Here they come, marching into bookshop windows: an army of instant books on the Iraq war. Evan Wright's startlingly good Generation Kill is easily the best so far. A deeply disturbing, compulsively readable narrative of an elite US marine battalion's operations at the sharpest point of the American blitzkrieg, it offers profound insights into the lives of the young soldiers - "America's first generation of disposable children" - upon whom the burden of US foreign policy rests. In depressing contrast, Slavoj Zizek's Iraq: the borrowed kettle is one of the worst books written about this - or any other - war.
Wright was an embedded reporter for Rolling Stone magazine with the First Marines Reconnaissance Battalion, a unit of highly trained, ultra-violent young men blitzing through Mesopotamia in a phalanx of lightly armoured Humvees. As a fighting machine, they are terrifyingly effective. Fuelled by M&M's and mouthfuls of instant coffee granules, armed with .50-calibre machine-guns and supported by Apache helicopters, they are almost completely invulnerable to attack. These postmodern crusaders have triumphed both over bullets (with Kevlar vests and helmets) and over darkness (with night-vision goggles and laser sniper sights). Their strategy is simple: when in doubt, "bomb the shit out of it". They sustain comically minor injuries while killing hundreds of Iraqis. Surviving enemy soldiers stumble out of ruined buildings to surrender, many of them crying and defecating with fear.
Occasionally the death of a child troubles their consciences, but First Recon are not sensitive warriors. More than half come from broken homes, and many have spent time on the fringes of criminal gangs. Most are "on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and internet porn than they are with their own parents", and war itself is often simply another high-tech game. As 19-year-old Corporal Harold Trombley says:
I was thinking just one thing when we drove into that ambush . . . "Grand Theft Auto: vice city". I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of the windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool.
For this Columbine generation, killing is routine. Briefings end with the cry: "Kill!" Shooting a man is "popping your cherry". One soldier wishes that he had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima ("a couple dudes killed hundreds of thousands. That fucking rules!"), while another observes: "We're like America's little pit bull. They beat it, starve it, mistreat it, and once in a while they let it out to attack somebody." A marine chaplain confides that "many of them have sought my counsel because they feel guilty . . . but when I ask them why, they say they feel bad because they haven't had a chance to fire their weapons".
One hardly needs to add that these marines know (or care) as much about Iraq as the warders of Abu Ghraib prison knew (or cared) about the Geneva Conventions. Not even the senior commanders speak a word of Arabic. Muslims are all just "hajjis". Iraq's religious differences are analysed thus: "Let a motherfucker use an American toilet for a week and they'll forget all about this Sunni-Shia bullshit."
Wright's young marines provide ample demonstration of the toxic pathologies produced by the vast income inequalities and pathetic educational investment in the contemporary United States. No less importantly, they illustrate why a "war on terror" led by the Pentagon seems doomed to fail. In Iraq, the provocations of such men wrecked the occupation and fed armed resistance and terrorism. Globally, rising anti-American sentiment links directly to a US foreign policy that gives greater privilege to military power than to persuasion, and to force than diplomacy. Reading this book, an intelligent leader should be forced to rethink America's self-defeating strategy: tragically, George W Bush is more likely to close it with a satisfied smirk and echo the marine corps cry - "Yeah! Get some!"
Bush will certainly not be reading Slavoj Zizek's unpleasant, incoherent little anti-war tract. Zizek is a fashionable Slovenian "cultural theorist" and author of books on Jacques Lacan, Lenin and David Lynch. His unbearably self-regarding website modestly describes him as "one of the greatest thinkers of our time", but he is perhaps most famous for his judgement on 9/11: "In a way, America got what it fantasised about."
That "in a way" is pure Zizek: moral relativism masked by rhetorical evasion. In Iraq: the borrowed kettle, these traits are manifest in repeated insinuations that Bush's America is best understood in comparison to Hitler's Germany. Typical is Zizek's suggestion that the images of the arrest of Saddam Hussein (ludicrously described as "a homeless, destitute old man") "recall the Nazis inspecting a Jew caught in a ghetto raid". This is poisonous, escapist nonsense, and corrodes our ability to critique US policy.
Unsurprisingly, perverted comparisons produce demented solutions. Zizek cites the murder of UN health workers by Peru's Shining Path guerrillas as an act of "true revolutionary autonomy and sovereignty". He suggests that the underdevelopment of the Muslim world makes it ripe for socialism (forgetting that this was once the very programme of Saddam's "Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party"). Sounding little different from one of the violent and ignorant marines of Generation Kill, Zizek proposes, as his strategy for "leftist Eurocentrism", to tell the US: "OK, fuck off then, and stop bothering me!"
We "leftists" urgently need a coherent response to a US foreign policy that puts First Recon in the driving seat. But it will have to be better - much better - than this.
Mark Bearn is a doctorate student in history at Yale