Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reviews Too Late: Generation Kill



On the recommendation of Ian and others here, I checked out the HBO series Generation Kill, which then inspired me to read the book by Evan Wright, which I was enjoying until I lost my copy before I could finish it. (If you've got the book, please return it. The library wants it back. Thank you.)

Evan Wright was a reporter embedded with the Marines' First Recon Battalion during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Recon Marines, for those who don't know, are an elite group trained to operate in small, independent units for purposes of reconnaissance, ambush, and setting up sniper attacks. Their teams generally operate under their NCOs, and the officers mainly stay home in Pendleton or wherever and do the paperwork.

Of course, war being what it is--- a vast collision of fuckups--- First Recon wasn't used this way in the war. Instead they were given a bunch of broken-down thin-skinned Humvees found in other units' scrap heaps, were provided with inadequate amounts of gun oil, batteries for night vision gear, intelligence, and food, and then told to roll hell-for-leather to Baghdad, driving deliberately into every Iraqi ambush along the way.
Instead of operating under the command of the NCOs the men knew and trusted, they were placed under the command of officers they didn't know, and for the most part soon learned not to trust at all.
The officers, who normally would not have seen a lot of action, soon realized that this was their one chance for glory and promotion. It is safe to say that most of them would happily have charged to victory over a pyramid of their own soldiers' dead bodies, and that their failure in this ambition was chiefly due to their own incompetence. The panic-prone captain known as Encino Man, for example, was prevented from calling artillery down on his own position only by virtue of the fact that he completely bungled the radio protocols. Another officer, Captain America, was fond of randomly shooting into buildings and of bayoneting captives.
The battalion operated under the command of a man who used the call sign "Godfather." While he was clearly intelligent and dedicated, it's also clear that he was ambitious to the point of recklessness. Among his other accomplishments was ordering his battalion into a Passchendaele-like wave assault on an airfield he believed to be defended by enemy armor, when (1) all his command were in thin-skinned vehicles, and (2) the battalion possessed absolutely no weapons capable of damaging tanks. Massacre was only prevented by the revelation that the airfield wasn't defended at all. (The Iraqis had realized well before the US command that there isn't a whole lot of point in defending airfields when your whole air force consists of smoking holes in the ground.)
Godfather also had a George Patton-like obsession with grooming standards--- as if his unit, rolling through one ambush after another, didn't have enough to worry about, they were now obliged to care about mustache length.
It was not surprising, then, that the inept officers soon began to conspire against the one officer who stood out due to his decency, caring, and competence.
So . . . what did HBO make of this story? Seven hours of riveting television, that's what!
The series is filled with terrific acting, superb writing, and that air of authenticity that comes with having a couple real First Recon soldiers playing themselves, and showing the others how Marines behave.
Particularly well done is the sensation of driving into the fog of war. This is reportage, not big-screen Hollywood drama. The viewer knows only what the soldiers knew at the time--- and quite frankly, it's enough to scare you silly.
Of course, to watch this series you have to spend seven hours in the company of Recon Marines. Which is to say among young men who are profane, arrogant, racist, voluble, macho, sexist, and trained killers. There is one whole female American in the whole series, and when she turns up they treat her like a whore.
Seven hours gives the creators a chance to treat each character as a rounded human being, rather than the usual squad of stereotypes (the All-American, the Token Minority, the Kid from Brooklyn, the Intellectual, etc). But because this is TV, some of the characters are composites, and some liberties are taken with the personalities of some of the characters. (I have to wonder what the real-life Corporal Trombley thinks of his portrayal as a racist cracker eager to grease Iraqis, whereas the book showed him more sympathetically as a half-trained newbie desperate to prove himself among his more experienced comrades.)
The series was filmed in Namibia and South Africa, which doesn't exactly look like Iraq, but at least looks more like Iraq than Southern California.
The book has won an award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.
Jon-Bob says, check it out.
Oo-rah. Carry on.


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11 Comments:

Anonymous Pat Mathews said...

Good grief. Is anybody but me getting World War I flashbacks from this?

12:48 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

In this case it's not so much Verdun as Little Big Horn.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

I wrote about both Wright's book and the HBO series at the same time too.

The HBO series is actually fiction, though based on Wright's book, and Wright was a consultant and writer, and some of the men he wrote about play themselves in the series. Got that? Talk about a hall of mirrors here.

The director for 4 of the 7 eps is a woman, interestingly.

There were surprisingly few African American 1st Recon members -- I'm sure they exist but didn't come within the purview of the limited perimeter that Wright could see from his team's humvee. There was the African American chaplain who so many didn't care much for.

Woo. Those scenes with the school kids' letters.

Love, C.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

The racism of the First Recon guys seen in GENERATION KILL is more complex than it might appear at first. The real Pappy (who is from North Carolina and who lacks a couple of front teeth due to an air rifle duel with his brother when he was a teenager) said that, only in the Marines, would a cracker like him have ever met a metrosexual Mexican buddhist like Fruity Rudy, much less become best friends with him.

Lt. Nate Frick, who wrote his own well-regarded book about the push to Baghdad (ONE BULLET AWAY) seems to have gone into politics (he spoke before Obama at the DNC). He's not the only competent and trusted officer seen the show; Captain Patterson doesn't get as much screen time (despite clocking Encino Man at the end), but he's clearly good at his job and liked by his men. Interesting, Sergeant-Major Sixta gets a scene near the end that shows some rationalization for the Grooming Standard, as well as suggests that his dumb braying redneck act is just that, an act designed to help morale by making the men unite in hating him.

I don't have a link for this handy, but one of the officers who gave Wright some background info had a blog last year taking exception to the some of the claims made in the book. Wright commented on that blog, they had a surprisingly civil exchange, and they both seemed to come out of it respecting each other's point of view.

Before that happened, though, the real Encino Man popped up, ragging mercilessly on Lt. Flick (whom he seems to consider a coward) and embarassing the blog owner, who said, essentially "I know you're a good officer, but right now you're acting exactly like the asshole that Evan portrayed you as being, so you're not exactly helping my claim that he exagerated stuff."

The real Encino Man also popped up on Amazon.com, posting a negative reader review of Lt. Flick's book and repeating the claim that he was an incompetant coward. Quite a few other guys who'd served with Flick posted replies, defending Flick and expressing a very low opinion of Encino Man (and, in some cases, threatening to kick his ass). The thing is, Flick does NOT go to the lengths that Wright does to portray Encino Man badly, but instead takes a much more diplomatic approach.

Besides Flick, the other real hero of GENERATION KILL is of course Sgt. Brad "Iceman" Colbert, who since then has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and also done an exchange program with either the SAS or the Royal Marines. He takes part in the roundable discussion that's a special feature on the DVD and I was surprised by how much he looks like Alexander Skarsgaard, the actor who portrays (although he's not as towering).

1:40 AM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

Also, I'm told -- and I'm really in no position to know how true this is -- that African-Americans are stilly fairly rare in the elite forces like First Recon, Delta, and the SEALS, and that programs like THE UNIT tend to exagerate their percentage (I seem to recall one writer claiming that there are actually more Asian-Americans in Delta and the SEALS than there are African-Americans). OTOH, Latinos are increasingly common, just as they are in the regular Army, Navy and Marines.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

I misspoke above, btw. It's not Encino Man, but his backstabbing toady Casey Kasem, who kept popping up online attacking Flick, and who was attacked in turn by other vets of the campaign in the reader reviews at Amazon.com.

Apparently Captain America was promoted into a desk job in Military Intelligence (!), albeit allegedly one where nobody had to listen to what he had to say and he was kept away from any important decisions (his father is a high-ranking officer). As for Trombley, I believe he's now with the LAPD.

It's interesting to see the real Ray Person in interviews. Unlike most of the other Marines, he doesn't look like the actor who plays him. And he's nothing like the cranked-up motor mouth depicted in the book and miniseries, although he admits he WAS like that back when he was tense, sleep-deprived and hopped-up on Ripped Fuel and Instant Coffee crystals.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Fred Kiesche said...

I'd also recommend "One Bullet Away", which is by the one lieutenant that appeared in much of the book (haven't seen the miniseries yet).

11:15 AM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

In the mini-series he's played by the excellently named Stark Stands. He's more baby-faced and younger looking than the real Flick, and at first I thought he was going to be portrayed as the cliche callow, in-over-his-head Lieutenant, but he emerges as one of the two real heroes, along with Sgt. Colbert.

Amusingly (albeit probably not to the real Marines), there are several online communities devoted to Flick/Colbert slash fic! The people who participate in that explain that they're writing fic about the HBO characters, NOT the real guys, to whom they mean no disrespect, but still! It gets even weirder when they bring in Ray and Fruity Rudy.

7:51 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Flick/Colbert slash fiction? Who's the top? Who's the bottom?

No, on second thought please don't answer that question.

I'd sort of forgotten about Captain Patterson--- I can picture the actor who I think played him--- but then he's not on stage much.

Elite units in the US military seem to attract a lot of college graduates. There aren't as many blacks as there would be elsewhere. The person of color in Alpha Company was played by a black actor, but if you look at the real soldier the character was based on, he looks a whole lot like an American Indian.

I know that "Major Shoup," the air controller, engaged in a debate with Wright about his interpretation of events, but Wright quoted extensively from an interview that Shoup had given him, the quotes supporting Wright's interpretation. I believe the controversy ended there.

I enjoyed the interview with the real soldiers, but I couldn't help but notice that Lance Corporal Trombley wasn't among them.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

Part of the problem was that the actor who played Patterson looked a bit like the actor who played Encino Man. The producers seemed to realize this and distinguished them by giving Patterson some kind of Afghan looking scarf that he frequently wore (although for all I know, the real Captain wore such a scarf). Patterson clocking Encino Man is in the book, but it happens during a foot race (iirc) where the prize is a phone call home, and Encino Man pushes one of his own men aside to win. The most obviously fictionalized thing in the miniseries is Ray attacking Rudy (and of course getting his ass beat) during the football game. In the book, there's a football game involving other Marines, and one guy freaks out and goes for his rifle. They wanted to use a version of this incident, to show how common and dangerous stress had become, but but didn't want to bring some guys out of left field for it.

Presumably, since Rudy was there and playing himself and acting as an advisor and trainer, he was cool with the idea of a fictionalized scene depicting him snapping and beating up a smaller man, but I wonder how the real Ray Person felt about his HBO counterpoint getting some MMA ground-and-pound after unwisely jumping Rudy (of course, early in the book, Wright says that most of the Marines liked to attack Rudy at odd moments, just to see how quickly he could kick their asses).

Speaking of Rudy playing himself, that explains why the depiction of the discovery of the dead little Iraqi girl, the most horrible thing in the book, is softened. There's no way any director could ask the real guy who'd experienced that to pick up a prosthetic dummy and reenact . . . that. I suspect Rudy wasn't even there when the shots of the child actress playing dead in the back of the car were filmed, and that he actually stared into an empty backseat on set.

If I'd noticed the link in your post the first time I read it, I might have followed it and thus spelled Fick's name right. I wonder how many times in his life he's had someone insert an "l" into it.ess

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

Great article. Here's a relevant heads up:

Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill, is publishing a new book next month about his experiences with different subcultures in America. Here's one description of the new book:

“From his work as a reporter at Hustler magazine, to his National Magazine Award–winning writing for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, Evan Wright has always had an affinity for outsiders—what he calls “the lost tribes of America.” The previously published pieces in this collection chart a deeply personal journey, beginning with his stark but sympathetic portrayals of sex workers in Porn Valley, through his raw portrait of a Hollywood überagent-turned-war documentarian and hero of America’s far right. Along the way, Wright encounters runaway teens earning corporate dollars as skateboard pitchmen; radical anarchists plotting the overthrow of corporate America; and young American troops on the hunt for terrorists in the combat zones of the Middle East. His subjects are people for whom the American dream is either just out of grasp, or something they’ve chosen to reject altogether. Sometimes frightening, usually profane, and often darkly comic, Hella Nation is Evan Wright’s meticulously observed tour of the jagged edges of all those other Americas hiding in plain sight amid the nation’s malls and gated communities. The collection also includes an all-new, autobiographical introductory essay by the author.”

5:37 PM  

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