When Bravo Company is moving north, the Marines of the First Recon Battalion get stuck on a bridge, unable to move forward or back, and taking heavy enemy fire. As the vehicles attempt to untangle themselves from the cluster fuck, bullets rain like hail past the windows. The dark skies are lit up by white and crimson flares amidst the gray streaks of smoke. A claustrophobic mood sets in, since we’re mostly stuck in the humvee bearing Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård), Scribe (Lee Tergesen), Person (James Ransone) and the rest, with occasional cutaways to other vehicles, combatants, and baffled commanding officers. From the humvee, Colbert maintains his cool, searching through his green night vision and picking off targets one by one. Much of the combat here retains that paradox of being in your face (a windshield shot through by bullets) and at a detached distance (the enemy targets dehumanized by the night vision hue, and soundlessly taken out).
I’ve complained, time and again, about Generation Kill and its attempts to put us in the shoes of these marines, documenting their exploits without judgment, telling their story in their own words, as non-partisan reporters would in the field. The intention is noble, and yet the form of an HBO mini-series dramatizing these events in early wartime Iraq has continually felt off somehow, as if the very concept was misguided. I somehow don’t think we, the casual armchair viewers, can be put there through direct reportage. For all the accuracy of the show—and technically it seems right on the money—it lacks any of the “elevated experience” that transcends reality.
When Kurt Vonnegut Jr. attempted to write his great novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, about the bombing of Dresden, he wound up having to tell it through a fractured narrative that involved space travel and aliens, and the fact that the book is so comical takes nothing away from its depictions of war. I bring it up only because I felt an artistic expression in Vonnegut’s book that I don’t in the mini-series of Generation Kill. And readers who have checked out my column are by now probably bored with these analogies and comparisons to other work.
THND editor-in-chief Keith Uhlich has told me this isn’t the way to look at Generation Kill. That the comparisons to other projects means I’m not really looking at the TV-show before me, but instead looking backwards in some way for points of reference and comparison. “Judge it for what it is,” Uhlich tells me, and it’s a valid argument. To wit, I’ve so far name-checked Bruno Dumont, The Battle of Algiers, Edward Albee, Saving Private Ryan, and now Vonnegut. Gosh, as the characters in Generation Kill go through repetitive actions, so do I. All of my reviews seem exactly the same, and I find it difficult to differentiate one episode from the next because, like my reviews, I feel the same action and theme is repeated over and over.
And I suppose the reader wonders why I even bother continuing to write about a series that I clearly feel is lacking. Furthermore, why do I bother tuning in? A loyalty to the creators of The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns, who co-wrote and executive produced Generation Kill, is not a good enough excuse. It’s not because I’m a glutton for punishment, or because of a massive paycheck (there is no paycheck for online criticism on The House).
The answer is, I continually return to Generation Kill because each episode, amidst the futility of attempting to bite off more than it can chew, also offers scenes that stretch beyond the format. The firefight in the middle of Episode Five is a surprising short story of compression under fire, where the unit (in dire circumstances) seems to fold into itself and work its way through the battle. Afterwards, closure is achieved in a fleeting moment where Scribe, trembling involuntarily, is sitting in the Humvee and Trombley (Billy Lush) explains how they were taught about cold shivers and shaking as a post-traumatic experience. When Scribe asks him if he’s ever felt it, Trombley says nah, he just gets a boner. It’s all very matter-of-fact, without underlining or metaphor, and effective.
The scene and sequence deliberately ends without fanfare, and the storytelling moves on—the next sequence is the mission to destroy a Republican Guard outpost, which is set up inside a schoolhouse in Al Muwafawiyah. Yet I found myself drawn into the sequence on the bridge because of the way the event was told, not because it was original in and of itself (previously, the humvee has been pinned down inside of a town, faced heavy fire while clearing out hamlets, and even found itself in another stressful situation on a bridge), but because the sequence was shot in such a way that allowed me a shift in perspective, all the while keeping me firmly entrenched in the humvee with our guys (as always), allowing for a way of perceiving the combat through their eyes. The idea that movies can accurately depict combat is one I’ll put on the shelf because it’s not so much an argument as it is a philosophical question mark.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.