The first boots on the ground

September 4, 2008

Zach Mason reviews an HBO miniseries about U.S. soldiers in Iraq from the makers of The Wire.

HBO'S MINISERIES Generation Kill, about the early days of the Iraq war, was written by David Simon and Ed Burns, the same team that created The Wire, an inner-city crime drama that brilliantly exposed the contradictions in our society.

Generation Kill is based on a book by the same name written by Evan Wright, a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine who was embedded with the elite 1st Recon Marines, who were among the "first boots on ground in Iraq."

In seven stunning episodes, the series follows the soldiers from their base camp in Kuwait through Iraq and finally to their arrival in Baghdad. After the invasion, the soldiers are left numb, disillusioned or both, with many of them clearly disturbed by what they've done and seen.

From the opening scenes of the first episode, both the organizational functions of the military and the culture it imbues in its personnel are depicted as dysfunctional and dangerous. The troops wait desperately to receive armor and batteries for their night-vision goggles sent by relatives before the invasion is launched. Meanwhile, the crudest racism and homophobia is the norm.

Review: Television

Generation Kill, written by David Simon and Ed Burns, starring Alexander Skarsgard and James Ransome, a seven-part miniseries on HBO.

One Marine sums up the culture of violence when he explains to a reporter, "The Marine Corps is like America's little pit bull. They beat us, starve us, and once in a while, they let us out to attack somebody."

The style and storyline of the series throws events and characters together, creating a disorienting fog through which the brutality of war and the humanity of its participants shine. Soon after they cross into Iraq, a group of exhausted men attempt to surrender to the battalion. The men say they have escaped death squads killing Iraqi soldiers who attempt to flee.

As the Marines begin to process the men, their commanders order them to "un-surrender" them and keep moving. One soldier asks, "Send them back where? The fucking death squads?" and another points out that not taking care of surrendered prisoners is a violation of the Geneva Convention. As they pack up and move out, another soldier comments, "Iraqis' first contact with Americans, we fuck 'em."

From this point on, the pace of events is rapid and jarring. Firefights with the local resistance are interspersed with abusive banter between soldiers who continually refer to the local people as "hajis." The reporter rides along with the soldiers through all this, absorbing sexist diatribes, while taking in the scenes of burned vehicles and dead civilians.

HBO series' Generation Kill

At one point, the reporter has a heart-to-heart with a Chicano Marine called "Poke" who explains how his feelings of anger at society and "the white man" gave way to the conclusion that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

He describes military invasions and economic domination by the U.S. as necessary and beneficial to the world in a darkly sarcastic tone. They are interrupted by an officer who says, "Enough lecturing on the white man's oppression." Poke laughingly responds, "I was just elucidating on the white man's burden, dog."

AN OFFICER known as "Captain America" is completely out of control, continually putting his men in danger and terrorizing any Iraqis they encounter. At one point, soldiers look on in disgust as he shoots an unarmed man in the back, seemingly for the thrill of it. The futility of the war is a running theme that becomes increasingly clear.

After a deadly firefight, the soldiers discover that some of those they are fighting have recently arrived from neighboring countries in order to carry out Jihad. One of the major protagonists, Cpl. Ray Person, notes, "Those jihadists who attacked us. Isn't this the exact opposite of what we want to have happen here? It's all on that guy's passport. Two weeks ago, he was just a student in Syria. There wasn't a jihad until we got to Iraq."

Ray, Poke and others are continually shocked by the unnecessary killing, even as they fear for their own lives and those of their men. On a number of occasions, the Marines monitor Iraqi hamlets for enemy activity and find none, only to watch fighter jets swoop in and destroy the villages for absolutely no reason.

As they approach Baghdad, they encounter waves of refugees--some dying of dehydration--along the highways. As they direct the crowd and hand out water bottles, a passing woman says, "Thank you soldier for letting me pass on my own road in my own country...Why are you Americans here?"

The stunned soldier responds, "We want to help you, ma'am." To this, the Iraqi woman says, "You know I come from Baghdad. It is a very beautiful city, and you are bombing it. This is to make my life better?...Maybe you are here for liberation, I don't know. But because of oil, it feels like war of aggression."

Once in Baghdad, the men begin to process their experiences--exhibiting early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder--while policing neighborhoods in a random and pointless manner. A frustrated Arabic translator explains, "You've taken the country apart, you're not putting back together...This is a bomb. If it explodes, it will be bigger than the war."

While some soldiers are indifferent to the suffering around them as others are deeply concerned, what they all share is the belief that the whole thing will be over quickly. Arbitrary violence and poor planning by those in charge of the war are recurring themes, as is the contradictory and mixed consciousness of soldiers.

Simon and Burns are artists who specialize in depicting harsh realities, and to do so accurately, politics cannot be avoided. Generation Kill brings a decidedly antiwar message, without coming off as preachy. In one of the final scenes, Person tells his men, "We have to believe things are better now than they were under Saddam."

One Marine interjects, "This place was fucked before we got here, and it's fucked now...I personally don't believe we liberated the Iraqis." All Ray can say is, "Time will tell."

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