Earlier this week I watched the last episode of HBO’s Generation Kill, one of the finest television series ever made. Based on the original articles and book written by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright about his experiences being embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps at the start of the Iraq War, Generation Kill was adapted for television by David Simon and Ed Burns, the men behind The Wire, the greatest TV series ever made, and this is right up there with it in terms of quality.
The series begins with Wright being introduced to the troops as they wait for their orders behind the Kuwait border. At first, “Reporter”, as he’s known is treated as an outsider, a liberal who represents the outside world’s outrage against the war. The Marines often dislike the war as well, but it’s what they trained for, they are there to follow orders. Over time he begins to be accepted and we meet the characters we’ll grow to know and love or hate.
1st Recon is led by the Lieutenant Colonel, known as Godfather due to his raspy Brando-like voice caused by throat cancer. He’s an enigmatic man who has some unusual, endearing quirks such as listening to Test Match Special on the BBC World Service. At times he makes decisions which might be seen as questionable, but ultimately he seems to be wanting to do what he sees as the right thing, and his charisma means he is a leader who commands respect from everyone who serves under him.
As the Marines enter Iraq, we spend much of the time with Wright on the Humvee he was assigned to, the in the lead vehicle of Bravo Company’s Second Platoon. Sergeant Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert (played by Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård) leads the team in the Humvee, and gets his nickname from his ability to keep calm at all times. He’s a man who has seen a lot and has developed a slightly cynical attitude, but tends to keep his head down and get on with things, showing his impressive battle skills when the need arrives. The Humvee is driven by Corporal Josh Ray Person, played by James Ransone, known to viewers of The Wire as season two’s Ziggy. Person is at the heart of the humour of the show, pointing out all of the absurdities of the war and giving examples of the well-known vulgar military wit. Sitting next to Wright in the back of the Humvee is Lance Corporal Harold James Trombley, a quiet, troubled young man who seems slightly too keen to start shooting at people. Despite all the horrors of war around them, at times it really is a pleasure to be in the company of these Marines as they sing songs and tell jokes at each other’s expense.
The Second Platoon of Bravo Company is led by First Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick. Nate, as he’s known, is a good leader with a strong sense of morals and an even stronger sense of chain of command, quietly but confidently doing his job. Quite often he does the right thing or can see what is clearly the right thing to do, and is shafted by his superiors, but stands by them even when his subordinates can see the injustice. While we spend most of the time with the Second Platoon, we also meet other members of Bravo Company, including Third Company, led by Captain Dave McGraw, better known as Captain America. Erratic, paranoid and lacking in both common sense and battle skills, he appears to be having a breakdown before our eyes. The scariest thing about Captain America is that, just like all the other characters, he’s a real person.
Bravo Company as a whole is commanded by Captain Craig ‘Encino Man’ Schwetje, a man who has clearly been promoted to a role that is far beyond his abilities. Incompetent, and sometimes plain stupid, his decision-making makes no sense to the men on the ground and at times puts them in real danger. He’s accompanied by his right hand man, Sergeant Ray ‘Casey Kasem’ Griego, a nasty piece of work who has little genuine power but takes delight at his position on the fringes of command.
Despite the different location, the damage that the people in charge can cause is a way in which Generation Kill is very much the like The Wire. The people in the top positions are completely incompetent and make decisions to further their careers and objectives which harm innocents and make life difficult for people on the ground. No decision makes sense to the people who have to carry it out, aside from the few people, mostly reservists, who seem to be enjoying going on a killing spree across the country. If anything can go wrong, it usually will, and often involves the deaths of women and children.
Anyone familiar with The Wire will also know that the viewer should not expect any help with technical jargon or slang. Although at times we’re helpfully guided by the reporter who, as much an outsider to the military as the rest of us, asks the questions we would, much of the time we’re simply thrown into it. If at first you don’t understand what everyone’s saying, that’s fine, you’ll get the general idea and just as The Wire introduced us to hoppers and re-ups, you’ll soon know exactly what Whiskey Tango and Stay Frosty mean. For those who needed extra help, Channel Four have been running the @Generation_Kill Twitter account, which gave running translations and explainations as the show aired each week.
The show has done an incredible job of being at times very entertaining and at others completely traumatising, and showing that these are the realities of war. There are times when war is undeniably exciting and gets the adrenaline flowing, whatever the morals involved. There are times when the camaraderie and juvenile humour makes the front line seem like a fun place to be. There are other times when there is nothing much more to do than sit and wait and get bored out of your mind. And then there are many other times when it is clear just how completely horrific and entirely messed up war really is.
Six years on from the invasion of Iraq most of us have a sanitised idea of what happened in our name, what was inflicted on the civilians and what the soldiers had to go through. Generation Kill unflinchingly shows us what happened in all it’s horror, although it never feels that it is preaching an anti-war message, instead simply showing us the events Even Wright saw. At times it might feel that some of the things shown seem too awful to be true, such as the warning shots that accidently kill civilians or the bodies of women and children on the sides of the streets, but judging from the book and interviews with some of the marines, it seems that if anything it has been toned down. For example, in one scene a marine has to pick up the body of a young girl who had been shot in a car, which the book describes as being much more gruesome in real life than the already heartbreaking and graphic scene on TV. These are real people and real events, which are hard to comprehend as happening in this decade and not in 1960s Vietnam. It’s a series everybody should watch.