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Inside Generation Kill

Writer/Consultant: Evan Wright

This episode follows what was about 30 hours of action lived on the ground during the invasion. The episode opens with Bravo Marines watching a hamlet. The actual morning was one of the more beautiful I had witnessed during the invasion. The birds chirping in the nearby forest were more musical than those put in the episode. Perhaps an audience would have been thrown by how idyllic Iraq was, even as we watched the hamlet disappear in a bomb blast. There were other horrors of this morning described in my book, which had to be edited out for the sake of time. But foremost in my mind is the smoking, singed dog who walked out from the wreckage of the bombed hamlet even as the mushroom cloud from the bomb was still forming in the sky above it. The dog moved in circles, and kept falling over because, we suspected, his inner ears were shattered by the blast, which made him dizzy. This was an occasion when I wished Trombley could have shot a dog, simply to put him out of his misery. But given potential threats from all quarters Marines were dealing with that morning, they couldn't focus on a lone wounded canine.

On the animals theme, it was Ed Burns who insisted in an early story meeting that we include Cpl. Stafford's hunt for edible critters in this episode. Strictly speaking, Stafford did not trap and eat any critters in the timeframe covered by this script (though he did so elsewhere during the movement to Baghdad.) Burns believed this was important and argued we fit it in somewhere. Even after this was shoe-horned this into the script I didn't fully appreciate its value until I saw it on screen. Everybody was hungry. Our one MRE-a-day-diet amounted to about 1200 calories. Stafford was one of the few Marines resourceful enough to do something about it.

The ambush by the bridge is an event that I not only lived through but also researched. There were a couple of facts connected to this episode that never made sense. Chief among them was the information I later obtained that Cobra pilots reported seeing heat signatures in the trees which indicated the presence of humans. They weren't sure if these were enemy or Marines, so they aimed their rockets just beyond the trees. In any event, this information was never passed to Fick's platoon or to Colbert's vehicle on point. Had they been given the information, they almost certainly would have stopped before driving into the pre-planned kill box alongside the trees.

As a historian of this moment, I have a unique bias. Since I was in the vehicle sent into the ambush despite what Cobra pilots had seen, I wrestled with a certain amount of personal anger over this screw-up.  At the same time, having studied the military up close in numerous embeds in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can't always conclude that a screw-up is necessarily the result of personal or institutional incompetence. Even the best leaders and institutions make mistakes. It's the nature of war that even the tiniest error has the potential to trigger catastrophic failure.

In this case, Cobra pilots spotted heat signatures of the enemy lying in ambush for us. After relaying this information to the battalion, for reasons I've never been able to figure out, Fick's platoon continued to press forward into the ambush without being told what was waiting for them.

The failure to pass accurate information in a timely manner was compounded by the fact that the men of Bravo Two did not have any battery power whatsoever that night to operate their one thermal imaging device. Not to be confused with their Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), which amplify existing light, their thermal imaging device created images using heat signatures. Had it been working that night, it likely would have revealed the presence of enemy ambushers in the trees well before the Marines drove into their midst.

As far as Lt. Fick is portrayed in this script, the story is about his struggle to reconcile his loyalties to the imperfect institution he represents with his affection for his men. Ultimately, for any Marine leader, mission accomplishment is more important than troop welfare. It's a concept every Marine understands, but it's not always easy to live by.

I have seldom seen an action film that accurately rendered night-fighting, especially as practiced by American troops equipped with NVGs and weapons with infrared laser designators (small laser-aiming lights that are only visible when viewed through their NVGs or night vision scopes.) My intent in working on this sequence in the script was to build the action slowly and in so doing explain along the way how the troops' equipment and tactics functioned in the darkness. With Simon and Burns' blessing I cheated the incident of Espera spotting what appeared to be a human form but which turned out to be a trash bag. This never happened, but I inserted this to illustrate how NVGs and infrared designators work. The rest of the sequence follows events as laid out in my book.

It was tough enough to make this sequence understandable to a reader of the script. I wasn't sure how well director Simon Cellen-Jones would pull it off in actually filming it. I half expected that given the difficulties of rendering a night fight, Cellen-Jones and the rest might end up cutting this incident down to a few moments of muzzle flashes in the dark, and let that suffice for the bridge ambush. Even worse, I worried they might film the whole sequence, and it would turn out completely impossible to follow. The work on screen turned out to be just about flawless, achieving a perfect balance between the confusion of that dark night and the calm and precision of the Marines as they used their superior night optics and tactics to take out the enemy.

By all rights, the ambushers should have inflicted more serious casualties on the Marines that night. Not only did they lay out a solid ambush and succeed at luring the Marines into it, they showed extreme courage in manning their positions despite repeated attacks from Marine LAVs, artillery and Cobra gunships prior to our arrival. While this story is told almost entirely from the Marines' perspective, I've often tried to imagine what it was like for the men on the other side who crawled into position, dug fighting holes and moved obstacles into the road while under several hours of bombardment from the US military. True, the Cobras deliberately overshot the trees where the men were hiding as we approached, but even taking rocket-fire that was off by a couple of hundred meters would be enough to send many lesser men running.

If there was any single error committed by Lt. Col. Ferrando and the his commanders in sending Bravo Two up to the bridge, it was probably the simple, gross underestimation of the enemy's will to fight. Ferrando believed that the artillery bombardment launched by Marines against the area around the bridge (which as I reported in my book included nearly 1,000 anti-personnel cluster munitions) in the hours before we approached it should have broken enemy resistance. It turned out he was wrong.

Had Sgt. Colbert not spotted the men preparing to fire on our humvee amidst the trees a few meters away and put them down with effective fire--no doubt just moments before they planned to open up on us--the entire night would probably have turned out quite differently. His shots which threw the ambushers off balance and alerted the rest of the platoon to their presence probably saved several American lives that night, perhaps my own. I personally dedicate this script to Sgt. Colbert's calm and marksmanship and that of the other men in Bravo Two.

Had we ended the story here, this episode would have been more conventionally heroic than the others. But the Marines' night did not end there. Their combat wasn't over until the next day when they finally reached the far side of the town. The ending came when an excellent Marine and marksman, Cpl. Hasser, mistakenly fired, killing an unarmed civilian. Neither the best officers nor the finest enlisted men are immune to making horrific mistakes.

5: A Burning Dog

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