Marines make do

Generation Kill, directed by Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones / produced and written by David Simon, Ed Burns et al (HBO)

‘Dear Frederick, Thank you for your nice letter, but I am actually a US Marine, who was born to kill, whereas you have clearly mistaken me for some kind of wine-sipping, communist dick-suck, and although peace probably appeals to tree-loving bisexuals like you and your parents, I happen to be a death-dealing, blood-crazed warrior who wakes up every day just hoping for the chance to dismember my enemies and defile their civilisations. Peace sucks a hairy asshole, Freddie. War is the motherfucking answer!’

Corporal Ray Person is actually a nice guy. James Ransone, who played the worryingly unstable Ziggy Sobotka in season two of The Wire, is far more affable as Person, who enlivens Generation Kill with a steady stream of one-liners, and indeed many-liners, especially when cranked up on Ripped Fuel (a dietary supplement for body builders, used by the Marines in lieu of proper food or sleep). The above is his improvised response to a letter from a schoolboy expressing the wish that the soldiers would not have to fight. Letters from schoolkids are what the men get in lieu of the military supplies and sundry personal necessities of which they are constantly running out. But Marines are not supposed to grumble. Marines make do. And in any case, even if some of them are nice guys, what they really want is action, to ‘get some’.

Generation Kill is the latest television drama from David Simon, who brought us the rightly acclaimed The Wire and the sadly underrated Homicide. Having been screened on HBO in the US last summer, and in the UK earlier this year on the relatively obscure FX channel, Generation Kill is now available on DVD, which is likely to win it the substantially bigger audience it deserves. In fact, before I go on, allow me a digression: DVD is the only way to watch this kind of television. Catching it in one-hour installments once a week as part of an evening’s viewing, regardless of the station or time slot, simply wouldn’t do it justice. Quentin Tarantino once said that he makes the kind of films the characters in his films would watch when they went to the movies, and indeed his films often have a superficial quality, as if made up of clips meant to represent a certain kind of movie flickering in the background of another movie. Generation Kill, like Simon’s earlier output, demands closer attention.

I confess that I watched the whole of The Wire with subtitles. It started with just the scenes involving street drug dealers – I have no pretensions to being down with US black urban slang – but I soon found I got more out of the whole thing when I could follow every sentence (I used to write TV subtitles, and realise you never get every word). Such carefully written, vibrant and witty scripts deserve to be followed more closely even than we follow real conversations with our friends. In the case ofGeneration Kill there is the added factor that, even with subtitles, it’s never very clear what the hell is going on; hence you really have to watch it more than once.

All this is to say that if you think of television as a medium that’s supposed to hold your hand and tell you a story, you’d have to say that Generation Kill is a terrible failure, because David Simon is so obsessed with realism that he’s produced a TV show that is impossible to follow like normal TV. What would it be like to find yourself in a humvee in the desert in the middle of Operation Iraqi Freedom, surrounded by grunts who speak in an impenetrable military argot littered with code words and acronyms, and who don’t know what’s going on anyway? It would be confusing, that’s what. Welcome to Generation Kill.

So why watch it? In fact, the plot and characterisation are as carefully crafted as the elusive script – you just have to work at them. And while there is no comparing this seven-episode series with a novelistic, multi-season series like The Wire, the result is certainly worthwhile. Simon has made much of Generation Kill’s realism, having gone to great lengths to ensure every detail is as accurate as possible. The cast includes former Marines like Rudy Reyes, who plays himself (and ironically looks more like a film-star than any of the others), and Simon is especially proud that serving Marines have enthusiastically acknowledged the series as true to their own experience (1). That’s all very interesting, but I think of secondary importance to us as viewers: it matters only because it means the production team went beyond the clichés and worked hard to find a story in that experience that means something to us all.

Generation Kill is not only confusing; it is about confusion. Much of the drama comes from the fact that the characters have absolutely no idea what’s going on around them. We follow the Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion’s Bravo Company, ‘the tip of the spear’ bursting into Iraq from Kuwait in humvees in March 2003. The whole war was of course famously badly thought through, but it’s only gradually that the men begin to doubt the existence of an organising intelligence behind their orders. Bravo’s commander, ‘Godfather’, takes advantage of the lack of strategy to get as much action for the company as he can, and so the men find themselves tearing through a foreign country on a constantly shifting mission that is only tenuously connected to the situation as they find it. Moreover they are occupying Iraq without relating meaningfully to any of the Iraqis (or ‘hajis’) they drive past, or even ‘engage’ (shoot at).

The language barrier is only the most obvious problem. The men soon figure out that their translator Meesh has been instructed from on high to spin things a little for the sake of morale, which explains why all the Iraqis they talk to are so gushing in their praise for the American liberators. The fact that the soldiers, and their superiors, know so little and care less about what the Iraqis really think is a recurring theme. One scene in episode four comes the morning after an incompetent lieutenant ordered an air strike in the middle of the desert. He is now desperately in search of evidence that there was in fact something there. His men watch from a distance as he and Meesh question a frightened herdsman, and the men take turns to speculate about what’s being said – complete with comedy accents.

‘Excuse me, Meesh. Tell the man that we come in friendship.’

And Meesh says: ‘Dude! My big American friends are going to fuck you up if you don’t show us some blown-up tanks.’

And the Haji’s all: ‘Hubba-da hubba-da, hubba-da dubba-da, dubba-da!’

And Meesh is all: ‘Dude! These Iraqis love the fact that we are here. They fucking love freedom and they thought that those fireballs last night were fucking wicked, dude!’

‘You Americans have killed a lot of sand. The sand was very evil!’

And the lieutenant’s all: ‘Meesh, I just shit my panties. Tell the nice man if he doesn’t show me at least one blown-up tank, I’ll look very stupid and the other officers will all laugh at me.’

And Meesh is all: ‘Dude, throw me a freakin’ bone here! How about a freakin’ pick-up truck with bald tires?’

And the haji’s all: ‘Hub dubba, dubbedy dubba!’ And Meesh says: ‘Lieutenant, this haji dude is totally bummed he can’t save your career. He’s got no tanks. But check it out: you can have his bitchin’ daughter.’

And the lieutenant’s all weepy and shit.

Fuckin’ frat house pussy.

The irreverence and wit, casual vulgarity, and camaraderie based in shared confusion and simmering anger, are typical of the series. For these men, life is tough, and it simply goes on regardless of what the war means to anyone else. They don’t have to think, except to amuse themselves – the only decisions they have to make are when to take a dump or go for a ‘combat jack’, and those things are obviously constrained by circumstances. The meticulous attention to details yields charming surprises as well as gritty truths about the Marines’ way of life in Iraq. Rather than working themselves into a murderous frenzy by listening to death metal as we’ve read about, they sing to themselves, bursting into spontaneous renditions of everything from ‘Fuck tha Police’ to ‘Sk8er Boi’, as well as ‘King of the Road’ and ‘Tainted Love’ (complete with overhead hand-claps).

To an extent, the series dramatises boredom – the handmaiden of confusion – but there are also plenty of action scenes. In one exhilarating night assault, the humvees charge through the desert, apparently in order to secure an airport for British Paratroopers, though it later seems to have been more of a whim on the part of Godfather. The men enjoy this, of course, as well as racing through hostile towns under fire, blasting anything that moves. But they do reflect afterwards that it might be more sensible to employ seemingly idle US tanks against Iraqi artillery, rather than humvees.

In the first episode we meet embedded Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright (the familiar face of Lee Tergesen from Oz), who is immediately written off by the men as a liberal pinko, but soon earns their indifference. Generation Kill happens to be based on a book written by the real Evan Wright, but the inclusion of a writer or intellectual type in a drama like this is often a device to give the viewers a more sympathetic and reflective character to identify with. In this case it proves unnecessary: the series does a good enough job of revealing the humanity of the grunts themselves, while ‘Rolling Stone’ is cartoonishly out of place. The Viking-like Sergeant Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) – who we learn was raised by upper class Jewish adoptive parents – is the one most frustrated by the Marines’ inability to help the ordinary Iraqis they come across, but the unadulterated white-trash Corporal Person is capable of insightful reflections too: ‘This is really interesting, Brad. You know, Iraqis don’t really seem good at fighting. But they never really completely surrender either.’

What prescience. When another Marine marvels towards the end of the series that it’s taken just ‘21 days to take down a country’, Sergeant Colbert more cautiously suggests, ‘We may be here all summer long’. Six years on, President Obama has finally set a ‘sort of’ exit date of 31 August 2010. Hundreds of thousands more American soldiers have served in Iraq between the initial invasion and the present, thousands losing their lives. Generation Kill is not about the politics of the war, though it obviously touches on political questions, but in presenting such a rich and detailed account of the lives of US troops in Iraq, it does highlight the gulf between the war as experienced by those fighting it and what we imagine it means in global and national political terms.

Perhaps grunts are never that interested in politics, but there is something in the story of these grunts that speaks to us all. At a time when military conflicts make less and less sense, and old-fashioned political positions appear increasingly meaningless, it is salutory to be informed that Marines make do without meaning.

1) Generation Kill: the new Wire, by Andrew Billen, The Times, 15 January 2009