Take the anarchists: you have the dominant image of the WTO, the black-clad kids smashing windows. The images convey an entire, unspoken narrative: these are angry protestors smashing windows because they’re outraged, they’re full of righteous anger. As a print person, I feel that it’s my job to go back and see what was really happening. And what I find is that it’s often a bunch of people doing things for no reason whatsoever. In fact, the anarchists weren’t angry when they were smashing windows, they were having fun. And they weren’t really righteous, they were followers of a real wacko named John Zerzan. A lot of my journalism is focused on revealing the absurdism behind so many of our actions. It’s not a deliberate mission, it just sort of happens.

You peek into some dark and dangerous corners in Hella Nation. Yet often you encounter these strange, contradictory pockets of innocence. The buff soldiers of the Fifth Platoon Delta Company “still give the impression of hometown innocence,” and even the taxi-dance halls you chronicle in Los Angeles have a kind of dowdy sweetness to them. Is that always there?

Once you remove your own preconceptions as a journalist, you often find that sort of innocence—often in people who are doing very destructive things. That makes it more confounding. It really proves that innocence itself is not necessarily a wholesome thing.

About Generation Kill, you said: “I’m apolitical, but I do hope it pisses off more people on the left than on the right.” Is this book designed to piss off that same demographic?

That quote was more in reference to the politics of the war. I’m not sure what motivated me to say it [laughs]. But I think is has something to do with how the troops are perceived—that’s what I was talking about. The left has gone overboard trying to portray them as victims of bad recruiters. My point was that a lot of the troops actually like fighting and going back to Iraq. As for this book, I actually have no sense of who it would anger at all.

Maybe you’ll get lucky and piss off the entire population.

When you publish a book these days, the easiest way to sell it is to put something really incendiary on the cover. Publishers want strong political opinions, strong cultural opinions. But unfortunately for the sales department, I don’t offer that.

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James Marcus is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.