Evan Wright was a journalist embedded in the lead Humvee of First Recon's Bravo Company's Second Platoon and based his book Generation Kill on the experience. HBO has turned the book into a miniseries that is a precise retelling of the early weeks of the military campaign from the point of view of the guys on the ground: the non-commissioned officers and platoon-level commanders who led the way to Baghdad.
His new book Hella Nation, was recently released in April of 2009. From his work as a reporter at Hustler magazine, to his National Magazine Award-winning writing for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, Evan Wright has always had an affinity for outsiders-what he calls "the lost tribes of America." The previously published pieces in this collection chart a deeply personal journey, beginning with his stark but sympathetic portrayals of sex workers in Porn Valley, through his raw portrait of a Hollywood überagent-turned-war documentarian and hero of America's far right. His subjects are people for whom the American dream is either just out of grasp, or something they've chosen to reject altogether.
Question: Why did you go to Iraq?
Evan Wright: Well, I had been to Afghanistan previously. That was my first covering of a war but I had written for Rolling Stone for a few years and the short answer is I would always write about youth subcultures like skate boarders, criminals, radical environmentalists, and I pitched to my editor the idea that hey, I’ll cover the military. It’s another youth subculture. But I think the other reason I wanted to go to Iraq was I studied history in school, I was fascinated by war actually, and I had also previously worked at Hustler magazine as an editor there. And I always felt that when I worked at Hustler we were beneficiaries of the First Amendment and I thought now here is another way to live the First Amendment. The military is giving me the opportunity to cover the war from the front and I feel that I ought to.
Question: How did you gain the trust of the men you were working with?
Evan Wright: When I first covered troops it was in Afghanistan and I was a little... I spent a month with a heavy weapons platoon in Kandahar and with those guys I was always sort of like should I let them know that I worked for Hustler ‘cause I thought maybe they’ll be angry or some... it’ll offend some born-again Christian or something. And it got out and it really increased my respect and acceptance in that platoon so by the time I got to Iraq or to the marine corps prior to the invasion of Iraq I kind of knew in a manipulative journalistic way that Hustler was a good card to play, but it’s more of a humorous thing like they... I knew that they would laugh about it. What really I think made them accept me as much as they did, and not everyone accepted me, was just the fact that I stayed with them. And I believe in journalism nothing beats time and persistence, Just follow people around and you... they kind of... it breaks down the barriers. The fact that I followed them around after we were getting shot at and ambushed of course also helped.
Question: What was it like the first time you witnessed combat or were involved in a fire fight?
Evan Wright: In Afghanistan we had some rocket attacks and there were big issues with land mines that were blowing people up. That was a different sort of tension. The first time...In fact, it was a worse... Just the fear of land mines that we had in Afghanistan was worse than actually being shot at, and the first time I was really shot at was at the bridge at Nasiriyah which will be depicted in episode two of the mini series and it was strangely enough very exciting and it was strangely enough I...and this voiced by marines that were by my side. It was like wow, this is just like a movie, and it’s weird to me that my reference point and their reference point was movies but that’s the case. It was.. To see... And for some reason to have a mortar blow up sort of near you and you feel the over-pressure and to see machine gun fire tearing in to trees over your head even though it’s scary it’s very exciting.
Question : What was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in while in Iraq?
Evan Wright: Well, I think that they were all dangerous. Once you start getting shot at, who knows, but...who knows what’s going to happen? But for me this happened time and time again. We were in a convoy moving forward so at times a unit would have moved ahead of us and they would say, “Okay. You’re going to have enemy contact in five minutes when you reach this turn in the road.” So then you’re in the Humvee and you know hey, the last guys that drove up here they took RPG and machine gun fire and it’s going to happen to you next. It was the anticipation that was always the scariest.
Question: Did being an eyewitness of war change your perceptions of it?
Evan Wright: When I came back from Iraq a lot of my friends were like oh, wow, you were in combat. It must be you saw something that no one else could ever understand unless they’ve been there, and actually I disagreed with that. The weirdest thing is there was an element of being in combat that confirmed to me what I’d read about it and I’d read... studied history so I’d read a lot about it and it was weird. As a writer and a person who’s sort of lived the life of the imagination, I was like wow, it’s really cool that my imagination did actually prepare me for what combat would be like. So there was an element of it that was very familiar based on my intense reading as a history student but the one thing that I really saw in Iraq graphically and I’d never quite understood was how attractive war is for the combatants, that basically in Iraq you had these young marines who had prepared for war and it was pretty exciting for them to finally get a chance to be in it. And on the other side many of the people that were attacking us were professional Iraqi soldiers. Now many of them were actually working as insurgents because the... Saddam’s military had prepared for an insurgency as we invaded, but they were professional combatants. So you had these young men on both sides that were sort of fulfilling their dreams. They... It was very self-actualizing for the marines as I’m sure it was for the Iraqis and it was- war is attractive to those guys but in between is this mass of civilians who are being slaughtered, who are suffering, and I’d never quite realized A: that for combatants war is kind of attractive and B: that truly what happens in war is just civilians just get fucked. There’s no... There is no glory. There’s nothing for them except for pain, misery, death, suffering, and you really see it in Iraq. I really saw it there.
Recorded on: 7/17/08