Five years after Evan Wright was embedded with the Marines in the invasion of Iraq, his book, Generation Kill, has made the small screen. In the HBO opening episode, “Get Some,” we meet the Marines of First Marine Recon Battalion in Kuwait preparing for the attack. In this episode, Wright joins the Marines who react with distain to his Rolling Stone credentials, but respond with enthusiasm when they learn that he was the porn flick reviewer for Hustler magazine in a previous job.
As Wright himself has been quick to point out, this film (and his book) were constructed to reflect “the lance corporal’s point of view.” Early scenes portray the battalion’s sergeant-major as a martinet who is harshly insistent on maintenance of “grooming standards” (“get rid of that moustache!”) but ignores vehicle maintenance and essentials like maps of the area of operations.
All officers higher than the second lieutenant platoon commander suffer from stereotypical portrayal. The company commander is incredibly lax, enjoying a Pizza Hut treat while forgetting to alert his subordinates that a movement to attack is imminent. The battalion commander, a Marine lieutenant colonel with a harsh, grating voice, refers to himself in the third person and seems to be preoccupied with facial hair growth while brushing off mission essential items.
When Wright’s character learns that the speech impairment is a result of throat cancer, he asks the battalion commander if he was a smoker.
“No,” the colonel replied, “Just lucky, I guess.” Meanwhile, the Marines have to scrounge spare parts for their humvees, pay out of their own pockets to get necessary gear such as batteries for their night vision devices, and look with envy at Army units who have better equipment.
Wright does not spare himself, and recounts a humorous incident during a SCUD attack and poison gas alert in which he becomes painfully tangled in his protective gear and has to be cut away by a nearby Marine. "I just performed testicle surgery on the reporter," chortles the Marine after snipping away cords that were tangled around Wright’s groin.
Much has been made of the language and attitudes of the Marines in this opening episode. Comments on harsh dialogue, racial epitaphs, homophobia and preoccupation with sex have been said by some reviewers to mar the script. When I watched episode one, I was in the company of a former Army private who thought that the dialogue mirrored similar experiences. From my days – decades previously – as a junior enlisted man I agreed.
Having very recently returned from an embed with soldiers in Iraq, and from more than two decades spent as enlisted and officer, I can say that the dialogue sounded like authentic soldier-speak to me. If you’re looking for erudite, philosophical discussions, try a coffee shop or college campus. Avoid the barracks. Conversely, some of the dialogue accurately reflected the fighting-man’s point of view about how naively civilians view war, and what war is really about. “We’re here to kill,” one of the characters says. And that is about as succinct a summary of the infantry mission as one is likely to find.
While accomplishing his goal to present war from a grunt’s-eye view, Wright missed much of what has to take place at the senior non-commissioned officer and officer levels in order to bring the entire force to the show. He repeats Marines’ lines about officer and NCO incompetence, leaving the uninitiated viewer to believe that such observations are factual. By doing so, Wright, perhaps unintentionally, creates the distinct impression that the enlisted Marines are victims of the system, simple troops trying to accomplish an impossible mission while being led by incompetents.
It is somewhat amusing to be told that this generation is somehow different from legions of their predecessors. One can easily imagine similar dialogue from disgruntled Roman legionnaires, griping about lack of adequate equipment, stupidity of leaders, constant changes of mission, and conflicting orders as they prepared to cross into Gaul to take on the barbarians.
When bigoted white Marines verbally assault black and Hispanic comrades, it is evocative of the scene in Samuel Fuller’s Big Red One when a new squad member derided one of the veterans for his Italian heritage. “What do they let Wops into this man’s Army for?” the character asks just before an M-1 is shoved into his mouth, effectively silencing him. The more things seem to change, the more they simply repeat.
Wright said that he intentionally selected the title Generation Kill to contrast today’s soldiers with those of the Second World War’s “greatest generation.” But anyone who has spent time with the military in any war will quickly recognize characters from their own experiences. Perhaps the most important point to glean from this episode is that enlisted soldiers preparing to go into combat are rough, tough, and lean – particularly in the area of political correctness, regardless of the era.
It is also helpful for the viewer to maintain perspective. In essence, the Marines of Generation Kill were from a peacetime military establishment. Every unit in every war must complete the often painful transition from garrison duty to combat, and it must be accomplished virtually overnight. We see this happening in episode one.
It is axiomatic that when wars begin, orders are confusing – and are often conflicting.
Rules of engagement that sound perfectly logical in base camp in Kuwait, for example, become suddenly inapplicable when unforeseen situations arise. In one scene what turns out to be fedayeen Saddam death squads are waved off on orders from battalion because the enemy is not wearing uniforms. Such incidents quickly became part of lessons learned and Marines adjusted accordingly. They are less likely to happen today because soldiers are aware that neither al Qaeda nor militia fighters wear uniforms.
While platoon members grouse about this seemingly irrational order, the viewer is unaware of the command reality of issuing orders to kill what may turn out to be civilians. In Iraq the American military is under strictest orders to avoid collateral damage – harming innocent civilians – and the choice between possibly letting an enemy go and enduring scathing criticism from judgmental media continues to be problematic to this day.
Through his characters, Wright points out chronic Marine Corps issues, such as having to go to war with old, worn equipment. This gripe too, while it has some legitimacy, has been around so long that it has become a point of pride with Marines that they fight better than anyone else with antiquated gear.
This series has value for the viewer. Wright successfully puts you into the heads of the grunts who are fighting the war. Unlike the failed scene in Heartbreak Ridge in which Marines get somber and introspective when told that they are going into Grenada to fight, the reality is better portrayed in Generation Kill. Whenever highly trained, motivated soldiers or Marines – such as the First Recon unit, are alerted for a fight they engage the prospect with enthusiasm. Wright captures this attitude precisely in this first episode.
The unfortunate lack of bigger-picture perspective ultimately mars the final product and is sure to confuse civilian viewers who may mentally turn the Marines into victims and the senior leaders into mindless robots. Neither is factually correct, and the grunts on the ground will be the first to express contempt at any attempt to victimize them.