There’s a tendency to think of our misadventure in Iraq, now in its sixth year, as one of those long-running, poorly made television shows whose survival somehow feels miraculous and dispiriting, the triumph of an inability to move on to something else. The shame is that for the men and women who are fighting it, the war isn’t a show, or a game, or a debatable issue, but something blazingly, crushingly or tediously real every day, and as long as their mission gets picked up season after season, Iraq should be at the forefront of our consciousness.
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Rumsfeld’s moving targets: The TV version of the Marines’ 1st Recon unit
The film and television worlds have tried to give this war a cultural immediacy that didn’t exist for Vietnam, when it was an active quagmire. But of-the-moment movies like Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah and Grace Is Gone, and Steven Bochco’s FX series of two years ago, Over There, failed to spark the populace’s desire to see the Iraq war and its attendant controversies turned into three-act fodder or episodic drama.
HBO’s seven-part miniseries Generation Kill, however, is a different animal, the true story of the first ground troops into Iraq, based on the award-winning book of war reportage by journalist Evan Wright. On assignment for Rolling Stone, Wright spent two months embedded with the young Marines of the 1st Recon Battalion, intensely trained special forces entrusted with leading the way to Baghdad in open-air Humvees. His unvarnished account of his time with America’s shock troops wasn’t about the right or wrong of war but rather the desert mission’s strange atmosphere of anticipation and survival, a contest between the fighting mindset of gung-ho men raised in an adrenaline-compatible society of video games, rap and porn versus the realities of the conflict: not enough batteries for night-vision goggles, incompetent decisions by superiors, filthy humor, proudly waving to some civilians and accidentally shooting others. [Full disclosure: I was on the jury that gave Wright’s book the PEN Center USA award for Research Nonfiction in 2005.]
Thankfully, the TV version of Generation Kill captures that sense of recent history urgently realized, and it comes from those Balzacian Baltimoreans David Simon and Ed Burns, who gave us television’s great socially charged and novelistic The Wire. That acclaimed, panoramic show may have sprung from their heads, but it never felt terribly made up, as it magnificently reflected the reality of top-to-bottom urban life as they knew it, from Simon’s background as a journalist and Burns’ bona fides in law enforcement. And because Generation Kill has become perhaps the war’s sturdiest and most celebrated combat narrative, they’ve treated Wright’s I-was-there chronicle of 1st Recon’s experiences with Wire-like respect for its rhythms of human (mostly foul-mouthed) speech, a democratic approach to a vast character base, and a patient tipping-over of events.
Like the functioning of a major metropolis that was the big subject of The Wire, waging war is an endeavor of rules and plans and inevitably haphazard execution. But there’s a formal integrity to the Simon-and-Burns storytelling style — predicated on the theory that details matter, complexity rules and you can’t force momentum — that meshes well with the close-up vividness of Wright’s dispatches from an often chaotic front. (Wright was involved in the adaptation, too, acting as consulting producer and occasional co-writer.) There’s no scored music to cue our emotions, and Simon and Burns don’t fashion installments that feel like reality compressed and molded for the sake of a good night’s viewing. The series’ two directors, Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, concentrate on one thing at a time — the camaraderie of drive-along chatter, the tension of an unexpected situation, the brutality of a firefight — without getting ahead of themselves. And what do you know? It actually enhances the sense of Iraq’s unpredictability and conveys the sense of a war that could go in any direction.
But the Simon-Burns stamp also means that, like the famously dense tapestry that was The Wire, Generation Kill isn’t an easy tale in which to become oriented. In the opening hour, as the Marines bide their time at Kuwait’s Camp Mathilda, awaiting orders for the push into Iraq, it can be confusing figuring out the jargon — “A-O” (Area of Operations), “Hitman Two” (Bravo Platoon 2), “moto” (motivational), “sit-rep” (situation report) — and telling who’s who among the men, especially when it seems they’re all blustery hard-asses with an eagerness for battle and a penchant for spiritedly profane, racially insensitive, insult-laden humor.
Eventually, though, as 1st Recon gets word it will — against typical military doctrine for such an elite, multitalented squad — be America’s “tip of the spear” into Iraq, differences emerge among the personalities. First Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands), in command of the first five-vehicle platoon, known as Bravo 2, has the clean-cut, open-faced look of an Ivy Leaguer, which he is, but he can show a willingness to tell it like it is to those above him. Sergeant Brand “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), the team leader of the first Humvee, is a square-jawed portrait of dangerous serenity with a disarmingly polite demeanor. His driver, Corporal Josh Ray Person (James Ransone, who played Ziggy in season two of The Wire), is a caustic motormouth often jacked up on Ripped Fuel and dip tobacco, who sounds like he’s auditioning to host a crazed late-night radio show. (To him, Iraq is being invaded because Saddam is a “retard” who didn’t invest money in keeping his people happy, namely, getting his constituents laid, something he calls “pussy infrastructure.”) Vehicle-two team leader Sergeant Tony Espera (Jon Huertas), who is part Latino and part Native American, has a righteously mean glint in his eye and tends to bring most conversations around to cynical jabs at how he’s joined “the white man” in his quest for world domination. And Bravo Platoon 3's leader, known as Captain America (Eric Nenninger), seems capable only of speaking in a paranoid, open-nerve bark; his leadership abilities are mostly derided and questioned.
Sometimes the Marines’ complaints are played for laughs — as in the bizarrely petty platoonwide order that grooming standards will be strictly enforced for the invasion — but others carry the hint of darker, more scandalously reported problems to come, such as the nagging lack of batteries, or a dearth of lubricant for the Humvee gunners, or even sensible directives. As theory-spouting Corporal Person sarcastically explains to the Evan Wright character (Lee Tergesen), the army gets what they want, but if the country wants its Marines to remain angry killing machines, they must consistently be denied what they need.
“Marines, we make do,” he says.
Generation Kill is in many ways the most straight-ahead, apolitical portrait yet of who’s fighting our wars for us, but it’s hard not to hear that line and wonder where six years of “making do” has gotten us.
GENERATION KILL | HBO | Sundays, 9 p.m.