callous destruction of innocent lives, driven by pundits who will never experience the firsthand consequences of their advocacy. Similar to 2003, it would be entirely a war of choice, and we would bear responsibility for the countless deaths that ensue.