Generation Kill, the 2008 HBO seven-part miniseries produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the two savants behind the massively acclaimed miniseries The Wire, was based on Evan Wright’s 2004 non-fiction book of the same name. Both book and film recount the exploits of the US Marines’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Wright rode as an embedded reporter with 1st Recon, and his account first appeared in Rolling Stone before being extended to book-length. Upon a quick reread of Wright’s book, the mini-series faithfully follows the book in detail and spirit, with many lines of dialogue and scenes transported verbatim from page to screen.
Generation Kill was lauded upon release for its portrayal of “real” Marines, warts and all. The Marines were shown to be unruly and profane, often given to complaining and questioning their leaders. Several of the leaders themselves were portrayed as incompetent buffoons. The enlisted Marines and junior officers frequently voice doubt and frustration in regard to the mission: in their eyes, they are often placed in complicated situations that threaten their safety, endanger innocent Iraqis, and/or just seem pointless or stupid.
The miniseries benefited greatly from striking characterizations and compelling acting. Stark Sands as Lieutenant Nathan Fick and Alexander Skarsgard as Staff Sergeant Brad Colbert are solid as the two leads through whom most of the action is focalized. Both are cerebral warriors of not-so-many words, and mostly alike in outlook, so their characters are not especially dynamic. It is the actors in supporting roles who memorably light up the screen–in particular, Chance Kelly as Lieutenant Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, a charismatic gravel-voiced battalion commander, and James Ransone as Corporal Josh Ray Person, the foul-mouthed driver of Sergeant Colbert’s vehicle.
Especially in the first two episodes, Generation Kill’s visual style is also superb: full of grainy grimy close-ups of tension-filled faces and striking off-angle shots of the Marines heading into battle. Base camps, uniforms, and vehicle-loads are true-to-life as cinematic portraits go, much better than the hand-waves at verisimilitude of many Iraq and Afghanistan films. Under Susanna White’s direction, the pacing in Episodes One and Two is relentless and the staging of scenes vivid, with every line and scene momentous. White excels at making scenes set inside Marine Humvees taut; the series is prescient in recognizing the vehicle cabin as the site of intense drama for men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things fall off a bit after the fast start as the screenwriters struggle to find compelling human drama or plot-turns to animate a somewhat-rote documentary-like retelling of things that happened. In the second half of the series, for example, characters are increasingly given to ponderous speechifying, while scenes that cut-off abruptly with little consequence accumulate. But like Melville’s Catskill eagle, which even when it dips below the mountaintops soars higher than the birds of the plains, Generation Kill is never bad bad.
Honestly, criticisms seem like quibbling in regard to the series’ many strengths. Very little or nothing in print or film since has achieved the panoramic view from lowest-enlisted to senior officer as they co-exist and interact within a battalion at war. Very little or nothing since has caught the peculiar way battalion commanders rule their units through fiats that can be inspirational, clarifying, bizarre, and threatening all at once. Many movies and books have portrayed the misgivings of overly thoughtful junior leaders, but Generation Kill established the prototype. So too have authors and filmmakers frequently tried to portray truculent enlisted soldiers who have grown cynical in the face of military stupidity and rigidity, but only the Terminal Lance cartoons have done so as strikingly as Generation Kill, especially in Ransone’s role as Corporal Person. While soldiers who question the mission are staples of contemporary fiction and film, few works actually portray the dilemma of poor leadership and vexed orders as complexly as does Generation Kill. One platoon leader, one company commander, and the battalion sergeant-major are so incompetent that they are something of jokes, but in Lieutenant Colonel Ferrando and Lieutenant Fink we watch competent leaders whose actions and orders still remain open to much debate, both in terms of military efficacy and moral valence.
Several themes emerge from rewatching and rereading Generation Kill. 1) The Iraq invasion force was a slipshod put-together entity that basically made things up as they went along. This is especially true of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. While watching the mini-series, I wondered at the ramshackleness of the unit, which I figured to be comprised of skilled and disciplined Marines—hand-picked from the ranks and given superior training opportunities. As Wright makes more clear than does the series, the invasion was the first time 1st Recon worked together as a unit, rather than as a set of detached and decentralized teams. It was also the first time they operated in vehicles, and they were forced to do so in a fleet of cast-off Humvees that the most derelict National Guard unit would scorn. Finally, they were asked to serve as an assault force, rather than as the scouts and forward observers they were trained to be. All this renders 1st Recon a fish-out-of-water amateur vibe; not immediately apparent perhaps to a casual observer is that Generation Kill portrays them getting their shit together as they execute missions and face challenges for the first time, even as the missions themselves are some of the invading forces’ most important.
A second theme is the shakiness of military authority. Rather than “yes sir yes sir three bags full/salute and move out” crisp obedience to command, orders and decisions and leaders in Generation Kill are constantly questioned. “Every order is subject to the unspoken vote of those to whom it is given” is another military truism; Generation Kill reveals the never-complete subservience to orders as they come down from above. A final relevant quotation goes “Marines (and soldiers) are most happy when they are bitching.” Part of Generation Kill’s excellence lies in how it portrays Marines negotiating a Venn diagram comprised of the ideas underlying the above quotes, while inviting the viewer to pass judgement on how they fare.
You could make a case that Generation Kill portrays a semi-dysfunctional unit beset by a toxic command climate, but that doesn’t seem to accurately summarize the spirit of the unit or the portrayal in the miniseries. A third theme present is that the Marines love being Marines, they love being with other Marines, and they love doing the things Marines do, even when they are disdainful of orders, contemptuous of their leaders, and things suck. They especially love fighting, which means they are eager for combat, especially the shooting part. In this regard, it helps that no one in 1st Recon dies during the invasion, so their sense of the thrill of fighting is never diminished by the horror of injury and death.
A fourth theme combines two and three, and one, too: the Marines relish chances to shoot combatants, but are apprehensive about inflicting casualties on non-combatants. Sometimes these distinctions are covered by Rules-of-Engagement, but they’re also governed by the dictates of conscience and judgment in all but the most gung-ho of Marines. The series suggests that good Marines intuitively synch necessity with accountability and proportionality in the face of danger, while bad Marines consistently misread or overreact to threats, with their subsequent actions creating or compounding problems.
In sum, Generation Kill seduces viewers into sympathizing with the Marines it portrays; without making them cool bad-boys, the series emphasizes their casual misogyny, homophobia, racism, and blood-thirstiness while also suggesting that those are not the most important things about them, in light of other qualities and their circumstances. It also doesn’t hold back highlighting the ragged planning and execution of the invasion—and the complete lack of foresight in accounting for peaceful civil governance of Iraq once the Republican Guard is defeated is writ large in both the series and the book. That’s an on-point one-two punch, artfully portrayed early on in the course of the war, and well in advance of dozens of books and films that followed.