“Have you ever smoked crack?”
(Click to enlarge)
Tanked up: Evan Wright
“Not my thing.”
Sitting opposite me on the couch, in the living room of his Los Angeles home, Evan Wright is attempting to describe what it’s like to be the target of Iraqi machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. He’s having a tough time. Who knew Rick James was best suited to grasp the fog of war?
“I’ve done plenty of hallucinogenics,” I offer, attempting to help.
Wright shakes his head and smiles.
“Hallucinogenics are good for the general feeling of war, but the specifics of rolling into a combat zone — now, I haven’t smoked a lot of crack, but there’s a feeling when you do ... there’s a little moment where your consciousness is accelerating ahead of your central nervous system and you can just feel it ... ‘Oh my god, this is going to be incredible.’
“The thing most people will never understand about war is that it’s completely exhilarating. That’s the real reason people keep fighting. It’s intoxicating.”
To mildly understate, Wright is an interesting guy. A former Hustler and L.A. Weekly writer, in 2003, as a journalist for Rolling Stone, he embedded with the U.S. Marines' 1st Recon unit as the Marines crossed the Kuwaiti border at the very beginning of the Iraq war and made a push toward Baghdad — the very tip of Rumsfeld’s proverbial spear. Wright’s book on the initial phase of the war, Generation Kill, was a best-seller. Now, David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of The Wire, have turned the book into a seven-episode HBO miniseries of the same name, set to premiere on July 13.
Wright, who wrote parts of the script and was involved in other aspects of the production, has invited me over before the series debut for a private screening. But though we started the show more than a half-hour ago, we haven’t gotten very far — five minutes in at best. Despite apologetically promising to let me watch, Wright keeps pausing the DVD to offer behind-the-scenes tidbits that suddenly evolve into fascinating non sequiturs and counterintuitive spiels about the war.
I’m not complaining.
During the opening scene of the show, in which Marines undergo a high-speed Humvee training assault in the Kuwaiti desert, Wright stops everything to let me know that the scene was slightly fictionalized.
“In real life, none of these guys ever actually practiced firing a SAW gun [the high-caliber automatic weapon mounted at the top of a Humvee] from a moving vehicle. They only had stationary practice.”
Wait, considering Rumsfeld’s blitzkrieg approach to the war, one that emphasized speed and maneuverability, wasn’t that kind of a major oversight? Weren’t these guys going to be pretty much exclusively firing out of moving vehicles?
“Here’s the thing — I tend to give the military a pass on things like this. Name me one job you had where everyone did their work flawlessly. Have you ever had a boss that’s incompetent? People expect perfection out of the military, but it’s just not possible. And that’s especially true under combat conditions.”
Wright’s sympathetic stance is in keeping with his larger approach to Generation Kill — one that seeks to depict the war at face value from the firsthand experience of the Marines on the ground.
“My concern, and David Simon and Ed Burns’ concern, was simply to portray things accurately from the perspective of the Marines in that Humvee. If I had any intent, it was to be voyeuristic — to allow the audience to spy on the Marines in this vanguard unit.”
As if on cue, the show shifts from desert combat to the inside of a Marine tent, where we see Rudy Reyes — a Marine in the 1st Recon unit who was given the task of playing himself in the series — completely naked.
“Rudy’s ass time,” Wright says with a laugh, as the shot lingers on Reyes’ chiseled wall of naked gluteal muscle.
Though the scene is played for comedy — the other soldiers in the tent stare at Reyes’ pinup physique and assure each other “it’s not gay to think Rudy is hot” — there’s also something more subtle going on, something in keeping with Wright’s empathetic take on military shortcomings.
Reyes, for all his physical perfection and imposing musculature, is the subject of ridicule among his buddies. He’s both dangerous and vulnerable simultaneously. In other words, he’s human, something many of us, as Wright pointed out earlier, seem to forget about our military men and women.
The uncomfortable truth is that human beings and human institutions, even those with explosives and automatic weapons, are inherently flawed. That may seem an obvious realization, but it’s a terrifying one, considering the tremendous responsibility we put on the shoulders of our military.
“This isn’t Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket. I wasn’t concerned with some larger message about the war,” says Wright. “I think pretty much everyone realizes war is horrific ... I’m not really worried about what the audience takes away from that experience.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case with Wright’s book; in the prologue he tells us that the role of 1st Recon was to serve as guinea pigs for Rumsfeld’s doctrine of maneuver warfare. The unit’s sole function was to travel far past enemy lines and souse out ambushes by serving as cannon fodder — allowing the main invasion forces to pinpoint the location of Iraqi resistance and to roll through and crush it with the greatest expediency. Though the narrative is largely a character portrait of the Marines in 1st Recon, the knowledge that these men are to serve as target practice for the Iraqi Republican Guard imbues the book with a political subtext — a referendum on Rumsfeld’s speed-over-brute-force ideology.
As Wright and I make our way through the first episode, it appears as if the miniseries will offer no such meta vision. The show progresses, but the eminent danger these men face remains hidden. The viewer knows no more than the Marines do, and that’s just the way Wright wants it. He stops the DVD to explain:
“In this case, the show is more honest than the book, because in real life, we didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. I didn’t learn that strategic context until weeks later, when I started reporting my experience. So in that sense, the book’s narrative is artificial.”
Wright reaches for the remote control to restart the show but pauses, something clearly on his mind.
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“The chaos and violence that erupted after the invasion is often cited as proof of the failure of the maneuverability doctrine. But here’s the thing: In 1989, when the U.S. invaded Panama, they went down there to take out one guy — Manuel Noriega. The military ended up killing about 3,000 people in the process, most of them civilians, and about half of them at roadblocks.
“Roadblocks are very tense, tricky situations. The military’s policy has been to fire warning shots to get people to stop. But it can be difficult to tell where the shots are coming from, so when people hear gunfire, their natural reaction is often to speed up and head toward the roadblock, thinking they’ll be safely protected. They end up dead.
“In the ’90s, in response to what happened in Panama, Bill Clinton tried to institute a ‘peace studies’ department — to help train troops to deal with situations exactly like this. Everyone tore into him, saying this draft-dodging weed smoker was trying to pussify the Pentagon. When Newt Gingrich came to power, one of the first things he did was successfully lobby to end the program. Fifteen years of willful neglect later, we’re killing tons of Iraqi citizens at roadblocks. If 400,000 troops had invaded Iraq, things wouldn’t have been any better. We would have set up that many more roadblocks and had that many more civilian casualties.”
Wright hits the play button. And the show plays on.