(HBO, rebroadcast times and dates vary, check hbo.com for schedule)
As Generation Kill opens, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, the men of First Reconnaissance — an elite Marine detachment that completes much of the same training as the Navy Seals and the Army Rangers and operates best behind enemy lines— are spoiling to go to war.
At the border of Kuwait and Iraq, though, this battalion of spy/assassins is tasked with a job unworthy of their talents. They’re being tucked four-deep into thinly armored, poorly equipped Humvees and tasked with overrunning and subduing enemy ambushes. The tinny point of a spearhead pushing through Mesopotamia.
In his first project since ending The Wire, David Simon has created a harrowing look at the stumbling start to a botched war. Based on Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright’s book of the same name, Generation Kill is a seven-part miniseries that primarily follows Wright and his Humvee mates, Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert, Cpl. Josh Ray Person, and Lance Cpl. Harold Trombley as they face a war on two fronts: the incompetent Iraqi army and insurgents on one end, and the mostly incompetent U.S. command structure on the other.
This tension emerges slowly. The viewer’s perception shifts as the soldiers’ do. Afghanistan had a purpose, and so did First Recon. The men had clear objectives and were allowed to do the job they were trained for. In Iraq, though, they’re little more than grunts.
By the beginning of episode six, First Recon has already noticed what will take the military and the administration years to admit. There are no WMDs. The insurgents (terrorists as they were called at the time) didn’t enter Iraq until we got there, and they won’t leave until after we do.
Like The Wire, the best moments of Generation Kill hiss with insightful, bitingly clever dialogue. Simon never loses sight of his characters’ primarily blue-collar backgrounds, though, so these men don’t become Aaron Sorkin characters in battle dress.
“This is really interesting, Brad,” says Person, in his smart-ass way, as First Recon lingers on the outskirts of Baghdad. “You know, Iraqis don’t really seem good at fighting. But then, they never really completely surrender, either.”
How do you fight that kind of enemy? By episode seven, the men of First Recon are starting to get a feel for it, but they are constantly undermined by command. The series ends in a kind of languidly contested stalemate. Well before Bush declared “mission accomplished,” and well before Iraq came to be a generation-defining quagmire, the Baghdad of Generation Kill looks a lot like the Baghdad of today. This brilliantly written, compassionately composed portrait of life in the Corps leaves us wondering if, five years in, anything has changed. •
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