TV: Generation Kill

Given David Simon is one of TV’s most important auteurs, not to mention a personal favorite, it has long pestered the completist in me that I haven’t witnessed his entire body of work. I moved to rectify that recently with Generation Kill (2008), his immediate follow-up to The Wire. Of all his projects, it may be the most difficult to like. That’s not because it isn’t good—it is, in fact, excellent—but because it shows Simon at his most fiery and journalistic. Since the subject is so bleak and unflinching, and the “heroes” are so problematic, it’s not always easy to watch, let alone enjoy.

Based on the non-fiction book by Evan Wright, Generation Kill chronicles the first phase of the 2003 Iraq War, following an elite unit of recon marines, with whom Wright embedded while writing for Rolling Stone. Wright (Lee Tergesen) is assigned the lead vehicle of a platoon commanded by career military man and Afghanistan veteran Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård), a respected sergeant with an impeccable service record to go with his steely nerves. His crew, however—including garrulous driver Ray (James Ransone) and dead-eyed gunner Tromblay (Billy Lush)—is composed of crass, unnerving men, not just ready to kill but anxious to do so. The Iraq scenario isn’t a mission for which they’re particularly well suited—rolling through the desert in Humvees—but they approach it with a mix of sick enthusiasm and soldierly griping. Wright witnesses the behavior of the unit with a mixture of amusement and shock at their in-your-face political incorrectness and remorseless violence, but ultimately develops a grudging respect, as he more or less serves alongside them under dangerous, hair-raising combat conditions constantly made worse by the glory-seeking incompetence of their commanders.

For anyone who saw the war in Iraq as a criminal act by a cynical, short-sighted U.S. presidential administration, Generation Kill is a difficult watch, one you don’t enjoy so much as respect through the slatted fingers of your disgust. The misguided political motivation of the invasion makes it hard enough to witness, but then there’s the behavior of the troops. Even Skarsgård’s Colbert, whose competence and cool head paint him as one of the better marines, spews horribly problematic language, and the soldiers as a whole are deeply unpleasant: racist, misogynistic, homophobic, even sociopathic. It’s clear that by and large they don’t care why they’re there—although Ray, at least, seems happy to spout Fox News propaganda in justification—so long as they’re afforded the opportunity to kill Iraqis, sometimes regardless of whether they’re combatants. There are glimmers of conscience in the company: the unflappable First Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands), for example, and Poke (Jon Huertas), who is pretty terrible at first but at least has the wherewithal to gradually grow disillusioned. But by and large they’re a deplorable viewpoint group, almost entirely unlikeable. Even Tergesen, whose fish-out-of-water flailing is often played for comedy, isn’t exactly sympathetic, a little too quick to roll with the boys-will-be-boys behavior.

Despite how relentlessly unsympathetic the marines are, Generation Kill still manages to pull off the unlikely trick of luring the viewer into occasionally feeling an affinity with them. Sometimes this is a result of the random madness of the situation, which periodically elicits an unexpected moment of genuine insight or out-of-character compassion. But more often it’s because the marines have an enemy more dangerous than the Republican Guard: their own officers, whose deficiencies—which range from garden-variety incompetence to unhinged psychology to reckless glory-seeking—frequently steer them into rash, ill-conceived missions. For all their supposed elite prowess, it is only occasionally witnessed, largely due to the horrible way they’re mismanaged in the field. If nothing else, one can relate to the soldiers in a way that anyone who’s had an incompetent, officious, or uncaring boss can.

What this all means is that the series has no interest whatsoever in pushing emotional buttons or sugar-coating what’s going on to emotionally invest the viewer. To me, it’s almost a David Simon/Ed Burns inversion of Spielbergian war glamorization. I kept thinking about Band of Brothers, which has a similar approach but is considerably more interested in lionizing the heroes and narrative—reasonable, perhaps, given the wildly different circumstances. Generation Kill is the anti-Band of Brothers, an unvarnished document of terrible men, commanded by other terrible men, in a terrible situation driven by a terrible, fraudulent rationale. The whole scenario is presented without filter, so that while certainly not a show one can easily enjoy, it’s a compellingly angry project that serves as an ugly reminder of the early missteps of twenty-first century American foreign policy.

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