These young men represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children. More than half the guys in the platoon come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are more on intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows, and Internet porn than they are with their own parents. Before the “War on Terrorism” began, not a whole lot was expected of this generation other than the hope that those in it would squeak through high school without pulling too many more mass shootings in the manner of Columbine.
— Evan Wright, Generation Kill (2004)
There wasn’t any pride simply in being there. The pride was in our good decisions. In the things we did right. I hoped I’d done more right than wrong, hoped I hadn’t been cavalier with other peoples lives. I was learning to accept that sometimes the only way to fight evil is with another evil, however good its aim.
— Nathaniel Fick, One Bullet Away (2005)
The Marines of First Recon Battalion are hauling ass across the desert. Their vehicles rumble and pitch, their bodies bend beneath Kevlar and gear as a truck blows up and black smoke shoots over the horizon. “Get out of the kill zone!” barks a commander over the radio.
And then the Humvees stop, amid clouds of settling dust. The corpsman rushes to tend to a man down, only to be told it’s too late: “Don’t waste the morphine, Doc, my boy’s been smoked,” mutters a Marine, eyes squinting. And then, what might have been the ultimate question: “How’s it feel motherfucker? How’s it feel to be fucking dead?” The corpse stirs, not dead at all. And so it goes: as the men complete their exercise, preparing for the start of the Iraq war, Lt. Fick (Stark Sands) calls in the team leaders for a “little after-action,” whereupon Cpl. Gabriel Garza (Rey Valentin) pushes his square-framed glasses back on his nose: “I never seen a .50 cal fuck up a truck before,” he smiles. “That was cool!”
The start of HBO’s Generation Kill lays out some essential points of focus: the Kuwaiti desert is hot, the firepower is awesome, and the kids in U.S. uniforms are exactly that: kids with little experience in making life and death decisions. Based on Evan Wright’s 2004 book, much of it first published as a series in Rolling Stone, the seven-part miniseries is at once sprawling and detailed, a look at young Americans in appalling situations. (Lt. Nathaniel Fick wrote his own memoir, One Bullet Away.) Like Wright’s book, the series is disjointed and disturbing, a story of youthful workers who are underprepared, underequipped, and underinformed. Members of Donald Rumsfeld’s lean, mean machine of a military, they head into battle as if it’s a game, encouraged to compete with other units for “relevance.”
More specifically, the men are most often competing for the benefit of their commanders. They gripe to one another about everything from the weather to the military’s poor planning and wrongheaded orders (they also worry over rumors that J. Lo’s been killed, visible agitated when they’re unable to get a sit rep from their lieutenant). Unlike previous generations of troops — at least as such generations are venerated in books and movies — this one is, as Wright characterizes them, raised up to feel abandoned, frustrated, and angry. The generalizations aren’t all right all the time, but they resonate especially for the kids who end up recruited in this volunteer military. Expecting elders to be out of touch and uncaring, they seek models in pop culture, in superheroes, killers, and cowboys. Told they’re supposed to be “America’s shock troops,” they perform for one another, most of the time vulgar, confused, and hostile.
That’s not to say these Marines are unaware of their situation — politically or socially. While officers discuss tactics and imagine big wins, Sgt. Espera (Jon Huertas) pees into the sand and ponders the vista before him. “Think about all the wisdom and science and money and civilization it took to build these machines,” he says,
And the courage of all the men who came here and the love of the wives and children that was in their hearts. And all that hate, dog, all the hate took to blow these motherfuckers away. It’s destiny, dog, white man’s gotta rule the world.
Espera’s assessment, at once ironic and catastrophic, helps establish the series’ various tensions. To its credit, Generation Kill does not offer much resolution; much like The Wire, it explores generational, economic, and cultural shifts. While the series includes a Wright-like character, deemed “Scribe” (Lee Tergesen), he’s not on scene for much of what transpires among battalion members. This means the TV version omits his voice, dry and deft, and seems to let the characters speak for themselves. This approach augments the series’ immediacy and authenticity (it was written by David Simon and Ed Burns, of The Wire fame, working closely with Wright), but also grants the troops, especially those who seem to pop up for punctuation, some alarming surreality.
Thus Lt. Col. Ferrando (Chance Kelly), nicknamed “Godfather” for his rasping whisper of a voice (the result of throat cancer) is a daunting commander whose decisions, especially the bad ones, loom like signs of doom. Likewise, Captain America (Eric Nenninger), a straight-up lunatic in Wright’s rendering, is here a red-faced blowhard, scary for his panic attacks dressed up as bravado: called a “retard” by his men, he never appears in control of himself; asked why he’s shooting Iraqi trucks, he blusters, “Denying the enemy transportation!” While on the page the captain passed for metaphor as much as literal monster, the product of an excessive, overcompensating culture, here he’s more cartoonish, the object of ridicule and brief moments of not-so-comic relief.
To contrast such overkill, the series offers a couple of different moral centers, Afghan war veterans and buddies Cpl. Person (James Ransone) and Sgt. Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård). While Person is cynical and wise, Colbert is almost painfully sympathetic, stereotypically blond and square-jawed, a conventional American hero caught up in an ungodly mess, surrounded by incompetence, egotism, and ignorance. When FNG Cpl. Trombley (Billy Lush) voices his desire repeatedly to get a chance to fire his weapon (“I’m gonna shoot me a dog,” he drawls, frustrated as their convoy keeps roaring along the road to Baghdad, engines clogged with sand and action seemingly always a few clicks ahead), Colbert tries to calm him. Trombley’s both a joke and a scary logical product of too many videogames and too few history classes (“Woulda liked to have flown that plane that dropped the bomb on Japan,” he sighs, “Couple hundred thousand killed by a couple a dudes: that fucking rules!”). In other words, he’s a typical teenaged jarhead, circa 2003, and he’s going to make trouble for himself and his mates.
Told that the new ROE have make everyone targets, he takes the order seriously, then faces schooling over his overt racism. “You gotta see that these people are just like you,” an older guy tells him. “You gotta see past the huts, the camels, the different clothes they wear.” But Trombley’s not hearing it: he’s learned otherwise, his contempt for anyone different (“hajjis” and “faggots”) formed long before he came to Iraq.
This up-against-it narrative is refracted throughout the series, as Marines with good intentions and some sense of the way the world works beyond their immediate experience confront limits of vision and purpose. The Marines understand themselves as hard and resilient, of course, but also abused for a reason. They don’t get special treatment like the Army, they say, “Marines make do.” They have to jerry-rig their vehicles with armor, purchase their own supplies, and are hardly surprised when their new fatigues turn out to be jungle camo rather than colored for the desert. At the same time, the Marines are quick to condemn the Reservists — low men on the U.S. military ladder in the Middle East — for their lack of training and expertise.
Each man harbors his own resentments and hopes, and each is suspicious of their nation’s reasons for going to war. The Kuwaiti interpreter Mish (Nabil Elouahabi) admits he’s been told to “put a little spin on things” when he translates, then reveals that some stragglers the Marines have just picked up aren’t actually so that glad to see them. “These dudes,” he says, “are saying there are some bad dudes up ahead. They know we are coming and they want to hit us. They hate America, man.”
Yes and yet, it’s likely that after these Marines are gone, conflicts won’t be premised on national identities. Again, Espera sees a larger picture, lamenting a flawed but frighteningly effective corporate strategy: “The U.S. is just going to all these fucked up countries, Iraq, Africa, South America” he says, “How else we gonna make these hungry motherfuckers stop killing everybody? Put a McDonalds on every fucking corner. We gotta blow up the fucking corner, then build a McDonalds, so be it.”