A recent Wall Street Journal dispatch from Afghanistan quoted an Army captain on the sensitive subject of killing. He had, it seems, recently gunned down the Taliban fighter responsible for wounding a friend and fellow soldier, and repentance was not uppermost in his mind. As the captain put it: “He had blown up one of my best friends. It was pretty damn awesome to be able to tell my friend, ‘Hey, I killed him.’”
That line doesn’t feature in the new HBO series Generation Kill or the eponymous book by journalist Evan Wright on which it’s based, but it very well could have. The highlight of Wright’s book, a fast-paced but probing account of his time embedded with a Marine Reconnaissance Battalion during the nervy first weeks of the Iraq invasion, was its unapologetic rawness: it captured, better than just about any book published about the Iraq war, the mindset of American Marines in the war’s earliest days.
Wright’s great strength as a reporter was his ear for soldier-speak. When Marines relished a kill, Wright noted their blunt satisfaction. When they despaired at the deaths of civilians, he recorded their palliative gallows humor. (Grim sample: “What’s the first thing you feel when you shoot a civilian? The recoil of your rifle.”) To its credit, the series preserves much of the serrated dialogue that made Wright’s book memorable. Less creditably, it also eschews the humanizing details that made Wright’s Marines more than the sum of their sound bites.
A jarring line from the first episode illustrates the point. “White man’s gotta rule the world,” mutters Sgt. Antonio Espera as the Marines gear up for the initial push into Iraq. Taken at face value, it seems either bitter or, if one is so inclined, borderline racist. Missing is the crucial context: In the book, Wright makes it clear that Espera, himself a quarter Caucasian, is neither an embittered cynic nor a raving bigot but a dutiful soldier who’s given eight years to the Corps. His chafing about white supremacy is (largely) tongue-in-cheek. Sensitive to misrepresenting the Marines, Wright took pains to put their words in context.
But the show feels no similar compunction. The television adaptation thus doesn’t leave us with the same impression of Sgt. Espera, and perhaps the Marines more generally, that the book does. What makes these omissions all the more curious is that Wright served as a writer for the seven-part series, alongside The Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns. One can only guess why he signed off on a script that adopts all of the indecency yet none of the insights of his book.
To give the show its due, there are more felicitous attempts at storytelling. Instructed to tuck in his shirt by a commanding officer, a Marine grumbles that “his job is to be an asshole and he excels at the position,” and loosens the offending article. It’s a brief but effective scene, shattering any illusions one might have about the sanctity of rank in the military hierarchy. With similar success, Wright’s book detailed how an inane decision by a senior officer—a moment of reckless panic here, a brash order there—can cripple morale and diminish respect even among soldiers assiduously trained to follow orders. It is hardly coincidental that one of the more useful bits of Corps jargon in Wright’s narrative—“unf*ck”—refers as much to righting the blunders born of general wartime chaos as coping with idiocies issued from on high.
Of course, verisimilitude is not universally admired. New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin recently carped that the show’s focus on troops’ experiences is overdone; instead, the emphasis should have been on “ideas.”
This complaint is wrongheaded on at least two counts. What set Wright’s book apart from other war reportage, pro or con, was its stubborn refusal to force combat stories into an ideological scaffold. (Its dubious titular premise—that a generation of American kids weaned on violence-saturated pop-culture would be immune to the barbarities of war, killing with a clean conscience—was wisely abandoned early in the book.)
The result was refreshingly honest. Of a Marine gunner crestfallen mid-battle after killing a civilian, Wright observes: “I’m glad of his humanity. The fact that he’s so broken up by the shooting of that civilian just confirms what a decent guy he is. But I wish he wasn’t showing it right now.” For a lefty reporter for Rolling Stone, that is no minor concession, and it is one of the main attractions of the series that it replicates his unflinching narrative style.
It’s not clear, moreover, what “ideas” demand such urgent attention. If Hollywood’s entrants into the idea category, from Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah to Brian DePalma’s Redacted, haven’t been commercially successful, one reason is that they prefer the idea of war—usually as a bleak cycle of carnage with no redeeming value—to the real thing. It’s not that the grunts don’t have their own views on the deeper questions: Ask them about the merits of the War on Terror, as Wright does in the book, and you get an eclectic range of opinions. But debate is the luxury of spectators. If the Marines in Generation Kill don’t have “ideas” about the war, at least as the term is understood by liberal sophisticates, it’s probably because they’re too busy fighting something a little more immediate than the war of ideas.
All this the HBO series gets right. But it’s not quite enough. Even as it matches the book’s kinetic pace, the show feels disembodied. It’s as if someone had collected the choicest and most provocative snatches of dialogue in Wright’s book and called it a script. Spitting in equal parts chew tobacco and offensive one-liners, the Marines in Generation Kill seem as indistinguishable as their combat uniforms. (One of the show’s more interesting characters, battalion commander Lt. Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Fernando, is rescued from the monotony by the hoarseness of his voice as much as by the force of his on-screen persona.) To grant that the show’s Marines seem more real than Hollywood’s caricatures is hardly high praise.
Evan Wright was onto something when he wrote that the Marines he covered are neither “raging patriot[s]” nor soulless killing machines. They fight for any number of reasons: a sense of duty to their country and Iraq; a loyalty to comrades; an unfashionable desire to see themselves as the good guys “in the white hats.” Whatever one’s views of such motives, or of the war more broadly, the personalities that emerged from the book were undeniably compelling, a grittily realist portrait of fighting America in the 21st century.
All that we learn from the series, by contrast, is that Marines like to kill. That’s not entirely unsatisfying; it is, after all, in their job description. But the show never really trains its sights on the men behind the M-16s, and, in the end, it doesn’t really seem to care.
-Jacob Laksin is a 2007 journalism fellow at the Phillips Foundation and a senior editor for FrontPage Magazine.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire