As First Recon inches its way ever closer to Baghdad, the idiocy of Captain America (Eric Nenninger) continues to push those under his command toward irritation (they subdue a prisoner and he charges in with his bayonet). Meanwhile, those under the command of Captain Encino Man (Brian Patrick Wade) buckle at his strident attempt to make sure no one questions his orders. Meanwhile, Godfather (Chance Kelly) wants to get back in the game. Meanwhile, Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his humvee are headed towards Baqubah, just north of Baghdad, and sustain some fire along the way. In other words, regular viewers of Generation Kill will have more of the same.
I’m trying to keep an open mind. When listening to Philip Glass, the repetitions upon repetitions can either feel like an endless drone, or if you listen for long enough you start to detect variations on the theme. If I went back to the first episode of this series, would I detect slight differences in behavior from Colbert about how he feels about this sweeping machine he’s a part of? Does he seem any more self-aware now than he did before? As for the morale of the Marines on the road, it seems to have been steadily sinking, and when they’re faced with escorting fleeing Iraqi civilians along the highway, they’re conflicted by (a) how much they are allowed to do to help these people, (b) how little they can do, and (c) how bad this is for their personal morale. How are they supposed to “stay frosty” when they are facing moments that are sure to psychologically scramble them?
The sequence on the highway opens up Generation Kill’s moral territory, where you have to wonder if it’s good for the Marines to open themselves up to humanity. As human beings, perhaps, it’s a good thing, but as the killing machines they’re expected to be during wartime, it creates a seed of doubt, and maybe they won’t be as effective when they have to kill an enemy that now has a human face. Lt. Fick (Stark Sands), who has been a buffer between the men and the officers, and a kind of cheerleader and motivator, is frustrated by what’s happening to them, perhaps because he himself always seems to value the good of the men over the good of the military, which makes him a decent human being but, all said and done, maybe not the best commander.
In the midst of all the repetitions and the fleeting glimpses into what passes for a marine’s daily life (much is made of Colbert providing his friends with some Chef Boyardee and a porno magazine), another instance pops up quick, and is just as soon gone, that feels underlined as being part of the overall message. The members of Colbert’s humvee feel like the war is nearing its end, which bugs them because they want to see some combat before it’s over. Scribe (Lee Tergesen) brings up the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction and is quickly shushed—once again, it’s a slight variation from what Scribe usually does on this show, which is react with a “huh, how interesting!” turn of the head whenever something happens, as if a close-up on his character registers that he’s making a mental note, or reacting to a joke someone played on him, or reacting to something goofy, or reacting to bullets whizzing by. When Scribe actually remarks on something, providing an outsider’s perspective, it feels like a Moment.
Readers who have stayed with me to this point must be well aware that I am unexcited by the show, and those rare fleeting moments of good television that I get from it are certainly welcome, but not enough to make me feel like Generation Kill is taking me somewhere, or broadening my cultural horizons, or helping me to imagine what it was like for the First Recon Battalion. I still can’t step out of the series as a dramatic construct, one that shows its gears. And I haven’t been able to separate the mechanics of its storytelling—being a fly on the wall with these young men—with the heavy-handedness of the narrative imposed on it. I feel like the show wants to sustain the immediacy and curiosity of a documentary while at the same time presenting characters, stories, an evolving narrative. And in a way, it cancels itself out.
But in my insistence in wanting to like the show, I’ve found myself trying to step outside the box a little. I was over at THND editor Keith Uhlich’s place debating about (a) the quality of The Wire (generally superlative), (b) inadvertently insulting him by calling him to task for his frequent use of the Holy Trinity in his reviews (mea culpa), (c) considering The Dark Knight as something beyond Keith’s view of it as reductive depictions of “Order” and “Chaos,” and (d) how heavily worn down our beleaguered (yet stalwart) editor-in-chief has become having to sift through comments and generally getting kicked in the ass for having an opinion about The Dark Knight that is clearly outside the status quo acceptance.
The conversation got me thinking about how to look at the series in a new way. I asked Keith if I could borrow the paperback national bestseller by Evan Wright and see how Generation Kill worked on the page. I found myself quite hooked, and two days later I was over 250 pages in and felt like I was getting something that the show can’t really give us, which is straight up, first hand reporting, told in a uniquely individual voice, slightly ironic, never snarky, with an eye for the tiny details that help the reader understand. The writer not only has a voice, but he’s also present in his reactions to things, and although he’s an observer, the book allows us to get inside his head.
Here’s a passage from page 17:
“In my first couple of days at the camp, I’m placed in a tent with officers. I can’t tell anybody apart; they all look the same in their desert camouflage fatigues. Most of the officers seem to be square-jawed, blue-eyed white guys in their mid-to-late twenties. The initial reason I strike up an acquaintance with Lt. Fick ... is that he’s easily recognizable. ... [He] has a loping, adolescent smile that you can spot from a hundred meters away. He’s one of fifty men to introduce themselves to me ... but he’s the only one I’m able to call by name on my way to the mess tent and ask if I can join him for dinner.”
Already, we have a sense of Wright trying to figure out where he is, and latching on to Fick as a recognizable face. When he finally starts getting to know Colbert, the description is equally evocative:
“There is about him an air of Victorian rectitude. He grew up in an ultramodern 1970s house designed by his father, an architect. There was shag carpet in a conversation pit. One of his fondest memories, he later tells me, is that before cocktail parties, his parents would let him prepare the carpet with a special rake.”
Wright goes on to describe Colbert’s encyclopedic knowledge of radio frequencies and encryption protocols and weapons, and about the warrior princess babe from Heavy Metal that is tattooed across his back. The point is, we get to know Colbert, Person, Trombley and all the rest of them better through these sharp, incisive X-Rays into who they are, where they’re from, what they’re about.
Of course, you can’t dramatize this stuff because movies and television exist in the present tense, showing immediate actions and behaviors. But the show has sacrificed something so precious from the book, which is not only Wright’s accumulation of details in the day-to-day operations of the unit (which the show gets pretty well), but the way in which he is able to clearly delineate who these guys are and why they act the way they do under pressure. This is something the TV-show strives for, but the book is able to get under the skin of how these guys have been influenced by hip-hop, video games, movies and pop culture, and the way it affects the very way they think. The most the TV show can do is imply thought, and maybe create some dialogue to clarify. The result is we’re seeing scenes, not watching life unfold.
David Simon and Ed Burns did an amazing job on The Wire because they lifted the facts and the characters from real life and elevated them to epic status, placing them on a canvas bigger than they are, expanding the scope of that universe and allowing the dramatic constructs to be challenging moral dilemmas. When you have big characters making big decisions, it equals capital drama. I don’t think The Wire aspires to documentary realism—it takes real problems and makes them as big as possible, to the point that they become larger-than-life metaphors. Does Generation Kill do this? If so, the metaphors teeter over into the obvious, since Captain America and Encino Man are played so broadly, there’s no room for the subtleties that make good drama. And the emphasis on metaphor also closes down like a vice with characters like Colbert and Scribe, who are introspective to the point of being inscrutable.
There’s only one episode left of Generation Kill, and we’re in definite “wrapping up the third act” territory. As Bravo goes up against armored tanks, they are accompanied by Marine reservists, who seem like a bunch of crazy, gun-toting cowboys—and when one of the reservists accuses Sgt. Kocher (Owain Yeoman) of abusing a prisoner, it feels like he is attacking the wrong guy. Will all of these tensions boil over, or will Generation Kill remain with its cards played close to the vest? I’m sure we can expect Encino Man to make a jerk of himself, Captain America to put his men in danger, Colbert to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Scribe to gaze on in wonderment and disgust. As for the subtle variations therein, let’s hope they contain some insights.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.