I finished my binge watching of HBO’s Generation Kill over the weekend. (Binge watching is a technique for watching serial programming the Spousal Equivalent and I perfected when catching up on Deadwood after missing the first season. Don’t watch the shows when they’re broadcast; record them, and watch them in chunks of two or three hours—or more—at a time. We spent New Year’s Eve 2007 watching five hours of The Wire and were pissed because we ran out of episodes.) Generation Kill is a worthy addition to the David Simon/Ed Burns oeuvre, not as dissimilar to The Wire as the setting suggests.
First, GK is a well-done drama. It’s scary and frustrating and laugh out loud funny, sometimes simultaneously. The major characters are multi-dimensional and well-rounded. Using real people helps, but we’ve all seen movies—books and television shows, too—where real people were made to look as one-dimensional as any comic book. Evan Wright—who wrote the original Rolling Stone articles—worked hand in glove with Simon and Burns to make sure they got it right. A military advisor made sure the equipment and tactics were accurate, and having an actual member of the 1st Marine Recon Battalion in the cast didn’t hurt. (Sergeant Rudy Reyes plays himself.)
In addition to being a thought-provoking look at our military in Iraq, Generation Kill is highly entertaining. I’ve not read the book, but I understand the miniseries to be a faithful reproduction. There are a few quibbles on the Internet about how faithful Wright’s articles and book are to the events portrayed, but it can be assumed he wrote the story from the perspective of the grunts in his platoon. Complaining about NCOs who are assholes and incompetent officers is a time-honored prerogative of the man whose boots are in the mud. (For a well reasoned and thoughtful second opinion of GK by someone in a position to know, click here.)
Simon and Burns leverage this perspective to make the same point they made so artfully in The Wire, and in their previous television effort, The Corner: the “system” won’t save. Doesn’t matter if it’s the military, law enforcement, or government, the only hope anyone has for redemption is in his or her own hands. The system is the system, and its primary task, almost by definition, is to perpetuate itself. That’s not necessarily bad thing—it depends on the system—but whatever system you’re involved with isn’t likely to save you.
The other great, and more hopeful, accomplishment of Generation Kill is to humanize the Marines, and, through them, all of the military. They’re not perfect. The language is foul, and some of them enjoy the act of killing a lot more than they ought to. Overall, though, their redemption comes in the form of the pride in completing their mission, and in their dedication to their peers. They get tired and scared and angry and profane and violent like anyone would in situations such as they’re exposed to, and consistently acquit themselves well. No one died in the 1st Marine Recon during their involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which shows, as Lt. Colonel Shoup points out in his excellent commentary referenced above, the leadership couldn’t have been as bad as perceived by the men in their positions of limited situational awareness.
Sergeant Major Sixta is a prime example. He’s shown as the biggest asshole in the battalion for most of the series, jerking men around over the grooming standard and the length of their mustaches. He’s missing through much of the middle part of the series, and reappears during a period of questionable morale to ask a junior officer whether it was time to enforce the grooming standard again. Far from being petty, it’s an indication that Sixta knows Marines are always bitching, and it’s better to direct that bitching away from something that would become counterproductive and potentially dangerous down the road.
Lt. Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, commander of 1st Recon, is shown as a hard-driving, career-oriented, tough, yet compassionate officer, torn between two sensibilities: one to his mission, and the other to his men. He’s not perfect, and he’s been given missions neither he nor his men appreciate, but he’ll do the best he can. We’d all do well to remember this about those who have fought in all our wars. They’re not saints, they’re not wholly selfless, and they’re not a bunch of baby-killing psychopaths. They get tired and cold and hungry and have to go to the bathroom and get horny just like everyone else. Teaching the rest of us how it all plays out day-to-day under the mix of tedium and terror that is military life may be Generation Kill’s greatest accomplishment.