During the second episode of Generation Kill, to a tentative wave of welcome from Iraqi civilians on the rubbled road to Baghdad, one young Marine in the Bravo 2 platoon of the First Recon Battalion waves right back from his Humvee. “Thank you,” he says. “Vote Republican.” As funny as this is, it is one of the few overt political references in the seven-part mini-series that David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) have executive-produced from Evan Wright’s embedded reporting for Rolling Stone and the subsequent best-selling book about the first three weeks of the 2003 invasion. And I can’t even tell you which Marine says it. An hour and a half into the mini-series, I hadn’t yet figured out who was who. Many of these young men were competing in a mustache contest, and all of them looked as though they should have been rehearsing for their senior prom.
Instead, at Camp Mathilda in Kuwait, they had rehearsed violent death. Recon Marines endure the same training as Navy seals and Army Special Forces. They look forward to stealth and killing; that’s what they signed up for. Still, no one bothered to explain to these particular Marines that they’d be stuck in Humvee convoys, well behind enemy lines in the Fertile Crescent, without air or armor support, used as bait to distract and confuse Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. And no one even imagined insurgents or jihadists. By the time Bravo 2 finally gets from Nasiriyah to Al Kut—after ambush, betrayal, and incompetence; after a gunning down of peasant farmers, a drive-by shooting of oblivious children, a depraved indifference to the fate of refugees, and the blowing up of a grammar school—they will be cynics as well as killers. Through the eyes of embedded reporter Wright (Lee Tergesen), we come to appreciate the leadership qualities of Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), and through Wright’s ears, to delight in the Lenny Bruce soliloquies of Corporal Ray Person (James Ransone). But the collective consciousness of the entire platoon encourages us to despise such officers as “Godfather,” “Captain America,” and “Encino Man”—gung-ho lunatics whose loftiest ambition is, in Godfather’s words, “to get back into the game.”
Amid the vainglory and ineptitude of superior officers, what’s a grunt to do? He is to bond in fidelity to his brothers, to pledge allegiance to the group, to adapt to the worst and be proud of himself for doing so, and to disdain critics who can’t know because we weren’t there. Generation Kill suggests that every war betrays the grunt, and that the grunt survives by hunkering down to the blood-cult loyalties characteristic of cops, organized sports, and organized crime.
Meanwhile, some remarkable television has been made. To report on a new generation of young warriors raised on hip-hop, heavy metal, and video games, Wright went to Iraq as Michael Herr before him had gone to Vietnam, like Dante to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix.
From this mandala of childhood, anger, dread, incense, and excrement, Simon and Burns have mounted a war like no other on the small screen, without the solemn circular trudge of Combat!, the wise-guy wit of M*A*S*H, or the Dana Delany consolations of China Beach. No soundtrack cues or bullies us to scurry for cover or duck our heads; no score soars or swells to afflatus. War has its own score (more dodecahedral than Wagnerian), and Generation Kill sings its own songs, through the dry lips and sick grins of nervy men in Humvees. Plus, the war actually looks like one. Video games are for the generals, neurojacked and technoblabbing in their glitterdomes.
Simon and Burns’s Iraq, filmed in Mozambique, South Africa, and Namibia, is desert and laser light, morphine and goats, camels and tattoos, bullets and Skittles, gay porn and Gilligan’s Island, South Park and Hustler, Noam Chomsky and dump jokes.