The International Writers Magazine: TV
Creators: David Simon, Ed Burns & Evan Wright
‘Marines make do’ – Marine saying
The topic of the Iraq war is one of the most controversial subjects of current times. The decisions made by our politicians are either hotly attacked or passionately defended by people at polar opposites of the argument. The latest foolish decisions of world leaders are broadcast all over the world almost every day, but it is a rare occasion that we get to hear the story of the soldiers fighting and dying for a cause that no-one can seem to pin down anymore.
Generation Kill documents the first wave of the invasion of Iraq by the United States Marine Corps in its every detail, from the long hours of mind numbing boredom in dark and cramped humvees with the occasional flash of lethal excitement. Generation Kill is not simply based on a series of true events however, it is based on the experiences of a Rolling Stone journalist who was embedded in the regiment during the invasion, and free from the political interference that has been known to plague mainstream news and other forms of media, delivering a horrifyingly desolate and authentic feel to the screen. Many of us have been led to believe that modern warfare is fought primarily by technology like laser guided bombs by men sat in secure bunkers, but this series shows war for what it really is: a gruelling struggle where there is little true justice.
Brought to us from the same writing team as The Wire, Generation Kill is written beautifully in almost every respect. The banter of bored soldiers plays very nicely off the monotony of some scenes, especially inside the main transport humvee in which a significant amount of time is spent. In this cramped and hot space, the soldiers discuss some things which seem like light conversation, but which carry some sort of political commentary in their acid undertones. The dialogue is laced with a lot of military jargon, and sometimes, unless you know your stuff, it is easy to get lost in the sea of Oscar Mikes and NCO’s. But while making some of the dialogue hard to understand, it is one of the factors that make the series so realistic and absorbing.
The journalist whom the show focuses on acts almost as a vessel in which the audience can place themselves to feel closer to both the conversation and the action. Most of us not being soldiers, it is difficult to enter the particular frame of mind that is required in order to take orders you may not agree with and shoot men down, but the journalist is a much easier character to relate to. As he begins to understand how things work so do we, and not being part of the military establishment allows him to go over every part of it with a fine tooth comb. He points out questionable tactics or dangerous missions that others are forced to follow so blindly, while being exempt from retribution from the higher ups in the chain of command.
Generation Kill features a large cast that encompasses most aspects of human nature, and shows how they operate in a warzone. From the shy and defensive everyman to the arrogant show-off commanding officer that everyone secretly hates. In fact there are so many different cast members for such a short series, all wearing the same camo uniform and mostly carrying the same gun that you can still find yourself wondering who some people are by the end of the final episode. Luckily this only really occurs for the more minor characters whose role in the story is more important than their individual identities.
Generation Kill does not shy away from many of the controversies raised about the war. The soldiers are only concerned with what affects them in the here and now, such as the disgraceful lack of supplies and care little for any of the controversies that plague their home nations. They are concerned only with defeating an enemy and care little for the petty arguments of politicians. However these issues still manage to stay in the foreground by a damning portrayal of how the system works as a whole.
Many of the operations the soldiers undergo involve some kind of, what we would consider, extremely important moral choice. But this barely even qualifies as an afterthought for many of the men. Near the start of the series they come across a large group of Iraqi refugees, and after a very small argument where the morality of such actions is debated, send them on their way after having taken most of their supplies and kept them on the floor with their hands on their heads to take humiliating photos of them. This awful act of abandonment is exactly what they have been ordered to do if held up by such a situation, and while they can scarcely have been ordered to loot and humiliate, the commanding officers don’t make much of an effort to stop it.
There is an arrogant show-off in all circles of society, from the actor who doesn’t want anyone else to have the limelight, to the guy in the club who thinks he’s the best dancer since Michael Flatley, and while annoying and unpleasant don’t really cause any harm. But someone with this selfish mindset in a warzone, especially one who’s in command of several men, can have life threatening consequences. The character that fits this bill is nicknamed ‘Captain America’ by the other soldiers, so called for his ill-conceived heroics that involve waving an enemy AK47 about and assaulting prisoners for the petty reason of trying to look impressive to his men. His actions even directly lead to the death of a man, something for which he feels responsible but can’t admit. But like anything in this world, if you know the right people you can get away with anything, and Captain America has some good connections. They protect him from any kind of dishonourable discharge so the battalion as a whole can save face. Is it really right to have an entity that cares so little for the local people running around in their villages with deadly weapons? Regardless of the ethics of the reason for the war in the first place, this reckless regard for human life by the chain of command is surely one of the most important issues.
As with The Wire, Generation Kill reflects its journalistic beginnings with every breath of dialogue and moment of tense action. What is truly worrying however, is that we can know these stories to have a generally factual background, and while some facts were most likely changed for the sake of entertainment, the key events are based completely on truth. Not just a fictional story that takes real events as its background, but complete and utter truth from the experiences of someone that was actually present in all the explosive danger of the front lines. This gives the events a new kind of life and makes their commentary about the war and the people who run it even more poignant and meaningful.
With the insanely biased mainstream news media flooding the average viewer with notions of patriotism and a good vs. evil mindset representing the western nations as liberators of the Iraqi people, Generation Kill provides a trustworthy portrayal of the war, free from propaganda or the interest of politicians. To us the war seems so far away that we can’t even imagine what it would be like to live our lives in a warzone, but there are real people and it is a real world. Things are not as black and white as we have been led to believe, soldiers on both sides are motivated to fight for different reasons, and as with any large scale organization or operation, corruption runs deep and unchallenged. From the Iraqi refugees being sent on their way to fend for themselves to a commanding officer telling a journalist to keep his mouth shut about the militaries problems, the realities of war don’t leave much room to be able to stick to a strict moral code, and choices have to be made that no-one wants to make. But soldiers are only following orders on which they have no input, and it’s the politicians who have to answer for themselves and how they could have possibly let the world get into this state in this first place.
© Dan Crossen March 2010
In The Loop review by Dan Crossen