The HBO miniseries Generation Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the masterminds behind the superlative series The Wire. Simon himself is a former journalist, the state thereof being a primary preoccupation of the fifth season of the The Wire. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to a war story seen through the eyes of a fellow writer. Generation Kill is based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the US Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the first boots on the ground during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Actor Lee Tergesen plays Wright as a wide-eyed innocent among perverse killers, delightedly scribbling the marines’ colorful boastings in his notebook, when not dodging sniper fire. The most quotable is the manic driver Corporal Josh Ray Person, well-cast as James Ransone, basically reprising his character Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire season two.
The marines’ lingo flashes back to pop culture circa 2003, which already seems so very far away. A rumor spreads that J-Lo is dead, reminding us of the brief period when Jennifer Lopez was the most desired woman on the planet. Everyone’s a “dog” or “bra” (not as in the undergarment but as in “bro”). In between harrowing battles (which the warriors long for but hate when they arrive), much of their experience is comprised of long stretches of boredom. They supply their own soundtrack, recollecting what lyrics they can and recreating every part of a song a cappella with great enthusiasm.
After exhausting the conversational value of their bowel movements and each other’s alleged sexual orientations, there’s nothing but time to talk about the origins and motivations of the war. One popular theory is that it is a nothing but another race war. As one soldier puts it, it’s “White man’s destiny to rule the world” and “White man won’t be denied.” Or is it to clear the ground for more Starbucks franchises? Or maybe it’s a war over the scarcest resource of all: virgins.
Marines are trained to depersonalize and vilify the enemy, all with the aim of being effective killers. So they are essentially ill-equipped for a 21st century war in which they are expected to request permission before engaging any target, and for situations in which they must deal diplomatically with the civilian population – some of which may be threats in disguise, but most often are just people who either need their help or would rather they just leave. When the marines do wish to offer compassion, they are thwarted by their command or by cold hard reality – oftentimes there’s nothing they can do. They’re also fatally underequipped in a literal sense: they’re issued less body armor than Wright was able to purchase on eBay, they have state-of-the-art nightvision goggles but no batteries, and as if they didn’t stand out enough, they’re clad in the wrong camouflage style. They subsist on only one M.R.E. (Meal, Ready to Eat) each day, supplemented with copious caffeine pills, Skittles, Hustler, and Skoal. But as one marine quips, “Semper Gumby – always flexible.” As characterized here, these Marines never miss an opportunity to bitch, but pride themselves on being able to “make do.”
Aside from the frustratingly elusive Iraqi army or suicide bombers, there are few antagonists marines hate more than Reservists, the Army, and their own incompetent command. But they gradually learn that their superiors are often far wiser than they realized. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly) (so nicknamed because of a hoarse voice derived from lung cancer) nearly causes a mutiny by refusing to aid a fatally injured Iraqi boy. In a rare deference from a man that has no need to explain himself to his subordinates, he explains in detail why he made his decision: it was literally impossible to save the boy. Later, he reveals to the reporter that he is always fully conscious of ineffective commanders like the grossly incompetent Captain Dave McGraw (Eric Nenninger), known to his detractors as “Captain America.” Godfather can’t always act on every single infraction, lest policing his people become his entire role in the military machine. Even the reprehensible Sergeant Major John Sixta (Neal Jones) turns out to be more canny than anyone suspected; he knows his job is to make himself into a cartoon villain against which the men can direct their frustrations. His role is part of the time-tested marine tradition: a morale-building figure. And for audiences of this series, a bit of comic relief (“That helmet is the proppity of the Yoo-Ess-of-Ay!”).
I found the series to be disappointingly fractured, no rival at all to Simon and Burns’ masterpiece the Wire. Only the sublime final scene rises to the vaulted heights The Wire regularly reached. One marine had spent weeks shooting and editing a home movie of the invasion. When the company finally reaches Baghdad, they find they literally cannot watch the completed movie. Each walks away, in silence, one by one. In the tradition of The Wire, this closing montage is set to a perfectly chosen piece of music (Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around”) and sends shivers down the spine.