Like: Generation Kill

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So I went back and finally finished/re-watched all of Generation Kill.

… Amazing.

For those unaware, Generation Kill (GK)is an HBO miniseries about the invasion of Iraq from the perspective of the 1st marine recon unit (which for the purposes of that war, was basically a marine battalion in Humvees). It was made by David Simon and Ed Burns, the geniuses responsible for the greatest television show of all-time: The Wire. For those who tire of the ham-fisted Iraq politicization  and fictions, GK is about as far from that as you can get. Yes, GK is very much of The Wire formula/sensibility, but the wonderful thing about The Wire formula/sensibility is that is it is inherently designed to mimic the truths and forms of the subject itself. GK does not approach the war and Iraq from an ideological and didactic standpoint, it approaches truths through character. Look, I’m not going to say that Generation Kill is definitive truth or anything that grandiose, but it might be as close as you can get because it approaches its subject from a journalistic standpoint. There is no true intention of GK except to supplement the experience for those who were not there. It simply tries to deal openly and honestly about the condition of singular moments and not to make something accessible, but to make something of the experience that rang true to the marines on the ground. And to be sure what they did was authentic, they had an actual marine in the writing room at all times, as well as original writer  Evan Wright.

Getting to the matter of character: Generation Kill was originally a book written by Evan Wright who was doing an article for Rolling Stone. He ended up riding point Humvee in 1st recon and writing about his experiences. He is represented as a character in the miniseries too (which sort of makes GK is a basically a factual recreation if you will).  And Evan really makes no attempts to prognosticate, but rather to assimilate into the population. He is not really a character in the singular sense, but our observer, like Ishmael in Moby Dick.

The two central figures Wright observes are the two men in the front of said point Humvee: the first is the driver, Cpl. Josh Ray Person,  played by James Ransone (Ziggy from The Wire season 2!). Much like Ziggy, Ray’s entire existence is a force of nature; he is 100% pure black humor. As a recon marine, Ray frequently stares into void of potential death and the reality of killing other human beings, but he only finds inherent irony and silliness. It’s one part coping mechanism and one part destiny: Ray’s predisposition makes him a Marine through and through, it is almost as if it was the only thing he can do. He wants combat. He wants action. He’s also somehow endearing as hell (being funny often helps in that regard), despite completely typifying the titular “Generation Kill.” But that’s the real rub of the title, much like Ray, it is laced with irony. But in truth it is  Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert, played by Alexander Skarsgaard (son of stellan!), who is the most amazing part of GK and the proverbial anchor of the series. Brad brings a deeply parental nature to his team; he leads by example with a serious demeanor, but so much boils under his surface: reservations, contempt at inept officers, rage, fear, and happiness.  It is such an introspective performance; a man who’s has all the reason in the world to be grandiose (considering the grandiose setting and events) and thus has to be muted in order to cope. Alexander/brad is a compassionately brooding figure; also a massive figure, towering above most others (notably: Alexander was a former Swedish marine). To use my favorite saying: he is just stupid good in the role. Really, make no mistake, this is the stuff leading men are made of.  It’s no surprise Kenneth Branaugh is basically going nuts trying to get marvel to sign off his casting of Alexander as motherfucking THOR (it’s perfect).

The two characters of Ray and Brad are somewhat antithetical, yet both are excellent examples of good marines. They are responsible and knowledgeable. They care about their fellow marines. They are great in combat and subvert any of their fears. Truly, they seem to have no fear of death. But there is another member of their point Humvee team and his name is Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombly. He is rather easy right off, because he contains so many qualities that define a scumbag, yet every bit of that is mixed with an oozing innocence. His actions infantile and child-like, but not in an insufferable way, but a vulnerable way. He could be grumbling about wanting to kill dogs, but there is an odd, daft sweetness to his manner. Really Trombly is the kind of guy who’s situation in life never really gave him a shot at being “normal.” But Ray and Brad in thier relative maturity, seem to give him guidence. It’s a very interesting relationship.

Meanwhile, there is also Lt. Nathaniel Fick. He is Superior officer to Brad and the great example of a wonderful leader who tries to serve his men and make the best of his middle management position. Taking orders which put your men in danger are exceptionally difficult choices and most of the time Fick was admirable, and sometimes he let the pressure from above get to him and made mistakes (the “petting a burning dog” moment). But what was most respectable about Fick was that he was always honest with is men and never seemed to think of his career first. But as GK takes the wonderful time to show clearly, Fick’s greatest problem is that when he questions orders (often in the absolute critical interest of his men and their safety) he is regarded as a malcontent who undermines his (incompetent) officers. The best example being the time he was penalized for providing a superior officer from killing himself and everyone in their platoon. How dare he! (Forgive the sarcasm)

All of this makes Fick the shining example of leadership against the bevy of dumbass officers that seemed to populate this marine battalion. To GK‘s credit (or sense of earnest), none of these officers seem to be bad people, but are instead good/delicate/well-intentioned men who simply have no competency or leadership abilities.  It happens all the time in all lines of work; people can be promoted for being good at what they do, but often end up being terrible managers.   One officer was so woefully incompetent that if I ever saw the man Captain America was based on (I don’t care if the actor who played him might have been a little over the top), I would punch that motherfucker in the face. As Captain America was represented in GK, he was an officer who’s absolutely fearfulness of warfare itself, complete over-willingness to fire, lack of regard for prisoners, willingness put others in jeopardy, and constant terror of his superiors officers, made him a perfect storm of recklessness and ineptitude. According to Evan’s account of the battalion, Captain America was directly responsible for more of the Battalion’s  injuries than the enemy (the official Marine account would be very different). It’s just unspeakably disgust.  Slightly more forgivable, however, was Cpt. Craig “Encino Man/Hitman” Schwetje. Yes he was incompetent, often putting his men also in jeopardy (a ridiculously decided danger-close bombing scenario which Fick attempted to subvert was solved purely by Encino Man giving the wrong coordinates), but most of his problems stemmed from his juvenile demeanor and alpha-male boyishness. He’s in a middle-school mindset: stupid and eager to please his officers, but at least he seems somewhat well-intentioned.You get the feeling that while unlikely, he could grow into a better leader. Captain America, however, never belonged in a uniform. And unfortunately the structure of the marines officer system all but ensures he’d stay in one for the remainder of the war.

What is then interesting is seeing the man on top, Lt. Colonel A.K.A. “Godfather” (he has a raspy voice), and his leadership of the battalion.  Godfather does not seem like a particularly unreasonable person, but rather a good motivator who will communicates his intent with clarity and serves his superiors rather well. The problem seems to his structural detachment to both the action and his men. He is far enough removed from what is happening that conflicting accounts of Captain America’s incompetence gives him pause, but not enough to demote or discharge him (which again, should happen). This same dynamic works in an opposite capacity when he hears similar grumblings about Lt. Fick from the incompetent officers that he questioned. Now of course to the audience, the two soldiers are night and day when it comes to serving their country and the Marines, but to Godfather, the breakdown of truth in the military ranks renders the two mutually equal in terms of problems. It seems to be a sin to even suggest that, but that’s the problem: the structure of marine command creates difficulties for both the effectual and ineffectual alike. The problems with emotional detachment are played out in a wonderfully in a  scene when an injured Iraqi child (shot by Trombly) is brought by the unit’s doctor and other morally inclined officers to Godfather’s camp so he can get shipped back to a hospital for medical treatment. Godfather proceeds to give them a long list of reasons why that is implausible and exceptionally difficult from their current position, all of which are surprisingly sound reasons… and then, he gives the OK order anyway. It’s a great moment, but one that highlights the problems of detachment. It’s easy to say “no” when you’re on the phone, not watching a child die when you had the power to do something about it… no matter how problematic that something might be.

There is a larger problem still with Godfather’s detachment, one which has political ramifications. Much of his battle plan is designated from politically inclined generals; many of which he is  eager to impress. The recon marines battle plan for the war instantly becomes haphazard, roaming, and purposeless. They hit political targets yet skim around Iraq barely addressing problems, bombing before investigating, and ignoring problems they themselves create. It is incompetence in its purest form, a basic ignorance of the facts on the field in the pursuit of successes determined in Washington. The war in Iraq was a mad dash to Baghdad and everything since has been a matter of picking up the pieces from that destruction. The Marines regularly lament the cluster-fuck of what is occurring when compared to the skillfully executed missions they performed in Afghanistan. This isn’t a political reality. This is a reality of warfare. We see it time and time again in the trials of these recon marines. Were they to stay and handle a situation at hand, the situation could be solved and they could move on in good tactical conscience and good conscience at large. Which is exactly what the tactic became during the surge, you know, the moment where the war turned around and genuinely started to be rebuilt… it just took 4 years for the top brass to figure it out.  Meanwhile, these guys knew it the moment they got into the cities.

Look, the problems of the officer/soldier dynamic is nothing new. TS Elliot perhaps illustrated it best in The Hollowmen as had Coppola in the Apocalypse Now, as had Kubrick in Paths of Glory. But those were, well, artistic representations of a larger truth. They were inherently constructed. Not to get all non-fiction-vs.-fictiony, but what I liked about GK was that the examples of the officer/soldier dynamic are soundly concrete. The examples are factual, yet provide complete metaphorical representation of the larger political problems of the war. We rushed into a Iraq for perhaps unsound reasons, and then then competent, tactical soldiers had to deal with the consequences on the ground.  But of course things are never that cut and dry. Much like The Wire, Simon and Burns always let reality get in the way of any point they may try to make. The best example I can think of and most beautiful moment of the entire series deals with an officer whose name I can’t find (d’oh!) but he was the one complete and total asshole who always gave people crap about the marine dress code. He’s the complete stereotype of the hard-ass how harps on completely unimportant things and chews his men out. He’s in the mold of Lee Emory, almost acting as if that man was his hero. But near the end of the series, after a few marine injuries and some static development leave the Battalion’s morale rather low, the Asshole Dress Code Officer guy goes up to his fellow officer and has the following exchange:

(Paraphrased…)

Asshole Officer: Morale seems pretty low.

Other Officer: Yeah things look rough.

Asshole Officer: Well if things get any worse I can start harping on the dress code again.

[They share a wry smile]

… honestly it made me a bit teary.  It’s a kind of ego-sacrifice that you rarely see in real life. The Asshole Officer was willing to be “the asshole officer” for the greater sake of the men. The character is fully conscious of his effect and it’s wonderful to see, especially when many of the other officers (like Encino Man) are defined by their ego-centrism.   Ultimately, that’s what Simon and Burns have an amazing ability to do. They take some one who would either be a cut and dry asshole and they humanize him without ever dipping into forceful schmaltz (which the moment could have easily been and even slightly reads like in my summary. It wasn’t. It was great).

I think that’s all I have to say…

Generation Kill is amazing.

Endnotes:
-I may be mixing up my use of the word battalion, so anyone please correct me if I’m wrong.

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8 Responses to Like: Generation Kill

  1. ekill says:

    I LOVED this series and it took me about 4+ episodes to really get into it and appreciate it! I agree that Brad’s “Iceman” character really grounded the show and kept me wanting more! Brad is a breath of “normal” air in a sea of insanity. Ray provided such comic relief, it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining siting in a Humvee day after day without him. Trombly was so very odd but fun to watch, and his quirks seemed to come from a real person. I got insanely frustrated watching the idiotic Captains. I couldn’t believe what Cpt. America + Encino Man were actually allowed to get away with.

  2. […] to get all technical, this isn’t really Simon’s 2nd act to THE WIRE. That was already the astounding GENERATION KILL, though one might imply that since it was a mini-series it doesn’t count. But none the less […]

  3. Shaun says:

    Your reaction to and review of Generation Kill, the miniseries, is incisive, especially given your civilian perspective.
    A few notes on your post:
    -First, as a serving Marine for the last 16 years, I agree with you that this is the most realistic portrayal of Marines I have ever seen. I felt like I was back in a line unit watching these guys. The series captured alot of the best and worst of serving in a combat unit. It also captured the minute details and day to day customs of Marine Corps life. (One peeve here – Marines don’t say, “L.T.” as a shorthand for Lieutenant. That is Army lingo and one of the Marines on the set should have pointed this out.)
    -Your observations on the characterizations of certain persons are based on a work of art/fiction that is based on real life, but presented from a point of view. It is not necessarily objective truth. I doubt whether anyone is quite as virtuous as Lt Fick or utterly stupid and incompetent as Capt Schwetje (Encino Man). In fact, here is some further detail on that score by a guy who knows him:
    http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showpost.php?p=53860&postcount=54
    -Your observation, “Were they to stay and handle a situation at hand, the situation could be solved and they could move on in good tactical conscience and good conscience at large. Which is exactly what the tactic became during the surge” displays a lack of understanding of this unit’s role in the larger operation. 1st Recon Bn was the very tip of the 1st Marine Division’s advance in a classic maneuver warfare operation. Their emphasis was on tempo, not stopping and getting bogged down in stability ops. In fact, if you listen to the commentary on the DVd, David Simon actually notes how the operation, though often misunderstood by Marines at the squad level (what you see throughout the series), ultimately validated LtCol Ferrando’s, and Gen Mattis’, understanding and application of maneuver warfare theory. And he points out that, in considering the overall performance of LtCol Ferrando, that he led “point” for the entire division through 5 weeks of furious combat advance, and sustained 0 Marine fatalities, while acheiving the operational objective of toppling the Hussein regime. By any standard that is a success, and while luck was involved, that can’t be the whole story. This does not mean that there should not have been follow on forces to occupy and provide security to those bypassed areas. There should have been, but that was far beyond the scope of LtCol Ferrando’s duties, that was actually a failure at the SECDEF and Presidential level. Many military “top brass” as you call them, were pointing out to the civilian leadership early on that the occupation, what we call phase IV and V operations, was woefully undermanned and underplanned.
    -Final note, the “asshole officer” you refer to was Sergeant Major Sixta, the senior enlisted leader in the Battalion. He would undoubtedly take a dim view at being referred to as an officer. And if memory serves he was talking to a gunnery sergeant, also not an officer.
    -These comments are offered, not as criticism, but in appreciation for your obvious concern for the role of our military.

    • mgss says:

      I thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this post. You insight is deeply appreciated, but nearly as much as your service. Thank you kindly.

  4. martial arts styles…

    Like: Generation Kill « Stuff I Like and Stuff I Don’t Like…

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think the actor playing Encino man was a bad choice. Nobody like that would make it thru OCS Quantico and never a battalion recon officer. He may actually have been an idiot, but not the way portrayed in the HBO series

    • Towgunner says:

      I know that man (the real Encino man). I was at TBS with him. Not even close to the truth but what does that matter? Hbo has decided his legacy.

  6. halfcoyote76 says:

    Man you fucking nailed this. This is my third time watching generation kill and I Did a search andcame up on your site. I can’t really go into a lot of detail this morning but I have to say that you really nailed the dynamic between the officers and the enlistedo men. Kudos!

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