Stark Sands and Alexander Skarsgard, in 'Generation Kill'

Aired in seven parts on HBO. Now available on DVD.
(TV-MA) ★ ★ ★ ★

By now I’ve seen the Iraq War backwards and forwards. We at home are as close to the ground as anyone has ever been during an American conflict. The age of multimedia communications has obliterated the distance between Here and There, which, of course, is not to say that those of us Here can understand what it’s like for those who are There. Over the end credits of episode six we hear the voices of the characters expressing one of the miniseries’s most important truths: Civilians don’t get it, and we can’t get it, because we’re not them.

Generation Kill is the anti-Band of Brothers. That is not to say that the soldiers depicted therein are not brothers, only that we’re a long way away from the Greatest Generation and its depictions of noble sacrifice. And nowhere is Tom Hanks the schoolteacher standing tall and affirming the value of the mission. The volunteer servicemen and servicewomen in today’s military are a different species, and I don’t understand them. There’s a bloodlust in many among them that I find disquieting, and an eagerness that seems better suited to playing Halo than to killing real people in real combat. I believe the characterizations in Generation Kill because I have seen them before, in the documentary I Am an American Soldier, which was not partisan; it observed the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army during a year of their service in Iraq. Of one soldier, I wrote: “He explains that the best way to inspire Iraqi cooperation is to threaten them with arrest. I can’t help but feel his approach is all wrong. We see him bind and blindfold a civilian, asking him to identify insurgents, but I feel more sympathy with the Iraqi than with this particular soldier.”

Consider then Lance Cpl. Trombley (Billy Lush), who grins the most unsettling grin at the prospect of killing — not just enemy combatants. He wants to fire rounds and end lives — of dogs even. He explains after one scene, during which he is fired upon and neglects to seek cover, that he feels at peace in the battlefield and is curious to know what it’s like to be shot. His fellow Marines joke that he’s a psycho — half-joke. I’m not joking at all. He has severe emotional and psychological impairments, and I spent all of his scenes afraid for him and of him. Werner Herzog’s film Encounters at the End of the World showcases the strange personalities who have made Antarctica their home away from home; such a remote place draws philosophical and artistic temperaments. In the same way, a volunteer army will inevitably draw some men and women who get something out of shooting and getting shot at. For its own sake.

Last week, I saw Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’s documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal of 2003, which showcased men and women like these in a different circumstance, but who are alike in that Iraq has shown them things they’d have been better off not seeing, and if they had it to do over again, they may not have signed up at all. Generation Kill showcases men of remarkable thoughtfulness and clarity of purpose — scratch that, it showcases men of common sense, butting against superiors of persistent stupidity. Executive producer David Simon finds a theme in Iraq much like the one he explored on The Wire: the further up you get on the food chain, the less things make sense. The men given the orders in Generation Kill are up close to the war, and we’re so close to them that we can’t analyze the overarching strategy — or lack thereof — of the War in Iraq; like them, all we can do is observe the mistakes along the way. Like how the entire battalion has one Arabic translator. One translator. In Iraq. And from the looks of him, who knows what he’s actually translating. Like how the battalion is ordered into an ambush instead of rerouted through a demonstrably safer route. Like how ill equipped Humvees are sent into battle scenarios they aren’t prepared for. Like how a commanding officer berates a soldier for losing his helmet, not one day after the officer made a reckless command decision that cost the marines an entire supply truck. Like how a small village contains nothing but women and children but is obliterated in a heartbeat because there were enemy combatants there yesterday.

We identify most strongly with two characters: Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard) and Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands). They receive their orders with jaws agape, but their careers are built on a catch-22. To disobey an order is to cause dissension and disorder and risks the stability of the unit. But to obey a stupid order risks their lives. They can’t win. How does a subordinate stop Capt. Dave “Captain America” McGraw (Eric Nenninger) from bayonetting a surrendered prisoner? Should he tackle his commanding officer and accept disciplinary action? Or should he permit the fiasco and instead accept the blame for the incident? Captain America gets off with a slap on the wrist. Lt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly), a reasonable leader, has a valuable speech about the need to put trust in his soldiers, but one doesn’t need special skills of perception to know that Captain America is dangerously incompetent. You don’t even need to be a soldier or know what an army is. All you need is eyes, ears, and the good sense God gave a fruit fly — and you could probably do without the eyes and ears. But the higher up you get in the chain of command, the less you are able to see how things are on ground level. Get all the way to the top, and there’s George W. Bush, who I suspect needs special help to tie his shoes.

I struggled with the first three episodes. I could not locate the film’s point of view. Only a mass of soldiers who talk about killing with relish and exchange racist and homophobic slurs like artillery fire. I thought, I only have so much benefit of the doubt to give these men. (The end of episode six explains this part of military culture as well, but I still don’t get it. I think I’d rather not get it.) Eventually, the film settles into its characters, and we settle into them. There is an embedded reporter for Rolling Stone, Evan Wright (Lee Tergesen), whose book about his experience inspired this miniseries. He is not a well developed character and is not meant to be: the miniseries isn’t about him, it’s about what he sees. He sees a blunt-force military that kills as many civilians as insurgents — probably more. He sees low-level soldiers hung out to dry. He sees erratic tactics, inconsistent orders, and rules of engagement that change with the breeze. The soldiers he’s embedded with don’t know why they’re there; the closer they get to Baghdad, the less they know why they’re there. I’d like to send them a DVD of No End in Sight, the great documentary that explains exactly how little sense it makes, but it hadn’t been made yet. Victory against Saddam was a foregone conclusion, so how could it possibly have been so sloppy, so poorly conceived, so beneath the abilities of those involved?

Generation Kill is shot in an objective, unadorned style and told with a sad bewilderment that sees, like The Wire did, how a broken system has failed its characters a basic human level. I imagine a conversation between these soldiers and the low-level MIs at Abu Ghraib:

“What’s up with all the naked prisoners?”

(Shrug) “They told us to soften them up for interrogation.”

“Is that how it works?”

“Beats me. They were doing this crazy stuff when we got here. How about you? I heard you killed some kids.”

(Shrug) “They told us to consider them hostile.”

“Whatever it takes to keep America safe.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I enlisted.”

“Me neither.”