Thursday, January 15, 2009
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.