I still don’t feel connected to Generation Kill, now almost halfway through its run on HBO. It has fallen into a rhythm of grunt soldiers trying to keep on keeping on while their superiors make foolhardy decisions based on opportunism or an absurd loyalty to the Marine corps handbook. They’re still routinely scolded for their “grooming standards” and its effect on army behavior (“Our protective posture is weakened!”). Meanwhile, the Marines are engaging in firefights with enemy personnel, firing at targets and being fired upon, and wondering whether some of the villagers they are laying siege to are legitimate targets. When children’s bodies are brought out for medical attention, it’s difficult to navigate the moral terrain because the superior officers don’t want to take any of their men out of the game on behalf of collateral damage while their tactical position is extremely precarious and they’re far behind enemy lines.
As air fire comes down on a civilian city, the Marines seem relatively enthusiastic, pummeling the walls of town into so much dust. “Look at me,” one of them says, “I’m a man now! Just like you! Except I’m not a faggot who talks all educated.” It got me thinking about the title of the series, Generation Kill, and how the generation doing the killing has largely been raised on video games and action movies and gangsta rap music (with most of the rapping on this show, and the declaration of Ice Cube as the “great warrior poet,” done by square looking white guys). Then there’s heavy metal music, which teenagers would listen to and, in their gleeful daydreams, follow the philosophy of Megadeth: “My business is killing, and business is good.” Pulling a trigger is easy when there’s a mantra behind it, when an entire school of thought has gone into pulling that trigger.
Mom, Dad, apple pie and American folklore doesn’t enter into the Marine psyche in Generation Kill, but pop culture certainly does. When one of the Marines, after blowing that city all to hell, considers how everything in Iraq “is old,” his buddy offers a blank-eyed stare and mutters, “Yup.” But when your ideology is based on pulling a trigger, old and new seems insignificant. Old and new are just objects in your path to be blown to smithereens. But they do try to navigate this by saying, “You got to see past the huts and camels. These are people too.” It’s simplistic, maybe, but it’s a start.
When refugees come out to the Marines with a white flag and wounded victims, there’s a momentary moral crisis of what to do with them, but as stricken as Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) seems to be about how little they can do, and how quickly the solution is found through a little wheeling and dealing, it’s difficult to identify with Colbert’s quandary. The point-of-view of the show is so single-mindedly in the trenches—with grunt marines going about their business and struggling with the day to day hassles of not having batteries, having their helmets fall off while they’re on the road, and having their water supply shot up during a firefight—that when the TV show presents them with a genuine moral dilemma, individuals (not ideologies) must be presented in all of their full dimensions.
Since we never get to know Colbert beyond his being a level-headed guy who follows the rules, it’s difficult to get a deeper perception of why he’s different than the other soldiers, other than to say that when journalist Evan Wright (Lee Tergesen in the miniseries) wrote his book about spending time with this battalion, Colbert was “just different.” But essay journalism and movies and TV shows aren’t just straight reportage, and it’s not enough to simply recreate what was there. We need a keener understanding of what the decision is, why the person is making the decision, and what that means to us. I still feel that characters like Colbert are kept at arms length from the viewer, and while we’re supposedly meant to cross that chasm to bring our own sense and sensibility to the dramatic situation, it’s difficult to do that when the character seems to be more observer than active protagonist.
Those conflicts are simplified in Saving Private Ryan to the point where one feels almost spoon-fed by Steven Spielberg’s desire to show exactly what the stakes are, who the characters are that are dealing with the crisis, and how they resolve it during the morally gray zone of war, but at least the situation is dramatized to the point where the audience can examine the situation and gauge their own personal response. Saving Private Ryan poses the question of “What would I do?,” but maybe Generation Kill asks a better question when the commanding officer outlines all of the options during a crisis and says, “What can be done?” It may, perhaps, be a larger philosophical question, beyond the moment-to-moment crisis. “The standards here are zero,” says the boss, “but nobody put a gun to our heads and told us to come here.”
Individual stories on Generation Kill are less compelling than the divide between the daily reality of what the grunts go through and the way the higher-ups use that to their advantage. “Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” says the team leader ’Godfather’ (Chance Kelly), who spins every story of their travels and combat exploits, no matter how minuscule. As long as they’re pushing forward and everything looks good on paper, the mini-heroics take on epic proportions, and minor situations are exploited for maximum impact. When an airfield is seized after it has already been abandoned (“That was pretty fucking ninja!” says Colbert) the spun story (that enemy equipment has been seized and the Marines have sustained no casualties) takes precedence. The “you are there” aesthetic of Generation Kill, which puts us right in with the Marines in the field, would fill any viewer with indignation when these stories, in all their boredom, sweat, dirt, grime, small talk, and bursts of excruciating danger, get transformed into tall tales by careerists.
For all the lack of character development, this is television, and television is as often driven by dialogue as plays. Looking over this review, it’s all about words, words, words, gleaned from the slang and situations the Marines find themselves in. Scenes, even those involving the military endlessly driving forward, are really about photographing dialogue. The drama of Generation Kill is often about how that dialogue transforms into an ideology, and that ideology likewise turns in on itself. So it’s like watching a military version of Alice in Wonderland. In one scene, all Iraqis (“everyone”) are declared hostile whether or not they are armed, yet several scenes later, when one of the Marines blows away a perceived enemy, there’s a question of whether he will be charged in a formal investigation. When challenged about his point-of-view, ’Godfather’ spits out the word “Semantics!” as if it were a curse.