Critics who got an early look at Generation Kill, the new HBO miniseries about the first 40 days of the Iraq war created by Wire masterminds David Simon and Ed Burns, were treated to more than the first five (of seven) episodes on DVD. As part of a multipacket press kit, they also received a glossy, four-color guide explaining where each soldier ranks in the unit of elite Marines that is the show’s focus.
It’s unfortunate that such a guide doesn’t seem to be available on HBO’s Web site (though Maureen Ryan of The Chicago Tribune has posted it on her blog), because unless you come in to Generation Kill with a strong grasp on Marine hierarchy, it won’t be until the third or fourth episode that most of the characters will differentiate themselves, or that any kind of chain of command seems clear at all. This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it comes awfully close: if you can’t tell characters apart, how can you get invested in any of them? And if you aren’t invested, isn’t Generation Kill—with its battle plans and maps—verging on re-enactment instead of dramatic television?
Of course, this isn’t a surprise from Mr. Simon, who threw viewers into The Wire without a map as well. With that show, one had to quickly discern not only the police power structure (not totally foreign, thanks to Law & Order and its myriad spin-offs) but also that of a massive drug operation—not to mention translate everything from the Baltimorese. However, The Wire had kids—who can’t help but be human and full of personality—as well as a cast of various color, weight, height and everything else. Generation Kill is a blinding assault of beautiful blond and blue-eyed young men, all with shorn hair and matching fatigues (star Alexander Skarsgard is particularly pleasant to look at). And adding this chaos of characters to the chaos of war feels a little like contempt coming from Mr. Simon, who sometimes seems to want to punish his audience for watching his programs.
Generation Kill, of course, is as worthwhile a project as any that tries to portray, in a popular medium, the experience of our troops in Iraq. It is based on the book of the same name by Evan Wright, who was embedded with a company of Marines that saw plenty of action, from the Iraqi Republican Army, to friendly fire from our own guys. Played by Lee Tergesen as a mostly mute, initially fumbling but basically competent observer of Bravo Company, Wright is able to take everything in calmly: asking few questions, scribbling furiously.
His main source of money quotes is Humvee driver Cpt. Josh Ray Person, who pumps himself up on GNC stimulants, seems never to sleep, and lets loose strings of insults about himself and his pals that are often completely offensive and hilarious. Played by James Ransone (Ziggy from The Wire) he’s the guy who declares that the entire Iraq war is about pussy, that the whole thing could have been avoided if Saddam’s men had gotten laid more. When his troop drives through a little hamlet and young Iraqi women in bright colored outfits wave their scarves at the caravan, Person pulls off his helmet and puts on his flashy sunglasses, doing his best to look attractive. “They’re hotties!” he exclaims to colleagues. The moment isn’t quite sweet, but it is very funny. So is the fact that a basic snapshot of Wright’s girlfriend is passed around among the Marines as jack-off material. When Wright tries to track down the photo, he asks one soldier if he’s seen it, only to get the reply: “I don’t know—did she have a big stain on her face?” Wright is confused, but we’re not. And somehow, it’s endearing that the fantasy material most coveted by these guys isn’t the passed-around Hustler, but a pretty woman in a nondescript outfit.
But … but. If you’ve seen Three Kings, David O. Russell’s outrageously sad, funny, experimental film about the first Gulf War; if you’ve read Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s memorable memoir (made into a lame movie) of being a Marine in that war; if you’ve read George Packer’s stories in The New Yorker, or even reviews of books that have already appeared about Iraq, Generation Kill isn’t going to surprise you all that much. Both Mr. Russell and Mr. Swofford captured the incredible boredom that comes along with war for men in combat: the long days of waiting, of riding, of setting up camp and breaking it down. Mr. Packer has made it clear that many regular Iraqis were eager to help the U.S., to tell us what they knew, but couldn’t find an ear to listen, let alone understand them. The facts—of the bad planning, the botched missions—we know from the news.
However, what Generation Kill does endeavor to do—slowly, but effectively—is to show the spectrum of men in combat: from the old dogs barking orders, fixated on personal hygiene and Marine standards as much as triumphs for their company; to the younger grunts that just want to see action, to shoot something, anything. This show is neither glorifying tribute to the volunteers of the grittiest—and probably toughest—members of our armed forces, but neither is it a condemnation. Some are brilliant, some are dumb, some are likable and others not. They are all, in the end, soldiers, trained to kill, and to die. To be reminded of them, when it’s far too easy to forget (Angelina had her twins!), is, if not quite a gift, a requirement.