PW: In Generation Kill you describe being an embedded reporter for Rolling Stone with a Marine unit that was the first to go into Iraq. How did you manage that assignment?
I had done a similar embed a year earlier with the army's 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. When this war came around, I wanted to be with the element that I thought had the most likely chances of doing interesting things. So I thought Marines. I was in contact with people at the Pentagon, and said, "I travel light and I'm in reasonably good physical health."
How did the Marines feel about their participation in the war?
A lot of them didn't necessarily believe in the politics, but to them it was like self-actualization, an extreme sport kind of thing. I just spent some time at Camp Pendleton with a bunch of the guys I wrote about who, after I left, got ambushed in Falluja. In fact, the Humvee that I rode in with them was destroyed on April 8 in Falluja. They're all trying to go back again. With our volunteer military, and especially with these elite units, we've selected people who want to go to war no matter what.
Did you expect the war to be over after the fall of Baghdad?
I wasn't surprised by what has happened. For this unit, there was no sense that there was any plan for an occupation. The ensuing chaos didn't come as a surprise to the guys that I was with. They did not feel that the job was done at all. When they got to Baghdad, they were ordered to run humanitarian operations or make an environment for that. But they weren't given the chance to do that.
At Al Kut, the Marines kicked the Iraqis' asses, a big victory. Then we started taking mortar fire. While the Marines don't respect the fighting skills of the Iraqis, they've come to notice that while they don't fight very well, they never seem to surrender, either. They have a great deal of pride, and we underestimated that pride. Even those who hated Saddam and suffered under him did not want to see Americans in their streets.
How do the men you wrote about feel about the future of the war in Iraq?
There will be Americans willing to fight in this war no matter how it goes. I have enormous respect for the Marines I was with—for their wisdom, for their intellect and their bravery. They're some of the smartest people I've ever been around. But I don't think they understand what impact this war is going to have on them as humans. I think this will be unfolding in their lives until the end of their time on earth.
Do you believe the embedded reporters were too close to the action to be impartial?
I had one great advantage. I was one of only two magazine reporters embedded with the Marines. They said if you give us your satellite phone, if you don't carry anything, you can ride with a front-line unit team. As a result, I didn't have to file stories while I was there with them. The print guys had to carry sat phones, solar panels and their computers. That made it impossible for most of them to disappear with a front-line unit.
While technology has enabled us to create a much greater volume of news coverage, the same technology makes it difficult for an individual reporter to disappear inside a unit as I did, and as reporters did frequently during the Vietnam War and in World War II. They were given a little more latitude [by the military] and they weren't expected to file necessarily all the time. Not having any technology was a great liberation for me.
When other reporters filed negative stories, or ones that were perceived as negative, it got back to the units they were with immediately. I never had that worry. So as much as I loved these guys, when I got back I wrote a harsh portrayal of them. I didn't hold back. It's like if you were writing a memoir of your family. You might love your family, but you would still not hide any of the dark secrets.