In the aftermath of the Iraq debacle it’s often forgotten how swift the actual invasion was. From entering Iraq to the fall of Baghdad, the whole thing took less than a month. Of course that’s when the real problems began. Generation Kill tells the story of the invasion from the point of view of Recon Marines who were the first military unit into the country. The audience identification character is Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone journalist who was embedded with the troops to get a firsthand account of the war. The TV series is based on his book of the same name, and describes both the campaign and the politics within the military.
One of the main dilemmas the series explores is the problem of obeying orders. In the heat of battle sometimes obeying orders without question is a vital part of the process. However on other occasions the orders are either clearly mistaken or based on the wrong information. How do soldiers tell the two apart though? As their commanding officer points out, if troops start questioning their orders and superiors on a regular basis, the whole system falls apart.
While the marines themselves are highly trained, they’re saddled with a lack of clear objectives, poor supplies and incompetent commanders. It’s almost become a cliché of how soldiers are lions led by donkeys, but in this case it appears to be true. Two of the three captains are hideously out of their depth, while the overall commander of the Recon Marines is nicknamed the Godfather and has the slightly scary habit of referring to himself in the third person. That and his tendency to keep talking about getting his troop ‘in the game’, means that the platoon are frequently sent on missions they’re neither equipped nor trained for. Give him his own helicopter fleet and he could be Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now. Another problem they face is that they’ve only been assigned one translator between a whole division, and he’s been ordered to put a positive spin on everything he translates. As a result every Iraqi the Marines talk to tells them how much they love the Americans and how glad they are to be liberated.
The series also examines journalism during wartime. After losing the information war in their previous couple of conflicts, the US military settled on the solution of embedding journalists with the troops. The downside is that the reporters get to see their mistakes, however they also get to see how many of these errors are unavoidable in the fog of war. Citizens, including children, are accidentally killed almost routinely, while on other occasions whole villages are blown up due to the wrong information being given. In one memorable sequence the whole unit is mobilised because they think they see 140 enemy tanks approaching their position at night. It later becomes apparent that the lights they’ve seen moving towards them are actually a static town. By this point it’s too late of course and the US air force drops several tonnes of bombs on it.
One of the problems with the series is that a huge amount of military jargon is used so it often sounds like they’re talking in code. Luckily the DVD came with a handy booklet explaining it all, but I shudder to think what TV viewers made of it at the time. Another issue is that you’ve got to wonder if Evan Wright’s extremely positive portrayal of the troops is also influenced by the embedding. After all, if you’re spending every day with people who are saving your life on a regular basis, you’re probably going to see things from their perspective. Are the commanders really as incompetent as he makes them out to be? Possibly we’ll never really know.
The last episode deals with the beginning of the occupation proper, with the marines stationed in Baghdad. It quickly becomes clear that events are spinning out of control as they’re ordered not to stop the looting and instead allow the Iraqi’s to fight amongst themselves. This combined with the lack of food, water and other basic supplies means that the Americans are not welcomed as liberators. Many have since argued that allowing this anarchy helped create the insurgency. Telling people who are starving that they’ve been freed and now have democracy isn’t going to win friends and influence people.
Written and produced by David Simon and Ed Burns who created The Wire, Generation Kill has a similar visual aesthetic as well as featuring the same attention to detail when it comes to dialogue. What particularly stands out is the constant black humour in the face of death; a key survival mechanism for warriors having to deal with daily horrors. As a marine notes as they leave Baghdad, ‘We could be here till summer’. Another comments when an Iraqi is killed, ‘That’s a shame, he’d probably have loved democracy’.
Here is the trailer for Generation Kill: