Situation Normal: What “Generation Kill” Gets Right About Iraq

July 18, 2008

I hate Skittles. I perfected this dislike while covering the invasion of Iraq, because the gummy pills of sugar and fruit were included in the MREs fed to soldiers, Marines, and journalists who were racing to Baghdad in 2003. On the continuum of foods I can’t stand, they are surpassed only by lima beans. But the cameo of a red pack of Skittles in the opening scene of David Simon’s new HBO miniseries, “Generation Kill,” was a welcome sight, because it signaled that the program was going to be faithful to the smallest detail of the invasion I had witnessed.

Premiering last Sunday and running through Aug. 24, “Generation Kill” also gets the not-so-sugary things right. The program’s obsession with the hyper-real extends to the pitch-perfect sound of a Humvee idling and the baggy cut of the Marines’ chemical-warfare suits, which made these 21st-century warriors seem to be wearing hand-me-down uniforms. The dialogue is un-Hollywoodized, too—the unfiltered use of foul language and military acronyms made me think I was listening to a replay of what I heard five years ago.

Yet the highest achievement of the miniseries is the way it unveils the disordered workings of the American military and the inevitable destruction of all objects in its path, including civilians whose only offense is to tend their sheep or drive down a road. With its $550 billion budget and 1.5 million troops, the military might seem a mechanized colossus of precision-guided violence, give or take a few bad apples and errant artillery shells. But if you have served in the military or written about it from the inside, you know that on the unit level it is filled with men and women of vastly different motivations and skills. The Marines in “Generation Kill” are intelligent and dimwitted, panicked, sensitive, racist, comic, homicidal, brave. It is a wonder when things go according to plan. “You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps?” says one of the characters. “You get your brains back.”

Even in liberal circles, it has become a convention to blame the Bush administration for bad execution of a good idea (i.e., invading a large Middle Eastern nation). “Generation Kill” offers a reality-based counternarrative to the critique that was embedded in, for example, “No End in Sight.” That documentary excoriated Washington for messing up, through poor planning and wishful thinking, an invasion and occupation that, the documentary implied, might have worked. “Generation Kill,” which is faithfully based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, who was embedded with the Marine reconnaissance battalion featured in the miniseries and who wrote some of the episodes, certainly provides abundant evidence of inept preparation. There are not enough batteries for night optics, maps are late in arriving, the Humvees are not armored, and no one in the battalion, aside from its disheveled interpreter, speaks more than a word or two of Arabic. Yet those types of shortcomings, as well as the ineptitude of some members of the unit—a vital supply truck is hastily abandoned in battle, commanders are obsessed with facial hair, a captain orders his men to go the wrong way on a road—are rooted in systemic faults that predate the election of George Bush in 2000. The Bush team was incompetent and naïve—the critics are right about that—but the military had more than enough built-in deficiencies to undermine even a well-planned conquest of Iraq. Snafu, which is a military acronym that stands for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up,” did not come out of Iraq; its origins are generally traced to World War II.

“Generation Kill” is the opposite of a lecture—the paragraph you just read contains more politics than you’ll get in the entire series. “Generation Kill” doesn’t insist that the military—George Bush’s, Bill Clinton’s, Barack Obama’s, or John McCain’s—can only get things half-right on its good days. Instead, it presents the untouched messiness and ambiguity of killing in modern warfare. You can draw your own conclusions. One of the first combat scenes in the series occurs when a Marine sniper takes out two Fedayeen; the head of one of them explodes like a watermelon. Returning to his Humvee, the sniper is congratulated by his buddies, but you can see, as the camera lingers on his face after the high-fiving, that he looks as though he will be sick. This is not an anti-war varnish. The Marine battalion that I followed to Baghdad had a veteran sniper who clocked dozens of kills during the invasion; he was proud of his work, but I never saw him celebrate.

It wasn’t until later episodes that I realized this miniseries is so realistic it should be used as an educational tool for troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not give much away, particularly to readers of Wright’s book, in mentioning that the Marines of “Generation Kill” set up checkpoints on roads that are used by civilians as well as fighters who are not in uniform. The consequences are not attractive, and these gut-wrenching scenes illustrate the tactics and guesswork that lead to tragedy—not only for the civilians who are in the wrong place at the wrong time but for the Marines who must live with the awfulness of their lethal mistakes. The battalion I was with killed a number of civilians after storming across a bridge, and afterward, a lance corporal surveying the carnage angrily told me, “How can you tell who’s who? I don’t think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people didn’t die.” Shooting at approaching Iraqis without knowing for sure whom you are shooting at—this practice began in March 2003 and continues today, because it’s unavoidable with an imperfect military and a confusing battle space. In “Generation Kill,” one of the Marines, after a buddy unintentionally kills civilians in a military version of a drive-by shooting, mentions the far greater carnage of American bombs dropped on innocent villages and says, “So fucking what? It’s war, dawg.”

I was eager to watch this series because David Simon and Ed Burns, who co-produced it, were the wise men behind “The Wire”; I wanted to see what these masters of urban narratives would do with a military story. Here the miniseries is revelatory, because it shows a similarity between the emotional hydraulics of a military unit in Iraq and a drug gang in Baltimore. As in “The Wire,” the Marines who are the focus of “Generation Kill” are crude young toughs who have a hard-to-decipher patois of their own. (By the end of the series, you still might not know the meaning of ROE, MSR, RCT, POG, and AO.) Their chain of command is led by an intelligent lieutenant and a veteran sergeant known as “Iceman”; if you put together the characteristics of these two warriors, you have Marlo Stanfield, the coolly analytic gang leader of “The Wire.” Just as a drug gang can be more sophisticated than we thought, a Marine battalion can be less perfect than we wish.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.