Monday, July 21, 2008

Generation Kill

I had heard good things about HBO's newest miniseries, Generation Kill, and given HBO's recent batting average, pretty much any of their shows are worth a stab. The series is based on Evan Wright's book of the same title, which chronicles a platoon of First Reconnaissance Battalion Marines' engagement in the first days of the Iraq War. The book, as I understand it, is an expanded version of a series of articles written for Rolling Stone.

The HBO series - and presumably the book and original articles - paints meticulous portraits of the Marines with whom Wright was embedded. The men in the platoon are like all the Marines I have ever, profane, powerful, and completely weird. The weirdness is not so much an issue of the Corps seeking out weird people to fill their ranks, but rather a manifestation of the only release valve they have for the tough shit they need to be able to absorb. I am not a Marine, my family has no Marine connections, but I do have a bevy of Marine friends, who have at least tried to explain what it is to be a Marine. It is not something for the weak, and it is not something for the stupid. It's never NOT intense, and this is where the weirdness comes from.

You can also see what I think is the greatest flaw in the Iraq War...obviously, as I've babbled about many times, I think that the abandonment of diplomacy in the months preceding the war is the biggest mistake of the entire thing, but in terms of the actual, Okay, We Goin' part of the war, the planning and preparation were not where they should have been. This is clearly evident in Generation Kill, when the men head into Baghdad in unarmoured Humvees alone, with no tank escort, and with chemical suits in woodland camoflauge. Communication is weak at best, and the Rules of Engagement change what seems like every couple minutes.

It seems to me that the US military failed to anticipate how different this new war would be. I am not so blinded by my general dislike of the Administration and the government's handling of this war that I can fool myself into thinking they didn't know it would be down-and-dirty, urban combat shit they were walking into. They knew they'd have to go into the cities to rout the Baathists and lop off the tentacles of Hussein's government. More that than, they had to know that this was not a Geneva Convention war...there would likely be less uniformed combatants than fighters clad in civvies. Frankly, that's a smarter way to win a war - look like you live there and just need some groceries. Right there, you blow your rules of engagement out of the water. I think in large part the possibility of success was derailed then and never recovered. It's truly horrible to see this problem painted so clearly, complete with real, human characters. The newspapers make it easy to think in binary - this film makes it a photograph.

Moreover, and this may seem completely weird given the weight of the material addressed, the recapper assigned to the series on Television Without Pity is Jacob, who recapped The Apprentice and American Idol for them. The Apprentice and AI couldn't be more vapid if they tried (maybe they do...there's certainly an argument to be made there), but Jacob really has a way of imbuing the recaps with a certain sociopolicial weight that isn't always evident from the first viewing. With Generation Kill, he brings a lot of excellent observations not only about the military and the Marines, but also about the war itself. I'll leave you with some of his best contributions, advice to check out his recaps, and a demand that you watch Generation Kill at your first convenience. It's important viewing, and Americans need to know about these things.

"The way that these men deal with ugliness is, of course, a major draw here, and the ways it's expressed are completely foreign and interesting. I would not be able to invent the coping strategies these men have developed. Like, they know killing is horrible and bad, and they don't want to die; they know that they are racist and homophobic and sexist and gross, and surrounded by people of other races who don't always get along in the real world, and that they're in a homoerotic home movie with no girls for miles, and they know that these things cause resentment and fighting and total weirdness on every level from the physical to the spiritual, but if you say it you break the bubble and everybody freaks out, right? Except not in this case, because they have to be empty and can't have all that stuff going on inside. So they just acknowledge it, violently and at full volume, on a constant basis, and that... works for them. It's brilliant."

"Ray accuses Jeff of communism; he reacts poorly. They talk a lot about communism, in the Battalion. It didn't make a whole lot of sense at first, but I think I get it. As a cultural gloss, the bugbear of Communism as an all-purpose signifier for weakness and a particularly anti-capitalist, which is to say anti-American, point of view encapsulates everything the rest of the country -- the liberal media, et. al. -- doesn't understand anymore. I mean, war is bad. But that's not a Marine thought. So all the non-Marine thoughts in the world, thanks to the '60s, can be easily filed under communism. It's an artifact. It reminds me most -- stay with me here -- of the way men pass down information in other environments, like, the '70s and poppers and drag queens were a long time ago, and made sense in that time and place. But you meet a 20-year-old gay kid who still thinks those things are relevant, it's because somebody got ahold of him before he invented the world for himself. So the whole communism thing -- most of the guys in Bravo Company, understand, are under twenty-five -- is extant in the men who've trained them, and the men who trained those men. And it means something larger than it pretends to. The entire concept of getting offended if you called somebody a communist, it's so weird. But in this context it makes total sense that it's still pejorative."

"And I mean, the most cartoonish people in this story -- Captain America, Rudy Reyes, Sixta, Ray Person -- are the most true-to-life, and I had to watch this maybe a dozen times to even begin to understand what a Sergeant Major is all about, because what he is about is this: being the freak. Looking for things to yell about. It's not because he's a dick -- he's also a dick -- but because that's what he does. They kept saying his job was to be an asshole and I thought they were being cute, but no: his job is actually to be an asshole. That's so weird."

"The thing with the mustaches is cool, because it runs under everything else that happens: before this week, the division was having a mustache contest, and now suddenly mustaches are evil. But it has to be mustaches, because to be a Marine is simultaneously the most powerful and the least powerful thing you can be. When you're made into a weapon you can do what weapons do, but you also don't have too many options otherwise. The things they did to Gunny Wynn in Basic, make my skin crawl. I don't even want to talk about it. It makes me feel sad, and very alone. But think about it: no matter how small the box you're in, no matter how many parts of you they burn off, you still have the ability to grow hair. You're a man: your mustache proves it. The reason the grooming standard is so galling is because it's control on a level that nobody should have to endure. The find the one square foot you're standing on that still belongs to you, and they take off six more inches: not even your face belongs to you, it belongs to the Corps."

"Iceman's life is about protecting his men in the field, and every scene with the turret makes it an objective correlative for that central issue. He's looking for something he will never find, which is safety for his men, and no matter where he looks for it, nobody even knows what he's talking about. Garza stands on top of a Humvee, completely exposed, shooting a gun as big as a surfboard. I've never stood on top of a Humvee while it was standing still, much less slip-sliding through desert sand while people shot at my head. Get the dude a fucking turret; they're not supposed to be in these cracked-out Humvees in the first place. Rudy approaches, looking grim and gigantic and apologetic, and summons Brad back to the tents."

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