Generation Kill, by David Simon & Ed Burns

Generation Kill, by David Simon & Ed Burns

This deadpan account of a US Marine company’s exploits encapsulates for Tom Jennings the baleful banality of the Iraq war.

Mesopotamian MASH-Up. Television review – Tom Jennings
After post-WWII hangovers concerning the inhuman insanities and human frailties of war were recuperated in nostalgic sitcoms like Sergeant Bilko and Dad’s Army, the existential chaos, venality, culpable atrocity and horror attending misbegotten military adventures were brought decisively home in 1970 in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, set among the USAF in Italy, and Robert Altman’s MASH about army medics in Korea (spawning the most successful TV series of all time). Then, when Hollywood belatedly tackled the Vietnam conflict, a generation of countercultural alumni temporarily institutionalised war-is-hell/SNAFU (‘situation normal, all fucked-up’) principles in vivid, hysterically overblown blockbuster laments whose 1980s innovations drowned out the patriotic triumphalism of The Green Berets (1968) and Rambo (1985). Horrified by a massive media failure of jingoism, US rulers decided on stricter disciplining of future coverage of foreign meddling – hence the now familiar tactics of securely ‘embedding’ tame newsmen inside military units and orchestrating ad-speak press releases and other promotional material to short-circuit critical scrutiny.
Nevertheless, despite their notable paucity, cinema treatments of the 1991 Gulf War like Three Kings (1998) and Jarhead (2005) continued to focus on the traumatisation inherent to the logic of armed conflict conducted by the State and inevitably visited upon enemy populations and ‘our boys’ alike. A decade later, though varying wildly in tone and technique, the same can be said for Iraq now – whereas the forensic film cataloguing of mistakes, misdemeanours and mayhem borrows extensively from real events at least minimally publicised elsewhere (see my survey in ‘The Ill-Health of the State’, Variant 36, pp.32-5). Refreshingly, while fully honouring the oppositional provenance of Catch-22 and MASH, Generation Kill (HBO, 2008) emphasises the everyday routine of relatively unassuming characters and events rather than sensationally blatant cock-ups, giving the army management handlers who arranged the assignment it’s based on something rather different from the flag-waving boosterism they bargained for.
Screened on Channel 4 last autumn, this 7-part miniseries (directed by Susannah White and Simon Cellan Jones) follows Bravo Company of the elite First Recon Marines up the Euphrates to Baghdad during the 2003 invasion – drawing on Rolling Stone reports by journalist Evan Hunter compiled into the bestseller Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War (Putnam, 2004). David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation plumbs the tragicomic depths of modern warfare, its emotional realism capturing the soldiers’ esprit de corps which sustains them in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties in doing their ‘duty’ well. The expected superlative script and acting show how their obscene banter allows private anxieties to be obscured while reinforcing the interpersonal bonds necessary to produce the capability to negotiate the claustophobic conditions and laughably inadequate and inappropriate gear, provisions and deployment. Meanwhile individual investments in military careers – pragmatically combining macho warrior mystiques with frank acknowledgement of the lack of employment alternatives – insulate them from the insurrectionary trajectories visible, say, among their conscripted counterparts in 1970s South East Asia.
The richly convincing and completely unsentimental warts-and-all ensemble characterisations further bear out the platoon’s understanding of both the self-obsessed incompetence and careerist manouevering of many of their superiors and the impossibly contradictory and wrongheaded orders raining down from higher above. The dawning awareness among the lower ranks of the duplicitious overall situation and their de facto collusion does patchily take to heart managerial bullshit about regard for Iraqi civilians – whereas contemptuously arbitrary airstrikes leave no doubt about the real agenda, simultaneously reanimating xenophobic amnesia of their own issues. But trying to do the right thing invariably causes trouble, just as proclaimed liberation inexorably achieves its deathly opposite while its bearers wish-fulfillingly celebrate the professionalism which their superiors so casually and capriciously waste. But this cannot possibly offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems in such stupidly opaque instrumental and institutional contexts – begging the question of the wider significance for all concerned of the misfortunes and maliciousnesses in evidence.
David Simon and Ed Burns’ previous televisual novelisations Homicide, The Corner and The Wire (see review in Freedom, 9th May 2009) embroidered their own journalistic embedding in the ‘war on drugs’ in Baltimore, Maryland – with limitations of perspective, generalisability and participant interpretation analogous to those here. For a start, the particular Humvee-full chosen for the journalist to accompany – led by ultra-professional Sergeant ‘Iceman’ Colbert and his driver Corporal Ray Person, with their platoon (including real ex-Marine actors) commanded by the exceptionally decent Lieutenant Fick – will have been carefully vetted by top brass hoping for positive PR. It would doubtless have been a very different story if we’d hung out with those suffering ‘Captain America’, a hysterical fuck-up mortally dangerous to anyone in his vicinity, or Encino Man, a moronic ex-quarterback sucking up with consistently damaging results to the charismatic First Recon commander Colonel (‘Godfather’) Ferrando.
These hidden structural and narrative choices reflect general subtle weaknesses of documentary approaches specifying biased cases to illuminate broader realities – with all of Simon and Burns’ work, for example, privileging the misused capabilities of lower-level professionals while leaving unasked issues of the ultimate utility, functions and purposes of their institutional power. However, a pivotal scene here has Godfather contrasting the latitude shown to abysmal officer material with the harsh treatment afforded the more humane and sensible like Fick, marginalised in favour of robotic gung-ho conformists who don’t rock the boat. In effect, if the spot-on detailed questioning of stupid orders and bungled tactics were tolerated, the entire crazy mess of bullshit would topple. Any overall sense of a coherent enterprise depends on maintaining illusions of rational action and leaderships having a handle on the bigger picture. Generation Kill succeeds in comprehensively puncturing such pretensions – without ever demonising the inadequacies of even the more admittedly psychopathically infantile, computer-game-reared grunts, let alone the relatively normal and genuinely skilled, well-intentioned footsoldiers.
Generation Kill is out now on DVD.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 1, January 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Jan 25 2010 16:32


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